We’ve heard it all

“It’s terrible how you are so dismissive of the Flow Hive. It is a great option for beekeepers”.

“The fact that you give the Flow Hive such praise says a lot – it’s an appalling thing for beekeeping”.

Yes, we’ve had these comments about exactly the same lesson. We do see some humor in this and, as they say, “you can’t please all the people all the time”.

But that’s not our intent. In looking at the Flow Hive we want to step back from one of the most disruptive technologies to hit beekeeping and provide a balanced view.

There will always be those who consider comments about Flow Hive “extreme” – in ether direction. But the fact that we have had such comments from both ends of the continuum is perhaps a clue that we have found at least some balance in this lesson.

So, what exactly is this Flow Hive thing? And why is it so controversial? Read on….

How to start a fight among beekeepers!

It’s no secret that beekeepers have opinions. Lots of them.

On the one hand, there is the beekeeper who has been successful with beekeeping and swears blind his or her way is the only way!

Or, to the contrary, a beekeeper who experienced a problem with a specific approach or piece of equipment and who will now tell the world that option won’t work for anyone. Ever.

Of course, the world isn’t always so black and white. Neither are our bees. There is nuance, context, conditions, circumstances and a whole raft of factors that differ between beekeepers.

It is also true that one cannot draw a complete, unarguable conclusion from a small sample size of just one beekeeper.

And yet we do. We all do. We try something and it’s human nature to assume that our own, personal experience is indicative of world at large.

So, with this tendency for individuals to draw conclusions quickly and with limited data, debates about the “right way” will always continue. But if you REALLY want to set off a heated debate with beekeepers, it is really rather simple.

Walk into a room of beekeepers and just utter two words – FLOW HIVE.

First….watch this

Pretty awesome eh, even if only for the impressive production values? The messages relayed in this introductory video have generated a huge interest worldwide and made Flow Hive one of the most successful crowdfunding campaigns in history.

So what is Flow Hive and how valid is it as a choice for the serious for beekeeper?

The joy of beekeeping

Beekeeping is a wonderful hobby, enjoyed by beekeepers across the world. It has so many aspects that keep us engaged and intrigued. These range from the science to a delight in nature. In addition, there is always the chance of companionship and community with fellow beekeepers.

The hands-on nature of beekeeping is a special and valued aspect for many beekeepers. Throw in the colorful advantages bees bring through pollination and the sense that, as a beekeeper, you are helping the environment and the joy of beekeeping is clear. For many, beekeeping is a labor of love, requiring attention and a focus on understanding your bees.

Many beekeepers consider these factors entirely positive aspects of beekeeping. They are not looking for a quick way to obtain honey (they have the local supermarket for that!). Rather, they value their “guardianship” with bees. These are precisely the things that make beekeeping so enjoyable for so many beekeepers.

To top it all off there is the possibility of beautiful, sweet honey from your own bees.

What could be better?

The problem Flow Hive claims to solve

The harvesting of honey isn’t the most straightforward of beekeeping tasks. While there are numerous tools available to extract honey from the comb, it does take a little time, as we will discover elsewhere.

Who should get the Flow Hive?
If you are driven by the desire for honey a little more than the traditional beekeeper, you are in the target audience for the Flow Hive.

Flow Hive is a testimonial to the power of Internet Marketing, YouTube, some very creative engineering and millions of dollars in investment. It has generated excitement and a belief in many that it offers the keys – literally – to easy honey. At first blush, their ingenious solution seems like a breakthrough in beehive design.  It’s gone viral and excited many people around the world, with its potential for “turn-a-tap” honey.

But does it really work? How well does Flow Hive deliver on this vision and are there any drawbacks?

Our attempt at a balanced view

In this lesson, PerfectBee takes a close and balanced look at the Flow Hive. As you read this, know one thing – there will be fellow readers who look at the title and immediately know where they stand.

