I’m going with the Flow

I have never kept bees, though I have wanted to for some time now. So when a shiny new bandwagon came barrelling towards me, I hopped right on and pre-purchased a Flow Hive as part of the phenomenal Indiegogo campaign that broke records in a matter of days. In case you didn’t know, two guys in Byron Bay came up with a new design for harvesting honey from a beehive by simply turning on a tap. They created an Indiegogo campaign to raise $70,000. Within 72 hours they’d raised over $2 million breaking previous Indiegogo records for both the one and the two million dollar marks in the shortest time. It caused quite a stir.

Beekeeping forums are buzzing with heated debates about this new design with the primary concern of objectors being the bees’ welfare. This is in spite of the designers promoting one of the features of their new hive as reducing disturbance to the bees. Granted, this could just be marketing hype on the part of the inventors, but anyone who knows just a little about traditional methods of harvesting honey from a beehive will be able to see the truth of this statement when they see how the Flow Hive works. So, what’s the problem?

As The Apiarian Lens puts it,

‘the Flow Hive will serve to reduce a complex and involved process that requires skill, knowledge and, above all, patience to a unthinking and even ignorant exercise focused on the honey and not the bees.’

The Natural Beekeeping Trust uses somewhat stronger language,

it is not simply the invention per se that is to be deplored, it is the mindset of casual exploitation that is behind it […] This is unthinking consumerism at its worst.  This mindset spells moral disaster, a total breakdown in our relationship with the Bee.’ [Their emphasis]

Important to the Natural Beekeeping Trust is the fact that the organism, the Bee (with a capital B), includes all the individual bees and the hive. From their perspective, traditional man-made beehives are a ‘perversion of the Bee life form’ and the Flow Hive is worse for ‘embed[ing] the equivalent of a food grinder’.

I would say that it is generally true that the further we move away from nature, the worse things get and the more we move back to nature, the better things become. I make this sweeping statement to show that I am at least philosophically aligned with the Natural Beekeeping Trust. On this basis I would agree that we need to watch closely to observe what impact this new design might have but I would suggest we need to watch the big picture as well as the small one of the individual organisms.

By the big picture, I’m talking about the holistic picture that is also important to the Natural Beekeeping Trust, but I see it differently. To them, the success of the Flow Hive represents a ‘frenzy of easy returns, of greed.’ That is probably true for some but it is definitely not the whole picture.

I am interested in being more connected to the natural world. This includes producing food on my own bit of land by the most natural methods I can manage. I believe that animals and plants should be allowed to live as naturally as possible for the best outcomes for the whole ecology. Because of this interest, I am well aware of the importance of bees in my garden and to life in general and of the global bee crisis. These are the reasons that I have wanted and planned to keep bees.

When this new design for a beehive came along, that offered minimal interference with the bees and ease of harvesting honey, instead of buying a new flat-screen TV, I jumped right on board and purchased a beehive as have thousands of others around the world. Questions of the welfare of the Bees notwithstanding, myself and many like me have decided to join the beekeeping club. Thousands of people, many as ignorant of beekeeping as myself, have put their hands up to say I want to take care of bees.

I have no doubt that some of these bee newbies are only interested in exploiting the bees for their honey; it’s sad but true. Others have good intentions but will fail, for one reason or another, to take proper care of the bees. But some, hopefully I, will learn how to take good care of the bees. This will in turn require taking good care of the garden to ensure the bees are well fed; the knock on effects go on from there because that’s the way a healthy ecology works. Overall, there is likely to be an increase in beekeepers, including the good kind. This is the part of the big picture, the holistic view, that the Natural Beekeeping Trust and others like them seem to be missing.

The current situation looks a bit like this: thousands of potential beekeepers have been motivated to cross the line to become actual beekeepers. Some of the existing beekeeping society have met these people and told them, your technology is callous and cruel and should not be allowed. How do you think the bee newbies might feel about this? I ask this because the number of bee newbies who become exploiters, failures or beneficent beekeepers is not set.

I propose an alternative approach to this situation. Granted some beekeepers take exception to this new technology, (for all I know they may be completely correct in their concerns), but consider for a moment, just temporarily, putting those concerns to one side. Doing this would allow these keepers of the knowledge to accept newcomers with grace and good will. Then bee newbies like myself can be taught how to properly take care of the Bees and in time we can be taught about objections to the Flow Hive or other technologies. We could be converted. At the very least, more Bees will receive better care and attention. At best there will be thousands more people who support the natural beekeeping cause.

The problems raised about the Flow Hive are not actually to do with the technology itself but how it affects peoples’ relationship with the Bees. That relationship will be more deeply shaped by the people who teach beekeeping than any bits of wood and plastic can ever do.

