My thoughts on the Flow System

Okay, I wasn’t going to post on this, but I have now had at least ten people approach me to ask my thoughts, and I know many other beekeepers are being approached with similar questions. You may have heard about the Flow Beehive (see here for more details). To describe it briefly, it’s a system that allows you to harvest honey from a hive without opening the hive. It’s admittedly pretty cool, but cool doesn’t mean great.

My very first thought is that this is a tool of bee “havers,” not bee “keepers.” Beehavers are people who simply have bees and don’t put in the energy or effort to manage their hives. It’s the rough equivalent of someone who farms by scattering seed (not sowing) and then coming back in August to get whatever came up. Sure, they might get a harvest, but there’s no relationship or familiarity with it, and no real effort. A true farmer spends time in the field caring for the plants and nurturing. They water carefully, fertilize and weed patiently, and eagerly await the harvest.

I know of no beekeeper who is eager to try this product. Many have said they’d investigate it, which isn’t surprising considering the pragmatic and inquisitive nature of most beekeepers, but I will be surprised if many seriously engaged beekeepers adopt this as their primary hive style.

Second, many are claiming this is a revolution in hive technology. No it isn’t. It’s a simple change to the frame design. It still uses standard Langstroth (or National) hive boxes. It still relies on our current understanding of bee space and comb size.

Third, claims of being non-disruptive are bogus. Every beekeeper has experienced brood in the honey. Would you really just turn that spigot and hope that what came out was honey and not brood juices from destroyed brood cells? I sure wouldn’t. And if I’m opening the hive up to check for brood, I’m being disruptive. And if I open the hive to check, why not just finish the job and harvest the honey?

Fourth, reuse of comb is, in my opinion, dangerous. Wax is where the bees naturally store the poisons their bodies gather through nectar and pollen storage. Wax should, as a rule, be replaced every few years even in natural, organic hives. This system encourages reuse over long periods of time, which I consider somewhat dangerous.

Fifth, this is not a revolution in beekeeping. This is, at most, a revolution in honey harvesting. Anyone who believes this removes any need to check and care for your bees is fooling themselves. Managing beehives requires management. You have to get in there at least a few times a year. The spacing between visits is up for debate, but I would certainly never recommend less than once a month, and I try for every other week usually, especially during a nectar flow. And no…. that little side window (if you use a box with a window) is not an adequate substitute. And let’s be clear, honey harvesting is maybe… 5% of the workload a year in a small operation, less in a big one. This is hardly a revolution.

Sixth, I have concerns about the depth of the frames. As far as I can tell, the Flow frames are quite deep compared to standard frames. Not sure how that impacts things, but I suspect it changes it.

Seventh, I think this style encourages harvesting too much honey. You really have no idea how much you are taking without opening the hives, and if you are opening the hives anyway….

Eight, I’ve heard lots of people complain about robbing, and if you are pouring into open containers, it’s a valid complaint. The site does say you could set it up to have an enclosed harvesting system, but let’s be honest: the people who are eager for this are people who don’t want to do the work in the first place and they are going to design and build their own enclosed system? Right….

Conclusion: It’s a gimmick. Plain and simple. It’s like the beehaus of yesteryear. Pretty cool idea, but really not that different than what we already have. It isn’t the miracle cure or the next great leap.

I will say this, though, it’s disruptive in a way that I haven’t seen before, and conversation is very good. And to be clear, I don’t mean disruptive as in breaking new ground, I mean disruptive in that everyone is aware of it and talking about it. It’s bringing attention to beekeeping, which is always a good thing. Maybe it’ll bring in more people who will then try other ideas as they grow more experienced. If it does that, I guess I really can’t complain too much. Just don’t expect to see it on my hives.

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7 Responses to My thoughts on the Flow System

  1. angela52689 says:

    I’ve seen this floating around Facebook and wondered what you thought. Good points.

  2. Emily Scott says:

    I share your thoughts on regular changing of comb. I don’t know whether pesticides can build up in the plastic in the same way as they do in wax, but I expect disease spores at least can.

    You’re right about the combs being deeper – Michael Bush has said that the queen will not lay in them for that reason, which makes one of these supers unsuitable to leave on as stores overwinter. For anyone with more than one hive – and how many beekeepers stay with just one hive for long?! – this is an expensive solution.

    • daveloveless says:

      That’s a good point about the cell depth and egg laying. I wonder if that impacts how deep the bees go to deposit the nectar. Interesting questions.

      And you are dead on with the spores. I saw the price today ($300 for the smallest package!!!). Even if these frames lasted 20 years each (highly doubtful), it still would be cheaper to buy new traditional frames pretty much every year.

      Sigh… I’m really trying not to be too harsh about the Flow system, but I just don’t see it really helping. What I see happening is a bunch of people getting into beekeeping at a super high price, discovering all the problems, and then abandoning the hobby. In so many ways that is worse than if they never got in at all, especially if they start driving this idea that beekeeping is too expensive and doesn’t result in anything.

      We need more beekeepers, not more beehavers, and this screams beehaver to me.

      • Emily Scott says:

        It will be interesting to see if commercial beekeepers take it up. They tend to have the harshest methods of harvesting honey, such as using blowers, so the Flow system potentially has the most benefits for their bees. I’m not sure that the economics will work out for them at the moment though.

  3. Flow what? Just kidding…

    Actually well put. I like the idea of an easier way to extract honey from the comb but I don’t like the marketing behind Flow Hive.

    I congratulate their inventiveness and why shouldn’t they profit from that, fair play to them. But I worry about the irresponsible media behind it and the inventors have a duty of care to go onto other beekeeping forums or the comments made under news articles and put right a few misconceptions caused. Don’t leave us other beekeepers to do it!

    Having read their website and FAQs several times, I can see relatively few disadvantages to the bees of having a Flow Hive super, but many disadvantages to someone who isn’t a beekeeper and not properly trained to having a Flow Hive in their garden. It might change the way you extract honey, but it doesn’t change anything else about beekeeping. Also, much of their advice would work in Australia but unlikely in the UK.

    Certainly for beekeepers who keep bees in apiaries and allotments, I don’t like the idea that anyone could walk in, turn on a tap, and walk away with a jar of honey! Far too easy to encourage thieving – when at least our current supers mean people have to deal with the bees as well as the honey!

    Personally I think bee space is going to be a problem and any working parts the bees discover – our girls just love to gum up anything foreign in the hive with propolis.

    • daveloveless says:

      Good point about propolis. I hadn’t even considered that! I use Carniolans primarily, and they are slightly ridiculous on the propolis. As near as I can tell, most of the moving parts are enclosed, but even one gummed up with propolis probably stops the whole thing.

      And I think you nailed another unspoken frustration I’ve had with this: they are leaving other beekeepers to pick up the mess and explain how this is deficient and not a complete system.

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