It’s fab, it’s new, and the honey flows straight into the jar. It’s so easy. But then, powdered instant potato is easy, too. Does that make it a good idea?
Despite my mission to focus on positivistic messages of change, at Milkwood we’ve got a charter of calling it like we see it.
And to call yet another plastic beehive addition which does not benefit the bees but only the beekeeper… what it is.
We’ve seen a lot (like, a LOT) of media about the Flow Hive ™ in this last week and after fielding a few hundred questions by email about what we think of it, we thought we’d spell it out.
The basic innards of the Flow Hive™ system seem to be sets of plastic half-built comb, which face each other, and which the bees then finish off and connect up, fill with honey, and cap.
Then, when the beekeeper is ready, they turn a key, the two plastic hive foundations crack apart, the honey flows out down a channel and out a spout, into the jars provided below.
Is it good for the backyard beekeeper looking for a trophy moment? Heck yeah. The effect of the honey drizzling out looks great, and has caught imaginations world-wide.
SAVE THE BEES. Because anything (like, anything) that has to do with bees, or that uses bees, is good for the bees. Right?
Actually, no. Not so much.
Bees want to build their own wax comb. It’s part of the bee superoganism. The wax is literally built from their bodies.
The comb is the bee’s home, their communication system (which doesn’t work nearly as well if it’s made from plastic rather than bee-drawn wax, as discussed in Tautz), and functions as a central organ.
The comb is the bee’s womb – it’s where they raise their brood.
And given a choice, bees do not want a pre-built plastic womb, home or larder, any more than we would.
Natural wax comb, 100% bee-built, in a warré hive – the bees set their own cell size according to the season and the colony’s particular needs.
But that’s not all.
The other concern we have with this device is that it encourages + celebrates beekeeper-centric beekeeping, and infers that bee stewardship is totally easy. It’s all about the punchline.
Is it good for the bees? Who cares. We’ve got flowing honey.
Actually, this conversation is not just about the Flow Hive.
What we’re really talking about here is the wider, industrialised profit-driven approach to beekeeping (as exemplified by the langstroth hive design), which places production above ethics + long-term bee health.
The best analogy I can think of to demonstrate this point is battery egg production vs pastured egg production.
We now understand that just the laying of an egg is not actually an indicator of a chicken’s happiness, health or ethical treatment, nor is it an indication of the quality of the egg.
We just know that, unless they’re dead, hens tend to lay eggs.
They may not be healthy eggs, or healthy chickens, but we’ve got our eggs. So we’re all good, right?
Despite the fact that these eggs are produced in a deeply unsanitary, un-ethical production line where the animals in question can barely stay alive, to the point where they need regular chemical treatments to ensure they don’t turn up their toes completely.
On the other hand, in a happy pastured chicken setup, the chickens have what they need – light, air, worms, grass, company – a warm bed, and room to explore. Both the chickens, and the nutritional density of the eggs, are the better for it.
We all understand this difference, and the fact that healthy chickens means healthy egg eaters, and healthy farms and ecosystems.
Now take that analogy across to bees.
Do bees want plastic foundations, plastic organs, queen excluders, their combs cracked open down the middle, regularly, while still in the hive, and all the rest? No, no they very most likely don’t.
Bees prefer natural wax comb that they draw themselves and renew when they see fit; to have the queen roam the hive and lay as that colony requires for long-term resilience; and for their hive to be sited in a permanent, sheltered setting.
The main push-back against natural beekeeping is the idea that anything that is bee-focussed is not as productive for the beekeeper, honey-wise.
Natural bee-built wax comb in a warré frame
With those goddarn happy bees spending all that time and energy building their own wax comb and doing things their preferred way, they’re not spending as much time foraging + filling those cells with nectar for the beekeeper.
Hey, guess what? It’s the same with chickens! If you put a chicken in a small cage and do not let it move so that all it does is eat and lay…. you get more eggs.
We seem to be deciding as a society, however, that for chickens, ethics may come before profits.
That we’d rather have eggs that cost more (partly due to production being less-per-chicken), are more nutrient dense and are produced by happier chickens.
