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The Deeper Message of the Flow Hive

Living with bees is not about hardware, hives and management techniques any more – it is ultimately about the survival of life on earth.

In the last few days, the media worldwide have become positively besotted with a new invention that has a powerful lure: it makes removal of honey from a hive so easy that, in the words of a press release, ‘there is … the potential for remotely activated or automatic honey extraction’. There is also the implication that it helps bees, by allowing the beekeeper to ‘harvest in a bee-friendly way’. That’s what we all want, is it not: to be bee-friendly and less disruptive?

Let us pause for a moment: does taking honey need to be disruptive? Responsible beekeepers have long found that sharing genuinely surplus honey is one of the many ways in which they can sensitively interact with the bees in their care. It need not be in any way disruptive, either for the bees or the beekeeper. Of course, we are not referring here to large scale commercial beekeepers, whose harvesting techniques can be brutal. The Flow Hive will not appeal to such operators, being too expensive and complex. In other words, the bee-friendly sales pitch is aimed at would-be beekeepers who want honey but no hassle.

So much for the beekeeper; what about the bees? In truth, the thinking behind the Flow Hive entirely ignores the bees’ perspective. The essence of the gadget lies in plastic combs that can be cracked open by plastic cams, all contained within the hive. The honey then flows out of the hive. Now there arises a further question: do bees naturally make combs from plastic and what does it mean to the organism as a whole, the ‘Bee’, to introduce such artefacts into a beehive?

While all the individual bees are essential to the whole organism, so is the comb and all the functions the comb serves. Let’s put that another way: the comb is an integral and essential part of the wholeness of the hive. Placing artificial combs, made of plastic, into the heart of the Bee is akin to placing an artificial heart or liver inside a human being. One would do so only in case of dire medical need. One would certainly not do so simply for the convenience of another. But that is what the Flow Hive does. Something utterly alien to the Bee is placed into its very heart. Why?

Let us hear the voices of others around the world as they confront this question:

Conceptually, the idea that a beehive is like a beer keg you can tap is troublesome. A beehive is a living thing, not a machine for our exploitation. I’m a natural beekeeper and feel that honey harvests must be done with caution and respect. To us, beekeeping is -at the risk of sounding a little melodramatic– a sacred vocation. We are in relationship with our backyard hive, and feel our role is to support them, and to very occasionally accept the gift of excess honey. For new beekeepers, and for people who are not beekeepers, beekeeping is all about the honey. … But in our minds, the honey matters very little. What we get we consider precious, and use for medicine more than sweetening. Erik Knutzen, USA

The so called Flow Hive adds another level of estrangement to the [replacement of] natural beeswax comb. Now it is an entire prostheses being implanted, replacing original tissue and organ-like structures of this being. And on top, this powerful implant/ prosthesis can be operated blindly, without having to enter any relationship with the Bee any more: The notion of a living being is redefined through the interface of the prostheses. …. In the end, we can take this as an encouragement to look deeper and open our life to a perspective, which is aware of the entanglement of all there is. We have resources to evolve … and there is no other option, but to learn and awaken to a new way of living on this planet – because we want to survive. Michael Joshin Thiele, Gaiabees

We have meddled with bees far too much and it’s time we stopped. The new “Flow hive” is deplorable. This takes the art of bee meddling to a new level and it shows a massive sense of disconnection to bees from the part of the inventors! Bees are highly intelligent and have the most incredible sense of the world around them. Let’s learn their language without interfering with them. Jenny Cullinan, South Africa

But 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 defence against pathogens. Honey bees are able to recognize the smallest differences in wax composition for good reason. Wax is not polypropylene…..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 and a curse for the bee. Jonathan Powell, England

Bees want to build their own wax comb. It’s part of the bee superorganism. 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 wax, studies have shown), 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. It’s the birthright of bees to build comb. 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. Kirsten Bradley, Australia

I teach beekeeping without veil or gloves. If you enter a hive without the overwhelming force of a bee suit, you actually have to care about how the bees are feeling today, and you have to be interested in any subtle messages they may give you about your actions. If my goal was making money or saving time, this would be terribly inconvenient. But my goal is to work with the bees, to see that they are alright. If they have extra honey and I remove it without a sting, even though I was completely vulnerable, I feel differently about everything afterwards. The bees and I were somehow working together as equals, both vulnerable, both benefiting from the relationship. Jack Mills, USA

In these considerations of the Flow Hive’s effect on the bees, we find a true sense of the wholeness of the Bee and the ineffable oneness of Nature. Is such collective, deeper, understanding the emergent message of the recent media frenzy? If so, we may all take heart.

