At first glance it seems exciting, new, revolutionary. It appears to have arisen out of caring for bees. The no-hive-opening honey collection system. But as one considers the Flow Hive in a little more depth various issues arise. I’m not saying the inventors of the Flow Hive don’t care about bees, but rather they are coming from a beekeeper-centred way of thinking. And I’m not saying that humans should never collect honey, but collecting small amounts from hives in more extensive or backyard systems, a bee-centred approach, is more likely to create a future where honeybees and humans can co-exist successfully.
Industrialisation of beekeeping and agriculture has placed many stressors on bees and they are becoming less resilient as a result. Management techniques associated with intensive beekeeping including regular manipulation and chemical use, alongside habitat loss, disease and pesticide use are contributing factors in recent losses of honeybees. Honeybees are among many pollinating insects (such as bumblebees, solitary bees, hoverflies, butterflies and moths) important to a wide range of plants, including many of the fruit and vegetables we eat. That same pollination service is also important within a wider ecological framework. We need to find ways to bolster their resilience, not break it down. I don’t think the Flow Hive is naturally compatible with this.
Honey is not only delicious and healthier for us than cane or beet sugar, it is primarily a food source for honeybees. They collect nectar and alter it to make honey, the ideal storage substance containing accessible energy with antimicrobial properties. It’s not something we can make. It cannot be replaced adequately by sugar syrup. Some colonies make enough for themselves, some colonies make surplus and some colonies would starve if we didn’t supplement them with sugar syrup or honey occasionally. I firmly believe that for a ‘sustainable’ future we should only take excess honey. Judging this is not an exact science, it means assessing the bees, the weather, season, available forage etc, etc. It means observing the bees, listening to the bees, interacting with the bees and making an informed, deliberate decision to open the hive and remove some honeycomb. It becomes about the bees.
Conversely the Flow Hive is all about honey collection. Even the strapline ‘It’s the beekeepers dream…’ assumes a non-engaged way of harvesting honey is preferable. The hive uses frames with plastic comb, finished by the bees with wax, that can be cranked apart to release the honey stored in cells within. This honey then flows through tubes to external jars. The beekeeper doesn’t even have to open the hive – ‘that’s great!’ one might say, ‘the bees are undisturbed and I won’t get stung’, but how easy would it be to accidentally take too much, or to forget to consider all those other factors regarding the bees honey requirements which contribute to the survival of the colony? With extensive systems or natural comb hives one or two combs are harvested when surplus is evident. It is much harder to take too much.
It is also worth considering the honeybee colony as a super-organism – think akin to a mammal in the way it functions with many bees making up a whole body that is more than the sum of it’s parts. In brief this comparison comes down to reproductive rate, self-produced nourishment for young, an internally regulated uterus, internal temperature regulation and capacity for learning/cognitive ability (ref: Tautz. The Buzz about Bees). How the super-organism is managed is an issue that goes beyond the Flow Hive. But I say again, bees are more resilient in an extensive system than they are in an intensive system.
If the colony is viewed as a super-organism the hive is as skin and comb as skeleton, energy store, memory bank (wax sterols and esters are part of their communication system) and womb. There is a respiration system of airflow governed by space and comb formation, and an immune system of anti-microbial substances and guard bees.
The Flow Hive uses plastic comb. This intereferes with natural bee behaviours – bees make wax in response to nectar flow, even when they are provided with plastic or pre-made wax sheets (a misguided attempt to direct bee energy away from wax production and towards honey production). Left to themselves honeybees create combs consisting of cells of varying sizes according to purpose (food, worker bee brood or drone brood) and season that curve and join and have entrance ways, dead ends and inaccessible-to-the-beekeeper areas. This complexity is important for maintenance of temperature, humidity and possibly of an anti-microbial atmosphere. The wax is also maintained at the optimum temperature for communication via vibration across the comb, it has been shown that plastic comb intereferes with this. Plastic comb may not appear detrimental, after all many bees live with it, but that doesn’t make it optimal either. And why use a man-made product when the bees can do it for themselves? I wonder if the makers of the Flow Hive plan on using recycled plastic?
It seems to me we should interact with the colony when we harvest some honey, be aware of prevailing conditions and risk getting stung. Acknowledge the needs of the colony as a super-organism and it’s place within the larger organism of our planet.