Many beekeepers fall into two buckets, with respect to the Flow Hive:

  • “Nothing needs fixing” beekeepers: These folks have very strong opinions that traditional approaches to beekeeping have worked for hundreds of years, so why change? While there’s some logic to that – and traditional approaches do work –  if there are never challenges to improve on the status quo then we stay stuck in the dark ages. Progress can be difficult, but it can also be very good.
  • “Get with the program” beekeepers: Aside from being drawn to the promise of easy honey, some Flow Hive beekeepers like it because, frankly, it’s cool and it’s awesome to be on the leading edge! Anyone not following that lead is something of a Luddite! OK – but progress for progress’ sake is never good. There need to be distinct benefits outweighing the drawbacks.

The Flow Hive is very polarizing.  In this lesson, we look past the stubborn refusal to even consider the Flow Hive that you will see in many beekeepers. We provide you with facts from which you can make your own decisions, based on your own circumstances and objectives.

It is our hope this lesson is informative, unbiased, fair and useful to you if you are considering the Flow Hive. And then the debate will continue…

What exactly is Flow Hive?

The Flow Hive was invented by a father and son team of Australian  beekeepers who wanted an easier, less invasive way to harvest honey from Langstroth hives. They had a vision, researched it, designed a solution, raised funding and have created a successful business from this idea. We give them huge credit for going after a vision and executing on it so successfully.

But what IS it?

Flow Frame

The core idea behind Flow Hive is a sophisticated invention called the Flow Frame. This is where all the magic happens. The frame includes a plastic foundation with partially-formed cells that can be “opened” with the turn of a key. The process is as follows:

  • Your bees cover the cells with beeswax
  • They then fill the cells with honey
  • Next they cap the cells, placing a thin layer of wax on top to retain the honey
  • At the time you want your honey, you insert a key into the Flow Frame and turn it to open the cells, allowing the honey to flow downwards, pulled by gravity
  • After you have collected your honey in jars you turn the key back and your bees get back to work again
How to tell when the honey is ready?
By peering through the observation window, you can tell when the Flow Frames are full of honey.

Simple.

Here is another beautifully-produced video describing the harvesting process:

Flow Frame

The Flow Hive folks made some smart design decisions. Rather than design a solution completely from scratch, they recognized the widespread use of  Langstroth hives worldwide. The Flow Frame is designed to fit into a standard Langstroth box (8 or 10 frames). This allows beekeepers to start using Flow Hive with a smaller investment, simply by placing a few frames in their existing box (note: Flow Frames are wider than traditional frames, so a 10 frame Langstroth box only takes 7 Flow Frames).

The one qualifier is that to support the tubes and key of the Flow Frame, the box must be modified, as demonstrated in this video:

Flow Super

Anyone invested in the idea of the Flow Hive might want to consider an entire Flow Super (box). This is a complete box with access for the tubes and the key already built-in, with Flow Frames inside. Again, the box is designed to confirm to standard Langstroth dimensions.

Flow Hive

Of course, if you want to go the whole way, the good folks at Flow Hive will sell you, well, a Flow Hive. That’s a complete hive, with Flow Supers and Flow Frames.

The Flow Hive is available in pine or, for a higher-end beehive, cedar.

Other Components

The remaining components are identical to those of a regular Langstroth hive: a base with screened bottom board, roof, inner cover and so on.

Benefits of Flow Hive

Let’s face it, this is a clever design. The Flow Hive folks have a laser focus on  a problem they have identified, namely the slightly cumbersome nature of harvesting honey with traditional hives. They then created a product that is clever, reasonably effective at what it claims to do and marketed quite superbly!

The big selling point, of course, is the amazing sight of a beekeeper turning a key and seeing beautiful honey drop so enticingly into large jars.

Another benefit touted by Flow Hive is the minimized disruption to the bees when the honey is harvested. No need to open a box and take out a frame at a time, Just turn a key.