When we step into the world of Apis mellifera, we are entering a multidimensional landscape of being. The life gesture of the honeybee is so unique and different from other life forms that a rational mind alone cannot provide adequate understanding of its nature. Rudolf Steiner described the world of bees as a “world enigma”. This points to the need for an understanding beyond rationality. It is an invitation into another mode of awareness.

Michael Joshin Thiele, Gaiabees

Swarm Heart

Swarm - a being of love and abundance


Such is the interest in this topic that we took the unusual step (for us) of opening this post to comments (at least for a while - it is now closed again). Below is a represenative selection of the many comments we received.

Jack Mills said:

You dear folks inspired me to write an essay on my favorite liberal blog: The-New-Beehive-that-Pours-Out-Honey.

Jane said:

Thank you ~ I felt instantly that this ‘Flow Hive’ was so wrong and you have put my feelings into beautiful, meaningful words. I shall spread them far & wide.

Boštjan said:

If you look at plastic, I think it's not wise to use it. Especially in longer term.

Mark Sheppard said:

Your comments seem a bit harsh, to me as a novice. I would expect that people should thoughtfully evaluate this new procedure. It will depend on how much is taken from the nest, and the trade off is while it is an unnatural technique (in truth so is traditional beekeeping.) albeit one that has been practiced for millennium is it more or less disruptive to the hive than current practices. If it encourages more people to become involved in Bee keeping the net effect maybe beneficial to the survival of bees world wide, I’m sure it will be refined and modified further in the future as more and more bee keeps weigh in. Optimistic

Natural Beekeeping Trust said:

Mark: Thank you for joining the discussion. In truth, it is the technology of the Flow Hive that is harsh: harsh upon the Bee. How would you like to have plastic ribs inserted into your body simply because someone thought they were superior to your natural ones? That is what this technology does to the Bee, whose body is the whole hive and whose ribs are the comb. It is long past time that we lost our infatuation with all things technical and new. We are like jackdaws that fall in love with everything that glitters: it time to realise that just because something can be done does not mean it should be done. If we are to save both the Bee and the planet we have to change our thinking. We simply cannot go on using the same thought patterns that got us into the mess in the first place.

Elen Sentier said:

Mark, you say, “If it encourages more people to become involved in Bee keeping” but it does not. I encourages people to stay estranged from nature and separating themselves from it. It does nothing to engage people with the intricate life of another species, nor does it encourage understanding of the enormous and non-human world which has been an integrated system for over 4 billion years … we humans have been around for maybe 1 million years, that’s a mere spit in the ocean of time compared with bees! We know very little about how the Earth works and this invention does nothing to encourage people to increase their knowing.

Reblogged this on Elen Sentier and commented: Do read this article. It staggers me how lazy and incompetent and selfish we are !!!

Colin said:

From touring the web it appears to be mainly novices and prospective beekeepers who are enthusiastic about this invention. I am neither a ‘natural’ beekeeper nor a conventional beekeeper, sitting as I do somewhere in the middle of a continuum between these two polar opposites with several decades of experience behind me – but even I view this invention as being the thin end of a very undesirable wedge, with beehives eventually becoming fully automated with bees reduced to the status of cogs within an industrial machine. I was extremely disappointed to read Phil Chandler’s endorsement of this equipment.

Natural Beekeeping Trust said:

Thank you for this, Colin, our view entirely, especially regarding the endorsement by Phil Chandler.

Larry Alderfer Fisher said:

Thank you for this. I am still trying to sort it all out but at least this article was written with respectful language. Hysterical reviews of Flow Hive are out there and they don’t advance the conversation, at least for someone like me who is trying to understand the opposing arguments. I would like to hear more about why traditional harvesting with smoke and hive tool, etc. is not disruptive to the bees. As a novice it feels quite disruptive to me and to the bees. Also I would like to understand what the mixture of Flow Hive frames with traditional frames means. Do the bees have a choice? Or is it assumed that even if they have a choice they don’t understand their history well enough to eschew the Flow Hive? Finally I would like to hear more about the “brutal” methods of commercial honey producers. Does providing an easier entry point for more self producers warrant the use of plastic comb? In other words does doing an end run around commercial honey producers make the Flow Hive any more acceptable? Or is there fear that the commercial producers will adopt a future cheaper version of Flow Hive and set up honey factories? How would this compare to their present “brutal” practices?Let me add that I am a novice, even though I am in my third year. I harvest almost no honey and care a lot about pollination and survival of the hive. I have three hives now and have never lost a hive over winter probably because I harvest so little honey. I truly want to understand.Thanks again for presenting a view without degenerating into a rant about caged chickens and lazy farmers.

Rob said:

Just want to add my 2 cents. I’m looking at it more from a pragmatic view. Just to show where I’m coming from: 15 years beekeeping experience, averaging about 10 hives at any one time, all natural, all organic beekeeper. My bees all come from cutouts and wild swarms. I have managed a business where I do live bee removal from some very difficult locations in Richmond.