If you’re an experienced beekeeper who objects to Flow Hives, I urge you to hang onto those objections and accept the foibles of our ignorance for now. Teach us to be good beekeepers and, in time, at least some of us will learn to think as you do too. It’s up to those that already hold the beekeeping knowledge to ensure more bee newbies become good beekeepers. Cast aspersions on peoples’ choice of technology or help them to make better choices in the future. You can see people as the problem, some of them are, but you can also see them as part of the solution. It’s up to you.

Experienced beekeeper or bee newbie like me, please feel free to share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

UPDATE: I suggest you also read the comment by David below. I found it very helpful.

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  1. What a positive and thoughtful contribution.
    This covers it very well …the potential for problems, but also the amazing possibilities for the betterment of bees, the environment and the honey lovers. A voice of reason in what is sure to be controversial issue.

  2. Personally, I feel like even experienced beekeepers aren’t always fully articulating the negative implications of the Flow Hive. The quotes above, pulled from The Apiarian Lens and the Natural Beekeeping Trust, are great examples. They represent two valid points of view, but I’m not sure they really drill down to the most practical concerns – at least not in a way that non-beekeepers can relate to.

    The two big selling points of the Flow Hive are that it’s less invasive – and thus better for the bees – and that it makes it easier to extract honey.

    In Australia, where the Flow Hive was invented, I’d say those things seem totally reasonable. Here in the US (and most of the rest of the world) not so much.

    The difference is that beekeeping in America is much more challenging. The big culprit is the Varroa Mite. They weaken hives, they cause serious disease, and they are a major component of colony collapse. They are also basically non-existant in Australia.

    The only way to combat Varroa is constant vigilance. That means cracking open hives and looking at the bees up-close-and-personal on a relatively frequent basis (every few weeks or so), something our Australian counterparts don’t really have to do.

    At best, this fact essentially nullifies the whole purpose of the Flow Hive. The unfortunate truth is that responsible beekeeping in this country is inherently invasive for the bees, so an invention that promises to keep you out of the hive doesn’t really have a place here.

    At worst, the Flow Hive marketing promotes completely unrealistic expectations for new beekeepers that are flat out dangerous for the bees. Every time I read a comment online where someone says “because of the Flow Hive, I’m finally going to be able to keep bees,” it makes me shudder.

    The Flow Hive shouldn’t be the thing that gets anybody into beekeeping. If you’re doing the things you absolutely need to do to be a responsible beekeeper, there is no problem that it will solve for you. You’ll still have to open the hive and interact with the bees – a lot. I swear to you, this is true.

    If you’re an experienced beekeeper and you’re looking for a novel and photogenic way (though not cheaper or more efficient) to extract some honey, then by all means, carry on. But as a new beekeeper, you won’t even be in a position to harvest honey until your second year, because up until then the bees will need all the honey they make.

    Now you might say, “so a newbie gets a Flow Hive so he won’t have to open the hive much, and maybe the mites you’re talking about – maybe they kill off all his bees. So what? What’s it to you?”

    If the situation was limited to just his bees, well it’d still be tragic (we need all the bees we can get). But the problem is that bees from a sick hive will interact with healthy bees from other hives and make them sick – and so on.

    Bees are unbelievably important to our food production, and beekeepers in this country are struggling more every year to keep them alive. In my beekeeping club, it’s not uncommon to hear of people losing half or two-thirds of their hives in a single winter. The Flow Hive has pretty much zero potential to improve this situation, and significant potential to make things worse.

    That is the reason that this invention is causing so much worry and debate – because beekeeping isn’t a hobby, it’s a responsibility. If you are a new beekeeper just starting out with a Flow Hive (or if you’re endorsing it on a blog), then I am literally begging you – recognize it for the novelty that it really is.

    Before it arrives on your doorstep, join a local beekeeping club, get a mentor and listen to what they say.

    When the time finally comes to turn that tap and get some honey, it needs to be after a couple seasons of hard work, research, and multiple hive inspections. Despite what the Flow Hive video shows, you will have to wear one of those funny looking bee suits, you will have to learn how to use a smoker, and you will get stung,

    1. Thanks for your input David. It’s much appreciated. From my perspective, living in Australia, I expect to get some benefit, small though it may be. I have been to a natural beekeeping course and intend to do further studies. I also have a few beekeeping friends. My purchase was impulsive but I have no regrets. I expect that in about a year from now, I’ll be keeping bees. In the meantime it’s already prompted me to extra work in the garden in preparation for having a hive. My post was not intended to promote the Flow Hive. I have no idea if it’s any good or not. I was addressing some of the responses that I have encountered which I felt were unproductive. Your comment, on the other hand, I find quite valuable. Cheers.

      1. Thanks, Pete!

        I would reiterate that my above comment mainly applies where Varroa are present. If I lived ‘down under’, I’d be right next to you, eagerly awaiting my Flow Hive. Hell, I almost bought one anyway, just to experiment with an alternate means of extraction.