In summary, the benefits of Flow Hive are rather obvious, in terms of the convenience of harvesting honey.

Issues with Flow Hive

Plastic Foundation

We have looked in some detail at natural beekeeping. Natural beekeepers like to leave as much as possible to the bees, on the basis that their success surviving in natural settings speaks volumes.

Perhaps the most central question a beekeeper has to make about his/her approach to beekeeping is whether to use foundation. The typical Langstroth hive features frames with foundation, although it’s perfectly feasible to use foundationless frames in the Langstroth.

Why does that cause consternation to many? Two principle reasons – cell size and foundation material.

  • Cell Size: In nature, bees create cells of different sizes, depending on their needs. For example, drone cells are larger than worker cells. Left to their own devices, bees just do whatever is necessary. When we use frames with foundation, we effectively make this decision for the bees. The cells are a uniform size and so bees compromise. This is a problem for proponents of natural beekeeping and, many would argue, the bees!
  • Cell Material: Foundation is often made of plastic and covered in wax (the Flow Hive foundation is just plastic). This compares poorly with comb made naturally by our bees, on many levels.

Flow Hive uses man-made, plastic foundation. While this is a concern to many, there are also many Langstroth beekeepers who use plastic-only foundation (though many purchase plastic frames covered with beeswax, which is not an option with Flow Hive).  If one happens to accept that plastic-only foundation is acceptable, then Flow Hive is no worse.

Awareness of Mites and Other Threats

In Course 3 : A Healthy Beehive we will look at the various threats to bees. One of the most impactful in the US is the Varroa mite. This has been in the US for many years and is the bane of many a beekeeper’s life. It has, indeed, had a dramatic and lasting effect on beekeeping. By the way, the Varroa mite is not a factor in Australia, from where the Flow Hive originates.

We will look at what beekeepers can do to assess and address the threat of mites, but the bottom line is that it takes vigilance and attention, even to simply know there is a problem.

One of the concerns often voiced about Flow Hive that not all corners of the hive are accessible during an inspection. The Flow Frames are a “closed system”. Although there are other reasons to want to look at all frames in a hive, the inability to observe what is happening on the cells of a Flow Frame is a concern.

Relationship with Bees

One of the joys of beekeeping is in developing a bond with your bees. This differs between beekeepers but it’s fair to say Flow Hive abstracts at least a part of that intense interaction.

Many beekeepers want the exact opposite. They actually WANT the opportunity to get into the hive and experience their bees up close, in all boxes in the hive. For traditional beekeepers, that time with their bees – watching and learning – is the most rewarding of all.

Flow Hive very specifically focuses on minimizing the effort involved in harvesting honey and, with that, some say it loses much of the magic of beekeeping.

But we believe this should be considered in a balanced way. In the same way that Flow Hive sometimes overstates the ease with which honey can be produced, its critics can also often be accused of an overly negative perspective.

One such example is the suggestion that Flow Hive means you can’t open your hive for an inspection. That is simply not true. While the individual frame is a closed system, a “hybrid” hive may include a number of Flow Frames alongside regular frames.

Further, one of the most essential elements of any inspection – where the real “forensics” are most evident – is in the lower brood box. The Flow Hive doesn’t constrain that at all, since the brood box does NOT include a Flow Frame. So, that brood inspection is just as relevant – and important – to a Flow Hive as to a traditional hive. It is in the inspection of honey boxes where the Flow Hive becomes more of a closed system.

Here’s an example of a “hyrid” beehive.

As you can see, it’s very feasible to inspect a Flow Hive in this manner.

Cost

Today beekeeping isn’t quite the low-cost hobby it used to be. Purchasing the hive, the various components as the colony grows, accessories, tools, clothing and even the bees all adds up. But there are price points at each of these levels, including “budget products”. Beekeeping is still very much within the realm of most people looking for a new and exciting hobby.

