Thoughts on The Flow Hive

The Flow hive is a plastic comb hive which extracts honey simply by turning a tap. When the bees' food has finished draining you turn the tap again which resets the comb into the original position. The bees then chew the wax cell capping away, and ... fill it again. It has quickly raised about $3M in crowd funding and a generated lot of hype.  

But for bees, comb is far more than a tupperware container for somebody else's lunch; it is the tissue and frame of the hive and as such it forms multiple functions. Cells have wall thicknesses of just 0.07mm, and are made from over 300 different chemical components. Wax removes toxins from the honey. The resonant frequency (230-270 Hz) of the comb is matched to the bees' vibration sensors and acts as an information highway between bees on opposite sides of the comb. Bees manage the temperature of the cell rims to optimize transmissions of these messages. Wax holds history and memory via chemical signals put into it by the bees. Its smell and condition aid the bee in managing the hive.  It assists in the ripening and conditioning the honey and is the first line of defense against pathogens. Honey bees are able to recognize the smallest differences in wax composition ... but not polypropylene.

In my experience bees hate plastic comb and they use it when there is no other option. You will often see bees build wax comb on top of plastic wax comb if they are given the space opportunity. They will hate capped empty plastic comb even more. When in the 100 million years of bee development have bees experienced uncapping an empty polypropylene honey cell?

The Flow Hive patent goes on to describe an apiary of hives with weight sensors that automatically extract honey once weight targets have been met. This  triggers pumping out of the honey from the hives to common honey lines which fill collection tanks. The tanks, when full, message an operator to collect the honey. Video cameras generate 'data streams' in real time. Honey which is too viscous will be heated in the hive to extract it. In the the northern hemisphere I can't see these hives working well with the ivy flow, which quickly crystallizes into white sandy plugs, and they will struggle if any oil seed rape honey is left in the hive. This will need hive management to work.

I see two types of beekeeper wanting to use this hive. The first being the enthusiastic new beekeeper who likes the idea of 'free' honey but fears contact with bees. People expecting hands-off beekeeping will, however, still need to install the bees, handle swarming, and open the hive occasionally. Some tweeters have said they will discard their tools and protective gear. This lack of thought suggests there will be many abandoned Flow Hives in a few years.

The second user is possibly the commercial beekeeper if the economics are favorable. I'm not sure that $600 hive is quite what they are looking for, but I fear the cost-reduced, automated honey farm more than the optimistic beginner.

The foolish beekeeper hides behind technology, denies the bees their innate preferences, exploits them to edge of starvation, and replaces their honey with inferior sugar/fructose solution. Over the last 100 years bee health has declined with every new beekeeping innovation. The principle reason is that most innovations focus on exploitation for honey harvesting and/or suppressing the preference of the bee. In this respect the Flow Hive is no different. Honey is a blessing. It has turned into a curse for the bees.

Many Flow Hive enthusiasts are under the false impression that keeping bees and taking their honey will help them. To state the obvious - honey is the bees' food which they use to survive. What would help the bees more is chemical free forage ... and lots of it. For locations with high forage there is less problem in removing excess honey, but I have written many times on this blog about the 80% decline in forage over the last century in many parts of Europe. Large areas are no longer able to support bees. If only people would be so quick to raise $3M for clean pesticide-free flowering seeds for all pollinating insects.

When I think of the Flow Hive I am reminded of Thomas Berry's quote "‘We know enough of our own history by now to be aware that people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love." I suggest that prospective Flow Hive beekeepers learn to love bees, and spend time with bees before they buy their hive and decide how they will manage them. This takes years, but there are many joys and marvels on the way.

UPDATE 1 - An excellent discussion piece bringing together the thoughts from several commentators can be found here at the Natural Beekeeping Trust

UPDATE 2 - More thoughts on the use of plastic in the hive.


Brian Linke Fine Carpentry said...

The optimum reality for the honeybee is to get out of their way. Humanity has shown aptitude for ruining that which pre-existed it by attempting to improve. Stop the production of pesticides, farm wisely, tend your property wisely and keep bees for the sake of the bees and not the honey.

Christopher said...

