The drama surrounding the Flow Hive is unending and riddled with misinformation. Beekeepers are infamous for our diverse and contrasting opinions, but the controversy over the Flow Hive is so extreme that it cannot even be mentioned without sparking a civil war among beekeepers. So, is the Flow Hive what its opponents claim it to be: an evil invention designed to enslave bees for honey? Read on to get my take.
Before I go any further, I want to be up front about my experiences with beekeeping and the Flow Hive because I have noticed many of the articles written on this subject have been written by people who are either new to beekeeping or people who have never used the Flow Hive. I have been keeping between 20 and 80 hives for the past seven years. When the news of the Flow Hive invention first broke, I was a skeptic, like many others. I decided to keep an open mind, mostly for the sake of my current and future students. I teach hundreds of new beekeepers each year, many of which have Flow Hives. In the fall of 2015, the company sent me a complete Flow Hive kit and an additional Flow Super at no cost. I put them to use in the spring, but had not harvested honey until just last week. During the past year, I have organized two local beekeeping meetings with presentations by the inventors, participated in their “Meet the Beekeeper” film series and was hired to write several educational articles for the Flow Hive blog. I am not being paid to write this article.
The majority of the complaints I have heard about the Flow Hive are not about the invention, but about new beekeepers who might use it. For good or bad, the Flow Hive inspired a wave of new beekeepers and with that comes a lot of ignorance and mistakes. The new Flow Hive beekeepers are similar to all new beekeepers. They make mistakes, they lose hives and then they either learn from it or they quit beekeeping altogether. For experienced beekeepers, this process is sometimes hard to watch. It takes incredible patience to accept and mentor new beekeepers. So, when the Flow Hive was released and brought with it a boom of new and naive beekeeping hopefuls it’s no wonder it overwhelmed so many of the experienced beekeepers. We were flooded with constant questions and many of those questions were based on misconceptions about what beekeeping involves. The frustration among beekeepers was paramount and it coalesced into a stubborn hatred of anything Flow Hive. Just take a look at the articles that have come out against it. In nearly all of them the writer’s irritation is clear and they openly complain about the number of inquiries they have had about the hive. I suspect this colored their opinions and this is one reason I waited over a year to share mine.
The most common argument I hear against the Flow Hive is that it creates or promotes “lazy beekeeping” practices. People who get a hive don’t bother to learn much about what they are doing and never perform inspections, but still may rob honey when they feel like it.
As someone who has been teaching a high volume of new beekeepers for the past 5 years, I have found that these types of beekeepers existed before the Flow Hive and they will continue to exist afterwards. The Flow Hive does make it easier for them to rob honey without understanding what they are doing, but I find that these kinds of beekeepers will harvest honey when they should not no matter what style hive they use. I also think it is rare that this type of beekeeper will progress far enough with a colony to the point where they will fill a Flow Hive. Likely the colony will die before it ever fills a honey or Flow super. Another point of contention with Flow Hive opponents is that these unmanaged hives will sicken the hives of responsible beekeepers nearby. Again, I would like to point out that this is a complaint about the beekeeper and not the Flow Hive.
Many blame the original teaser video for attracting so many potential lazy beekeepers. They complain that it was deliberately misleading. In response to this, I would ask that the reader imagine themselves in the shoes of the inventors for a moment. You and your dad are beekeepers and you’ve spent 10 years working on this invention and you are ready to go live with it, but you don’t want to release too many details about how it works for fear of copycats. You have a family member make a catchy promotional video that shows off your invention. You have no idea that this video will go viral and become so popular with the public. You are just trying to get the attention of other beekeepers like you. Can you really blame them for the response they got? I don’t think I would have done differently if I had been in their place. They were trying to appeal to existing beekeepers. I do not judge them for their initial release video, but instead I look at what they have done since and I am impressed with how they responded to the criticism they received. They didn’t have to do anything to address it. They were already wildly popular, having broken crowd funding records nearly immediately. But they went the extra mile because at the end of the day they are not some soulless corporation. They are a beekeeping family that cares about bees and other beekeepers. They have created a wealth of educational resources for new beekeepers for free: a blog, videos, and a forum. What more do people want?
Honey Profiteering Mentality
Another worry from the beekeeping community is that the Flow design promotes a style of beekeeping that is fixated on profits and on honey. This argument actually makes me laugh. I have yet to meet someone with this mentality who purchased a Flow Hive. I always asking my Introduction to Beekeeping students why they came to class. Before the bee crisis was making big headlines, I used to get business-minded people in the class every once in a while, declaring their goals of starting a honey business. None of these people have gone on to actually do it. Probably because they quickly realized how challenging beekeeping is and how little profit honey actually brings.