However, I don’t put on a headdress made of wildflowers and pretend to talk to my bees. I wear deodorant, and I have never smoked pot. I have used plastic foundation, and for my honey supers, prefer that. For the brood, I’m a fan of natural comb on foundationless frames, but use the plastic frames for spinning out honey into an extractor.

So, my take on this is not from the bee’s point of view, but from a pragmatic, inventors point of view. I have designed and built my own observation hive, and think I have come up with a good option to super it with a special bee escape – even though I haven’t figured out how to manufacture that part yet. This Flow bee hive has been crowdfunded at 4,000%. That is really over the top. First, I don’t think they’ll be able to meet demand. 2nd, they got their money up front through hype and a couple promotional videos, not because there was a lot of “buzz” because it worked so well. So, I think they’ll be way behind in shipping orders, and then they’ll have to deal with customer service. Bees don’t follow the beekeeper’s rules. Any beekeeper worth his or her salt knows about breach comb and propolis. The bees don’t propolize much in the honey super, but it still happens. Bees also hate plastic foundation. I don’t know anyone who has had much success with plastic honeycomb. The closest anyone can get to bee acceptance is plastic embossed, sprayed with wax. I have used all kinds of plastic embossed over the years, and even 100% plastic frames, foundation, wired foundation, and foundationless. I have run 2 top bar hives for years. Here is what I think will happen: These guys (and I think their intentions are great, and they mean no harm) will sell a ton of these things. The buyers will be gimmick places like organic food stores and year round farmer’s markets, and hipsters, and some beekeepers. Then, people will try to put some bees in these hives. A lot will install packages and they’ll have problems and blame it on this hive. Some of these hives will sit in people’s garages or the back yards, unused. The folks that get bees to stay in the hive will have some success, and maybe a bunch of cross comb. If the bees don’t take to that comb, and refuse to use it, they’ll swarm because they don’t have room to expand. You’ll also have robbing, ants, and possibly hive beetle issues. Also, I believe the inventors are from Australia, which has no Verroa mite, so they already have a huge leg up on the rest of the world (they do have the small hive beetle in areas though). These hives for the most part will also be pretty poorly managed. There are few commercial beekeepers or even honey producers that will want to buy hundreds of these things. The main buyer is the small guy, or even the non beekeeper who wants honey, and feels like they’re assuaging their environmental guilt by putting a hive in the back yard, but don’t really want to get into the hobby.

It all remains to be seen.

Humphrey Blackburn said:

It’s the conflict we see so much these days between wanting something for nothing despite the environmental cost as opposed to working with nature in a world being overwhelmed by human technology, waste, and sheer numbers. The disposable world of the last century is just going to have change to one of living with nature rather than despoiling and polluting- there is no choice. Technologies like you employ in natural bee keeping are a step in the right direction as is natural biological water and wastewater treatment, as I practice. This notion of us against nature, conquering, exploiting nature, is old, antiquated at this point, but many including a lot of engineers, agricultural interests, even Bill Gates haven’t caught up yet. Keep up the good fight!

Hebrew Awakened said:

I greatly appreciate this article. Not a beekeeper, I am a consumer and a dabbling gardener. I have developed full appreciation for those things that have not had much tampering by the hands of mankind. When we change the natural balance, the ripple effects may take time but they will be felt

Natural Beekeeping Trust said:

Thank you for your many comments, a selection of which have been displayed. Some of you say that our approach is anti-conservation, that the Flow Hive will attract new beekeepers, which is a good thing for bees. Our response is simple: the best thing for bees is to be left to be bees, not to have unnecessary ‘assistance’ foisted on them by mankind. The attitude that mankind knows best is what got us into this situation in the first place.

In Southern England, where we are based, bees flourish when allowed to live undisturbed in bee-appropriate hives. We have dozens of such hives in our care and speak from long experience. We know of many dozens more in the care of others. These hives are a mixture of log hives, skeps, Sun Hives, Warrés, and Einraumbeuten. None of them contain plastic; all have natural comb with no foundation. The hives are kept in various locations spread across a couple of hundred miles. None are treated for varroa. Yet the bees prosper, year after year. Genuinely surplus honey is harvested gently and with care for the bees. Done properly, the bees do not mind at all: look on the internet and you will find videos of natural beekeepers opening hives with no smoke and no protective gear. This indicates that bees can be healthy when their bee-ness is respected; no need for man to interfere.

If you want to take up beekeeping, learn to understand and relate to your bees; to be a bee-centred beekeeper. If you just want a hive in a tree at the bottom of the garden with no interference at all, that works too. Using a highly engineered plastic implant that works against the bees' natural state is unnecessary and unhelpful.

Thank you again.

Comments are now closed.

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