The Flow Hive

16 Jan

I realize there is a lot of strong feeling about the Flow Hive (www.honeyflow.com) invented and marketed by Australian beekeepers Stuart and Cedar Anderson, but a number of friends have asked my views on the product and so I will write them down. Please feel free to disagree with me, but please do so politely.

Since the folks I’m writing this for don’t have bees yet, I’ll start with the basic setup of a hive, the procedure for producing liquid honey, and how Flow Hive fits into the picture. I can see a place for the Flow Hive among hobbyist beekeepers. But, if you are new to beekeeping and thinking about buying a Flow Hive, I advise caution.

Before we get started, let’s do a quick and dirty comparison of the price of traditional equipment with the cost of the equivalent Flow Hive. A “Flow Full” costs $515. The cost of equivalent traditional equipment is about $46.60. If the nectar flow is going strong and your colonies are healthy and booming along, you’ll need the equivalent of two Flow Fulls for each hive so the bees don’t run out of room to make honey (if they run out of room you’ll have bigger problems than a reduced honey yield).

So, for each hive you will spend $1,030 in Flow Hive equipment. The equivalent standard equipment costs roughly $93.20. The first question you need to answer for yourself is whether the Flow Hive is super nifty enough to justify the $936.80 cost differential. I’d need two Flow Fulls for each hive – costing me a mere $1,030 plus shipping. I have 28 hives, so I’d only have to spend $28,840 to convert my operation to full flow. But that’s okay, because the Flow Hive will save me lots of time.

If the sticker shock hasn’t killed you, read on.

A brief overview of a bee hive will give us context for the rest of the discussion. In order to make a colony of bees easy to manage and inspect, we contain it in a series of boxes that can be stacked on top of each other to give the bees room to expand their population or to store honey. If a colony needs less room, we remove boxes from the stack. Each box contains removable frames within which the bees build comb. Bees build wax comb in which the queen lays brood and the workers deposit pollen and nectar. The bottom two or three boxes are called the “brood chamber” or “brood boxes” because that is where the queen lays her eggs to create the brood nest. Boxes above the brood chamber are called “supers” because they are the superstructure within which the bees store honey for us to harvest. The brood chamber is permanent – the supers are added and removed in response to the nectar flows – the periods when there is an abundance of nectar available for the bees to collect and turn into honey.

Now, a quick look at the Flow Hive. The Flow Hive (www.honeyflow.com) is brilliantly marketed Australian invention. The part I am talking about is the “Flow Full” which consists of one “flow box” containing seven “flow frames.” These items replace the traditional super and frames discussed above. The site also sells brood boxes and other hive components, but there’s no particular reason to buy those from the Flow Hive people – the flow box is dimensioned to work with standard equipment. One end of the flow box is cut out so that the ends of the flow frames are visible without opening the hive. The idea is that a person can easily harvest honey by simply turning a key in the end of each frame, rather than going through all the fuss normally required to extract liquid honey. Thus, there is no need to buy extracting equipment and, at least according to the advertising, the whole process of extracting honey is simplified. It also is less scary because there’s no need to open the hive and disturb the bees (they claim).

With that context, you can see that, in addition to the supers, you also need to buy brood boxes and some other hive components. The Flow Hive replaces only the traditional supers. That means you’ll spend another $200 or so for brood boxes, a hive floor, and a roof in addition to the $1,030 you spent on Flow Hive supers. Would you rather spend about $300 for a hive made up of traditional equipment, or $1,230 for a setup including the Flow Hive?

For the last bit of context, here’s the procedure I use to harvest honey from my 28 colonies. When it is time to harvest honey, I remove the supers containing frames of ripe honey comb from the hives and take them to my honey house. There, I use an electrically heated knife to cut off the wax capping the bees seal the honey with. Then, I put the frames in a stainless steel extractor that spins them to force the honey out. I put the newly emptied frames back in the supers and put the supers back on the hive to refill with honey.

With the preliminaries out of the way, we now get to the main event – why I advise a cautious approach to the Flow Hive. First and foremost, the price should cause any right thinking person on a budget to sit down and think hard. The Flow Hive can be a useful tool in the hands of a bee-keeper. But the Flow Hive in the hands of a bee-haver is a waste of money, a waste of time, and a waste of bees’ lives. Note the terms “bee-keeper” and “bee-haver.” A bee keeper is someone who treats his or her bees like the valuable livestock they are – deserving of study, observation, time, and resources to assure their health and welfare. A bee haver, in contrast, is one who likes the idea of having bees in the back yard but does not have, or does not choose to devote, the time required to learn about the bees and apply proper management practices. Bee havers very often experience loss of 100% of their bees in a year, while bee keepers usually can keep their colonies strong and thriving year after year.

