I once heard someone saying that using tobacco in the smoker is a good way to 'stun' varroa mites. Is there any truth in this?
Tobacco smoke is frequently used in greenhouses to kill whiteflies. The nicotine in it is toxic to many insects. I think it's a bad idea to use it to smoke bees.
My smoker has the grate, too. Putting it in legs down gives an air pocket to keep the bellows hole clear. I start mine with a wad of newspaper and some thin pieces of dry pine building scrap. On top of that I place some bailing twine, which burns nicely and makes white smoke. Baling twine should be the brownish red color; don't use treated twine, which is greenish. You can buy it in 1000' rolls for about $40. I get mine from Boy Scout lashing projects.
I think there are three keys to the smoker:
1) you need something that burns hot at first to ignite the fire (newspaper)
2) you need something that creates coals that will keep it going (wood, sticks, charcoal)
3) you need something to produce the smoke (twine)
When I've left out the pine, the smoker went out.
For easier lighting you might try cardboard egg carton dipped in parrafin. My scout troop makes these for firestarters. We melt down old candles in a coffee can, dip ripped up pieces of carton in, and let it harden. They burn very nicely.