Flow Hive doesn’t focus on lowering the cost of beekeeping! That isn’t the objective and, sure enough, it is an expensive product – some would say VERY expensive. If you are looking at a Flow Hive primarily to obtain lots of honey, easily and cheaply, then this is not for you.

At the time of writing (Dec 2018), representative prices are as follows (we are linking to the Flow Hive pages if you wish to check current prices). NOTE: For comparison purposes, many of the comparisons here are for cedar boxes, which is a premium, high-end wood, with multiple benefits. However, the use of pine can lower the prices considerably.

  • A Classic 7 Flow Frame, which fills a 10 frame Langstroth box is $447. By comparison, a pack of 10 plastic frames coated with beeswax will be around $30.
  • A Classic Cedar 7 Flow Super, complete with 7 Flow Frames is $527. By comparison, a 10 frame cedar deep box will retail for around $100. The more common pine box will be MUCH cheaper – around $20 or so. Note: For a true comparison, you would need to add in frames (see above).
  • A Flow Hive Classic Cedar hive (including Flow Frames) is $699. By comparison, a 10 frame cedar Langstroth kit would retail for around $300. An entry-level pine Langstroth kits would generally be around #125 or so..

Note: Don’t forget shipping costs – a Flow Frame costs from $25 to $40 to ship to the US. A Flow Hive is around $85. As a comparison point, PerfectBee offers free shipping on all orders above $75.

Let’s be totally clear about these comparisons. The Flow Hive folks will quite reasonably claim it’s not a fair comparison. With the Flow Hive, you are paying for a new technology with some very impressive design factors (you are also paying for some pretty awesome marketing!). More importantly, you don’t need harvesting equipment – the Flow Hive IS the harvesting equipment.

With a regular Langstroth hive, there are various ways you can harvest your honey. So those would need to be factored in to drive a true comparison.

If, however, you looking at Flow Hive as a way to keep costs low, then you are looking in the wrong place! It simply isn’t a cheap way to get into beekeeping.

Summary

The inventors of the Flow Hive have created something very impressive. We can’t fault anyone for developing something revolutionary, to solve a problem. It is clear that the product has spawned an interest in folks who would otherwise have been unaware or have no interest in beekeeping. If this results in a curious beekeeper, eager to learn and ready to form his or her opinions, through education, then this is the proverbial good thing.

PerfectBee believes the best and most successful beekeepers are those who develop a sincere interest in what their bees do, with a view to constantly learning. Such a beekeeper isn’t particularly concerned about how long it takes to harvest honey, because that is far from the most important or interesting part of beekeeping. Indeed, many beekeepers enjoy the harvesting of honey as part if the overall fun of beekeeping. That beekeeper also wants to look closely at the forensic evidence visible at each inspection, throughout the hive.

With these thoughts in mind, PerfectBee does not recommend starting beekeeping with Flow Hive alone. Doing so will isolate you from interesting and essential lessons you need to learn early in your beekeeping days, beyond the brood box. There is also considerable education value in the act of harvesting honey, which is “hidden” when one merely turns a key.

To be an effective and educated beekeeper, you need learn from your bees on an ongoing basis. That means gaining knowledge from each and every inspection. The time when you start out is not the best time to create a technological barrier to that knowledge.

We recommend following a more traditional path with either a Langstroth,. Top Bar or Warre hive.

But…

We also don’t totally dismiss the Flow Hive. If you are really set on looking into this and your pockets are deep enough, the availability of the Flow Super, installable in a regular Langstroth box, gives you a way to check it out without compromising your whole beekeeping education up front.

A Classic 3 Flow Frame, for example, allows you to replace some – but not all – of the frames in a traditional Langstroth, albeit with some modification to the box being necessary. For those with deep pockets and a real curiosity about Flow Hive, this might be a reasonable small step, balancing the attraction of “turn-a-key” honey with the need to understand what is happening in each box.

And if quick honey is all important to you – just drop by the supermarket.

So – let the debate continue!

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