So before you reach for your wallet to order a Flow Hive, carefully consider whether you are prepared to become a bee keeper. If not, perhaps a better approach for you to support the bees and other pollinators would be to support local bee keepers by purchasing their honey. You could even spend the money that would have paid for a Flow Hive to create a pollinator haven in your yard.

Almost to a person, the prospective beekeeping folks I’ve talked to about the Flow Hive had three basic expectations for the product. First, they would be able keep bees without getting stung. Second, they would save so much time managing their bees that they would be able to squeeze this new hobby into their already hectic schedules. Third, the Flow Hive would make bee keeping easy. The Flow Hive was not designed or intended to satisfy any of these three expectations.

A bee keeper who uses the Flow Hive will get stung. It is not a question of ‘if’, but ‘when’. The Flow Hive replaces the traditional supers and frames, and is only in use on the hive during a nectar flow. Remember the permanent brood chamber I mentioned? Well, you need to look in there periodically to monitor hive health and productivity. Normally you will make those inspections before and after a nectar flow – when the Flow Hive is not in use. Even docile bees will eventually sting you during an inspection.

A bee keeper who uses the Flow Hive might save some time in the harvest process but will save no time on periodic inspections. In my area, we get one major nectar flow from late March through early or mid-June. I don’t inspect the production colonies during that time because it is inconvenient to remove the supers – I just do a weekly quick check to make sure there are no obvious problems. From the last week in February to the first week in October (excluding the nectar flow) I do weekly or biweekly inspections, depending on the season and what’s going on in the hives. That’s a lot of inspection time that Flow Hive will not eliminate. If you do not have time to keep bees without the Flow Hive, you do not have time to keep bees with the Flow Hive.

The Flow Hive will not make bee keeping easy. I would not say it is difficult to keep a hive of bees healthy and productive, but it does take some knowledge, time, and skill. Using a Flow Hive will provide you with none of these things.

Where the Flow Hive has the potential to shine is during the honey harvest. At least in theory, you can just turn the key and the honey will come out. The Flow Hive web site features videos of people relaxing on the lawn while the honey drains effortlessly into a jar, so it must be that easy, right?

But here are a few things to consider:

Did you know that cool honey doesn’t flow well? That means the Flow Hive will work best when the temperature in the flow box has been at least 90 degrees for a few days so the honey is warm and runny. What happens if you live in a place where hot days are infrequent during the nectar flow? At my house, it is unusual to see a 90 degree day in early May, which is when I usually take the first harvest. Even in mid-June 90 degree days can be scarce. I suspect honey would come out of a Flow Hive even on relatively cool (cooler than 90 degrees) days, but it would take forever, which is longer than I have to wait.

How exactly do you tell that the honey is ready to harvest if you don’t pull a frame and look at it? Looking at the end of the flow frame will tell you that the cells closest to the view window are full, but will tell you nothing about the rest of the frame or the ripeness of the honey. You risk riling the bees and getting stung when you pull frames – thus again eliminating two big selling points of the Flow Hive.

Do you have a plan for stringing all the hose so somebody doesn’t trip on it and for connecting the hose to a bee-proof bucket? And what about cleaning the honey out of all the hose when you are done?  There’s nothing like an open bucket of honey for inciting riot in a bee yard.

The only beekeepers for whom I can imagine a Flow Hive being a worthwhile investment are folks who, for one reason or another, are physically unable to move supers full of honey themselves and have no one to help with the task. A super full of honey is heavy, and depending on how many you’ve put on your hive, you may have to reach above shoulder height to remove them.  Use of a Flow Hive in this circumstance would make beekeeping more accessible, but there are other, less expensive alternatives, such as keeping bees in a long top-bar hive instead of in Langstroth equipment. In a long hive, the combs are not placed in stackable boxes; instead, the hive is a single story and very long to accommodate all the frames. Managing bees in a long hive requires no heavy lifting at all and the hive can be set at a comfortable level for the bee keeper to reach.

What do I think of the Flow Hive? I think it is a brilliantly marketed invention that is going to make its creators rich. I think there will be a lot of used Flow Hive equipment available in a year or two. I think that, under the right circumstances, it could be a useful tool. I don’t have the right circumstances, so the cost of the Flow Hive outweighs any possible benefit for me.

But hey, when this stuff comes for cheap on the used equipment market, maybe I’ll give it a try.

Pete

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