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 - 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.
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.
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 nothi