I completely agree, thank you for this article! :)

FollowMeChaps said...

Excellent post Jonathan, I totally agree. What a shame that humanity's lust for technology, ease and innovation blinds us to the beauty and simplicity of nature.

Jonathan said...

Yes, if wax had been invented after the flow hive everybody would be raving about this free sustainable material that improved hive health and supported the bees communications. Not to mention that lovely waxy after taste you get in raw honey. The bees should start a kickstarter :)

Unknown said...

Thanks for the article, spot on and very factual. I'm in total agreement. My family has been keeping bees for 3 generations, and I have 30 years experience. Exploitation of bees should not be.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm just going to jump in here and probably get a beating, but here goes. Firstly, I have been around bees for many, many years - my Dad kept bees when he was alive, our friends have hives, I've helped out lots of times with their hives, and I have built 'bee hotels' for the stingless bees so that they have somewhere to live while they pollinate in our local area (in suburbia). Now, from what I'm reading on lots of sites, huge assumptions are being made about the people who are interested in the flow hives. I've bought one, and believe me, it's not because I am looking at bees with dollar signs in my eyes. I think it's just wonderful that so many people are keen and enthusiastic about having bees and hives. There is a lot of snobbery on many beekeeping sites that I visit, and so many of the people posting are very condescending about prospective beekeepers. If I didn't know what I do know about bees, I would be very hesitant to ask questions for fear of being shot down by these 'experts'. It's almost as if they think they are the only ones entitled to have bees. I find those sites to be very 'exclusive' as in, excluding people and it is very sad. I have read about one beekeeper who won't sell his hives or bees or equipment to people unless they have paid to do his very $$$ course!!! I think I'll be like my Dad, just keep my head down and keep my bees in whatever hive I want for my own reasons. We all live on the same planet and we all need to make sure that there are bees around to pollinate our plants so that we as a species can survive.

Jonathan said...

Thanks Anon for your comment. I hope nobody shoots you down.

I'm glad you are inspired to keep bees. I was also inspired by my family's previous generations.

In Europe my main point is that getting enough food, free of chemicals into the hive is the problem, and taking food out of the hive does not help the bee. It is a some sort of contorted logic from the makers of the flow hive to suggest that robbing honey (their honest term) helps the bee. I think it was this part of their marketing that has brought fair criticism.

You made me think ... would I personally give a swarm to flow hive user? Probably not because there are plenty of people who want to keep bees in a more natural way (no queen excluder, deeper comb, no plastic comb, little or no interest in honey, warmer hive) which I would prefer to support, but that is my personal choice. The same would apply to any other similar hive style of which there are many.

In our local group we do free training, mentoring and provide bees for free. After all they come to us as a gift. We have a private group forum where beginners can ask their questions without fear of being shot down.

My assumptions on why people are interested in the flow hive is based on the massive amount of social media comments that is publicly available.

I don't think I have assumed people get flow hives for $$$ in my article ... it is too expensive for that for one thing and I have seen little evidence of a profit motive.

Many people seem to want one because they think they will be helping bees and think this will be easier for them, however there are much betters ways of doing this and I see nothing in the flow hive that reduces the skill and knowledge required to look after bees.

Anonymous said...

I wish the sellers of the Flowhive would tell more about beekeeping. It's about bees, not about the honey. How easy it is to get. If so it must considerd a by product. Take a course first. We are dealing here with living beings.
What disturbs me the most is the plastic en that the bees may not build own comb in size and shape they prefer. It really saddens me.
A beecolonie is a very complex being. We think we know a lott but we really know but very little.... :-(
Please people put youre money in biodiversity if you want save pollinators. Give without take.

Anonymous said...

Hi again - Anon No 1 here. Thanks for your response Jonathan. You're right, you haven't said anything about people being profit-driven - I guess I was commenting on what is being said on other websites..... and there are some very strong opinions out there! From what I've seen of the flow hive, the makers are only saying that accessing the honey is being made easier - and not that people don't need skill and knowledge to look after their bees. I can't think of anyone who would buy a flow hive just because there is a tap on it.... it is still a real beehive and there are still real bees inside it and I'm sure that most people would avoid bees unless they were confident they were able to look after them. I am so glad your group is mentoring new beekeepers and sharing your knowledge. We need to have these skills taught to more people so that they can help in the world wide interest in encouraging bees. We are all on the same path, just I think, coming from different directions. Peace.