        My big fear with this situation (and I’m already seeing it happening) is that because experienced beekeepers aren’t effectively articulating the issues with using a Flow Hive, new beekeepers interpret their complaints as sour grapes from a bunch of grumpy old men who are afraid of new technology – because that’s exactly what they sound like!

        It’s really scary to me, and while I think the inventors seem like nice guys, I can’t help but feel that they are being terribly irresponsible by not doing more on their site to acknowledge the challenges of beekeeping in the rest of the world – and thus the fact that their product may not provide all the benefits advertised.

        1. David,

          I think you raise a very valid concern. However, rather than experienced beekeepers criticising either the designers of the Flow Hive or those who have been “sucked in” they should be putting their energies into engaging these people to join their local apiculture society or beekeeping club. With 2,100 full hives sold to date there’s a clear target for some outreach by local societies/clubs.

          Likely the majority of the excited Flow Hive buyers would gain from learning more about the new pastime they are taking up and some education and making connections with more experienced beekeepers before their hives arrive would go a long way to mitigating the concerns you raise.

  3. If this gets more people into beekeeping, that’ve very good. Sadly, I fear that the video makes it looks like the Flow Frames are going to make it much easier–which they can’t. The notion that the system will generate “less disturbance” is a rather inflated claim by the manufacturer. Healthy beekeeping requires frequent hive inspection all year round–opening the hive, pulling out the frames and checking them for health & disease. Even at honey harvest time, beekeepers must open and check frames to identify if cells are capped and ready for honey harvest (something you can’t really do with a window, though windowed observation hives are truly nifty). So, there will be disturbance–just marginally less than the conventional method. The biggest concern is that taking honey out through a tap-like system will generate over-harvesting, which kills hives. If you go this route, I would limit to a single Flow Frame per super and be careful to pull honey only when your hive is at its most robust (which will probably be your second year). If you go either Flow or conventional, you will need to pick up hive keeping and husbandry skills–so do take a class online or in person…and enjoy learning and interacting with bees!

  4. Pete, I for one am glad you’ve joined in on the bee keeping fun. I love my bees. I have been at it for many years now and find that the majority of bee keepers are back yard, small scale keepers. Most of us do it for environmental reasons and if we get some homey without detriment to the bees, that’s even better. I did order one flow box and a set of frames because 1) my curiosity could not be contained and 2) I wanted to be a part of it! Something so innovative and the first change in 150 years was bound to cause a stir. The entire bee keeping world is abuzz with excitement. I don’t believe this alleviates the need to inspect for health or infestation of one’s hives, which will still be done. We believe in leaving them bee as much as possible and use no chemicals or pesticides in our hives. We have anywhere between 5 and 25 hives at any given time. I don’t think one flow hive super is going to really change the way we do things. I’ll keep that one in my own yard where I can keep a close eye on it, even though I’ll have to wait until spring of 2016 to do it. Enjoy your time with the bees. They’re fascinating.

    1. Wow, ‘anywhere between 5 and 25 hives’ sounds like some serious beekeeping. You must have a lot of ‘environment’ to keep them in. I’ll be very interested to hear what you think of the Flow Hive once you’ve had bees in it for a while. Thanks for your comment.

  5. Just so you know which side I am on, I am a beeleeper with 30 years experience, and I regularly run introductory courses for beginners. Having read SO many “reviews” (without having set eyes on one) of the flow hive that say why it is bad, I have been looking for reviews that point out its positives. Unfortunately, I don’t think the whole “getting people into bees who otherwise wouldn’t” is a particularly good one. It makes me think of the people I see in some sustainability life style magazines who say thing like “I suddenly own a goat, I don’t know anything about them, now what?”
    You say that you “have wanted to [keep bees] for some time now” and further into the article you say “many as ignorant of beekeeping as myself. . .”
    Before I started keeping bees, I read about it from a few sources, and talked to a neighbour who was a beekeeper. I started reading about it six years before I touched a live hive. I spent my first summer working with over 400 hives at the age of fourteen.
    If peope got into cattle farming, or sheep farming, or even bought a pet dog or rabbit or parrot with this attitude, I would be appalled. So, athough I don’t use plastic in my hives, and I prefer low intervention strategies whenever possible, my biggest concern (not even strong enough to call it an objection really) is similar to David’s, above. What happens when these “ignorant” beekeepers realise that their hives DO require work?

    1. Thanks for your comment Adrian;
      I agree with your concerns. I think the reality is that this is exactly what’s going to happen so the question is how to deal with it. Because I have some knowledge, I wont be diving in and getting bees as soon as I receive my hive but many will. I think the best hope is for experienced beekeepers to do what they can to help those who need it. This could turn into a great result for bees in general or it could turn into an unmitigated disaster. Probably it will be a bit of both or somewhere in between. Either the way the success or failure of what is now ineveitable depends on experienced beekeepers. Whether beekeepers asked for it or not, this is a tide that cannot be turned. Criticisms of the technology notwithstanding, I believe it could be for the good.

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