So, despite that a purely profit-driven model of egg production would put all hens in battery farms, we’ve learned, as consumers, that there’s more to egg production than just producing eggs.
Everything is connected.
With bees and honey, however, we don’t yet apply that ethical lens.
They’re producing honey, aren’t they? The bees must be happy then. Output equals happiness.
Except that world-wide, honeybee populations say no.
No, actually, they’re not happy.
For a bunch of cumulative reasons, including profit-driven destructive beekeeping practices, we’re losing the bees.
You would think that this species would be at the top of our entire species list in terms of ensuring ethical and bee-centric stewardship + design.
You would think that we would be putting the bees health before, WAY before, what works best for us in terms of ultimate honey production.
Or what looks cool. Or something that allows us to draw honey directly from the hive via plastic foundation + spouts.
I’m sorry to be so blunt. really. I know that so many folks out there just want to help the bees, and that is awesome.
But the truth of it is – without bee-centric thinking, action, design + beekeeping, we may not be able to save the bees.
And if we continue to view bees and beekeeping as a gimmick or a system where honey harvest is paramount and the health + needs of this incredibly important species are secondary, we will deserve to lose them.
What you can do
Don’t take our word for it, go read up on bees as a species and a superorganism. Learn how amazing and essential they are to humans.
And get inspired to either steward bees naturally, or support folks who do.
- The Buzz about Bees: Biology of a Superorganism – Jürgen Tautz
- The Bee-friendly Beekeeper – David Heaf
- Beekeeping for All – Emile Warre
- Toward Saving The Honeybee – Gunther Hauk
- Honeybee Democracy – Thomas D Seeley
Other Natural Beekeeping articles about the Flow Hive:
- The Flow Hive: a Solution in Search of a Problem
- The Deeper Message of the Flow Hive
- Flow Hive Frenzy
- Honey On Tap? – Bee Vlog Review
Further articles to read:
- Most Plastic Products Release Estrogenic Chemicals – EHP
- Natural Beekeeping – great resources over at Malfroy’s Gold
- It’s the birthright of bees to build comb
- The dark and the light: eating different honeycombs as part of natural beekeeping
- Natural Beekeeping Resources: best books
- All our articles about Natural Beekeeping
Addition: I can see from the comments below that there’s a fundamental mis-understanding about the nature of the honeybee superorganism in its natural state, as opposed to in a langstroth hive which was designed to be the ultimate hive design for industrial honey production, so let me spell it out:
In a natural hive, there are no supers, no queen excluders, and no artificial comb. The bees draw the comb from the top of the available cavity (tree hollow, warre box hive, etc) downwards, and the queen lays wherever she wants, which is usually in a tight pattern that moves down the hive with successive generations of brood.
In a langstroth hive, the queen and brood are confined to the very bottom of the hive, and the worker bees frantically fill the added empty boxes on top (supers) to try and replenish their much needed stores of honey (bees use honey as both a ‘thermal dome’ and also a fuel to keep warm during the cooler months).
The flow frames are designed to be added as supers to a langstroth hive. I am not saying that brood would go through the flow frames, as you can see the langstroth system doesn’t work like that.
What I am saying is that this new type of frame, by both it’s artificial nature, it’s promotion of ‘it’s so easy’ beekeeping, and it’s general promotion of langstroth beekeeping, is therefore encouraging a type of beekeeping that we, and many other natural beekeepers across the world, would put to you as not being best for the bees. At all.
And there is many other types of beekeeping, suitable for absolute beginners upwards, that achieve a low-intervention approach – while being infinitely more bee-centric than using flow frames (or any artificial comb frames). Ok. I hope that’s clearer now.
Photos 1+2+5 by the marvellous Cathy X
Just a last note that I do not think that it is the fault or the responsibility of the builders of the Flow Hive™ to entirely fix this societal issue that we face, in terms of how we value bees.
But I do think it’s up to all of us to advocate for and prioritise honeybee health above easy, plastic-driven honey harvests, flow hive or otherwise. Ok. Rant out.