Anonymous said...

can we not design our own version of a flowhive with higher standard materials that the bees will be happy with? is anyone here good at DIY projects and know how to implement the tap? that's all people really care about, i think. if another company came in with a flowhive 2.0 with sustainable materials that the bees love and housing more comfortable for them, then they will choose it over original flowhives. the thing about the tap for me is that i don't have to disassemble anything and possibly kill innocent bees in the process. i think sometimes even when you shake them off they still hold on and you can accidentally kill them when you remove or reinsert the combs. i think it's personal opinion whether or not this tap is more or less invasive and stressful on the bees than it is to individually remove comb inserts and shake them off or use smoke, etc. though i personally feel in some of these pictures i see, that they are taking far too much honey from the bees. someone uneducated in bee keeping might over extract and starve their bees because of how simple the tap is.

Jonathan said...

Anon3 - Thanks for your comments. You raise an important point. The flow hive is based on a design of hive from 1852. While the inventor was a great beekeeper we know a LOT more about bees now.

The box nature of the flow hive will make the squashing of bees very likely during any operation (other than honey robbing)on the hive unless great care and skill is exercised. This is true of all box hives.

It is very easy to use clearer board to remove bees from boxes of any hive within a few hours. You would not normally brush them off for honey robbing unless you want to really upset the bees!

There are hundreds of hive designs but, if you want to investigate a great hive for bees which can be made easily I suggest looking a the Fedor Lazutin hive. He sadly passed away last month. I recommend his book in this article:

There is a deep understanding of beekeeping in Russia.

His wife and children would appreciate the support of people buying his excellent book.

Jenny said...

I've read SO many rants by experts against the Flow Hive. What if, instead of complaining so much, you invent something yourselves that solves the problems you point out with Flow. Sell it on indiegogo.

Jonathan said...

Hi Jenny,

While it is telling that many experts are critical of the flow hive, I can only speak for myself and this article. This article is a comparison between the natural bee environment (shaped over millions of years) with that of the flow hive and drawing a critical analysis from that. I wrote this a long time ago, and I'm happy with the views I expressed.

I don't think the flow hive needs defending from criticism; they raised a lot of money and have hired marketing companies to contact all major media to spread their views and story. Articles like this are a necessary balance to that big media push.

There is no need for a another hive design on Indiegogo, there are over 750 hive designs out there and there are many that suit the innate preference of the bee. Some I describe on this site.

Coincidently, all the projects I sponsor on Indiegogo yield nothing in return, and yes, that is a complaint (defn: An expression of pain, dissatisfaction, or resentment).

Anonymous said...

Big damn deal if they made or are making money!! EVERYTHING you have in your home made a profit for somebody. That's no reason to bad mouth the invention. All these "experts" make me laugh. Are they just bee keepers or have the ACTUALLY studied bees for 20 years? Sounds like people are jealous of the invention. I agree with Jenny...stop complaining and invent something better then!!

Jonathan said...

In response to anon:

"Big damn deal if they made or are making money!! EVERYTHING you have in your home made a profit for somebody. That's no reason to bad mouth the invention."

You imply making money is intrinsically good. Making money does not mean that no harm is done. Bees are environmentally enhancing the more productive they are. Humans have a lot to learn with their unfortunate focus on making money and little consideration on the damage done in the process.

"All these "experts" make me laugh. Are they just bee keepers or have the ACTUALLY studied bees for 20 years?"

In answer to your assumptions (but you could have done a little research ... unlike you I do not hide my identity). I started as a child and now I'm over 50. I keep bees. I read a bee scientific article almost every week.

"Sounds like people are jealous of the invention. I agree with Jenny...stop complaining and invent something better then!!"

As a moderator of emails I wonder why I bother publishing some comments, but then I suspect that readers of the comments can quickly sort out the wheat from the chaff.

A year on, and with more information now public about this hive, my views remained unchanged. This is a poor hive for bees.

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