Saturday, 9 May 2015

The Flow Hive

For the past few months, I've been asked again and again to give my thoughts on the "Flow" Hive, a new design of hive from Australian beekeepers who claim that it allows the beekeeper to extract honey without disturbing the bees. I've decided to write this to consolidate my opinions and take on this in a single place I can refer people to instead of repeating myself every couple of weeks or so.

To someone who knows little or nothing about beekeeping, the images, videos, and explanation of the concept seem to be amazing, but I'm going to explain why, from my perspective as a beekeeper, it's all hype about nothing, and this "invention" will not change anything for beekeepers, and after a few years will either be forgotten entirely, or joked about at beekeepers' association meetings as one of those passing fads that hits beekeeping every so often.

Disturbing the bees

I may as well start with rebutting the central idea of this design, and work outwards from there. The basic premise of the flow hive is that the beekeeper can extract the honey without disturbing the bees. In the UK and the rest of Europe, most of North America, and most other places for that matter, beekeepers have to inspect their hives once per week between late April and early August, and this involves removing the supers (the boxes that carry the extractable honey), and lifting frames out of the brood box, the central area of the hive. The weekly routine of a beekeeper is in itself more disruptive than if the beekeeper simply took the super frames away - immediately making the notion of investing significant money into this design something of a moot point.

What's more, beekeepers have already invented methods, which are now considered standard, of removing honey with minimum disruption to the bees. A board is placed between the brood and the supers to be removed, which the bees can pass downwards (towards the brood nest), but not upwards. Since the colony's pheromone gradient is towards the brood nest, they will all inevitably move downwards within 48 hours, leaving the supers empty of bees for the beekeeper to lift them away without disruption. The process described on their kickstarter page involving brushing the bees off the frames is something that can be done when in a hurry to remove the honey, but is certainly not a regular process for most beekeepers.

Honey maturation

One of the main concerns a beekeeper has about their honey is that it needs to be ripened sufficiently to be taken from the hive. Bees ripen nectar into honey by eating it, mixing it with enzymes, and then regurgitating it, while evaporating the vast majority of the moisture contained in the liquid - nectar is typically 50-80% water, while honey is only 14-18%.

Extract the honey prematurely, and it will ferment, and is not legally saleable as honey. Beekeepers have two methods of checking ripeness of honey - when the comb is capped over with wax, then the honey is certainly ripe. Honey can also be removed before it's capped if the beekeeper uses a refractometer to check for water ratio. Either way, this involves opening the hive, thus going back to the above point.

Furthermore, honey can be over-ripened, so to speak. Most people will notice that all honey, left long enough, will eventually set and crystallise. The rate at which this occurs depends on the floral source of the honey, and thus its chemical composition. Some of the major crops in Europe and the USA, primarily oilseed rape, aka canola, produce honeys which can completely set in a matter of days as opposed to months or years. If the timing of removing and extracting this honey is slightly offset, because of beekeeper illness, inclement weather, or a myriad of other reasons, the flow hive frame will be ruined, and these are expensive things. On a regular frame, the beekeeper would simply cut the comb out, crush and filter the wax and honey, and replace the frame with fresh foundation - a total material cost of the foundation, about 80p per frame, as opposed to god knows how much those complex frames will cost.

Honey extraction

Another purported benefit of the flow hive is that the honey is less time consuming and effortless to extract. I have an extractor that can process 4 frames at a time, and each frame batch takes roughly 5 minutes or so to process. At any given time, I'll spend maybe half an hour to 45 minutes cranking the extractor, and then leave the honey straining through a filter. I won't go as far as to say it's effortless, but it's no worse than standing around twiddling my thumbs while a highly viscous fluid flows out into a jar.

Economics

The kickstarter features a full flow hive as a reward for $600USD. This is likely to be around the final market price of the product. Currently, beekeepers can purchase a flatpacked wooden hive for around £160 ($230), and a poly hive for around £80-100 ($140). For a beekeeper working with more than maybe one or two hives (and without an affluent budget to start up a single hive operation, I'll add), the flow hive is simply not economically feasible. As a semi-commercial beekeeper expanding by between half a dozen and a dozen hives each year, I simply couldn't afford to expand using Flow hives.

Bee havers and beekeepers

There's a recent phenomenon, particularly since the "save the bees" hype,  of people who try to get into beekeeping, but who simply cannot make the commitment actually involved in being a beekeeper. A lot of beekeepers have started to call these people "bee havers". Beekeeping does involve a lot of hard work. Bees do need to be routinely inspected. Bees carry disease (that can spread to other beekeepers in the area), bees swarm (which can be a nuisance to neighbours), and bees can have a myriad other problems that can be rectified by a beekeepers' intervention. The bee-having movement, if one can call it that, is problematic for the image of beekeepers. Irresponsible morons getting a hive and neglecting them, allowing the bees to be a nuisance to neighbours through aggression or swarming (both of which can be corrected by the beekeeper), spread of disease, etc., and I fear that this "innovation" has given new impetus to these people and given them a new tool to encourage them into the field.

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