The people I have met with Flow Hives have been of two types. Either they don’t want to learn anything at all and they want to hire me to manage their hives for them or they are just like every other new beekeeper. Nervous, determined, excited, caring, confused and in need of guidance. Some of them quit, but those who stick with it do it for a love of bees. When they harvest their honey, they don’t sell it! They give it away to friends and family. Do you really think someone with the kind of disposable income that affords a Flow Hive needs to sell their honey?
Weakening the Connection
Some beekeepers worry that the Flow Hive interrupts the bond between a beekeeper and their bees. That the connection us beekeepers cherish will be lost. This is another one of the reasons why I waited for over a year to write this article. I wanted to consider these points and take my time working my Flow Hives before I made any claims. I can truly say that the Flow Hive has done nothing to take away from this element of beekeeping. I think it is based on the false idea that Flow Hive beekeepers do not have to perform hive inspections. They do. The only thing that requires less interaction between beekeeper and bees is the process of harvesting honey, something that is done only a couple of times a year.
Solving a Non-Existent Problem
Some beekeepers dismiss the praise the Flow Hive has received by stating that it solves a problem none of us really have. Many beekeepers are happy with the traditional methods for harvesting honey. I think that’s great, but what is true for one beekeeper is not true for everyone. I would agree that there are traditional ways of harvesting honey that are not so bad, but I still save tons of time when I harvest with a Flow Hive. All of my apiaries are out-yards so even if I use a trap out board I have to make several trips: one to put the board on and another to come pick up the super. Then I usually have to make another trip out to put the “stickies” (now empty combs) back on the hive. Plus, I still have to haul the heavy super around, extract the honey, and clean everything up. I have some rooftop hives that I would love to have Flow supers on so I could avoid the dangerous and tricky business of carrying honey laden supers down a ladder. My point is that some people do not feel that the investment of a Flow Hive is worth the work it saves for honey harvests and some people do feel it’s worth it, but neither person is wrong.
I can see how the price of The Flow Hive would stop some people from purchasing it, but I don’t think this is a valid argument against it. If you don’t think it’s worth the price, don’t buy it. Since starting my own business, I have learned that products have many hidden costs. We have no idea what it takes to produce a Flow Hive especially when you look beyond just the manufacturing costs. They have to employ a team of people who deal with questions, orders, and shipping. Not to mention the time the inventors put into creating the Flow Hive. They worked on it for 10 years! Who are we to tell them what to charge? And if they are millionaires now, why are we not celebrating the fact that a beekeeper has had success? Why do beekeepers judge and ridicule each other when they try to charge for their skills? I have been attacked for charging for nearly all of the services I offer: mentorships, classes, hive tours, kid’s presentations, bee removal. I am proud to be a beekeeper and I think it’s high time we start valuing our skill set and trade. We should support each other and celebrate each other’s successes.
If you’re worried that honey pouring out of your hive from a spigot will cause robbing, I don’t blame you. However, it’s really such a simple fix that it isn’t even worth talking about. See photo below.
Out of all the complaints against the Flow Hive the only one that I feel is valid is its use of plastic combs. I prefer to let my bees build natural combs and don’t use foundations in my hives. I am a huge advocate of this practice because I think natural comb plays a role in honey bee health. Although not all of it has scientific evidence, reasons for shunning plastics/foundations in the hive include natural cell size, chemical leaching, off-gassing and communication disruptions. In addition to all that, I have observed that bees prefer natural comb to foundation and this preference is reason enough for me to keep foundation and plastic out of my hives. I know that many of the beekeepers who agree with me on this point are confused and even angry with me for not condemning the Flow Hive. So, I will do my best to explain myself.
Many people mistakenly believe that the Flow Hive forces bees to live in a hive that contains only plastic combs. This is not the case. There is a single super of plastic combs and the rest of the hive can be natural comb or foundation, whatever the beekeeper chooses. I would argue that using a Flow super isn’t that much different from using foundation. It may even be preferable because Flow Hive encourages beekeepers to allow for natural combs (no foundations) in the brood boxes.
Allowances & Trade-offs
I am of the opinion that we are all hypocrites. Every good thing we try to do has a consequence. In beekeeping, especially there are lots of trade-offs. Personally, I try to maintain a “do what works for you” philosophy. If someone is having success with a certain beekeeping practice, even if I would not personally do it, I don’t feel the need to lecture them.
On the subject of potential negative impacts of using plastic Flow Frames in a hive… I don’t think we have enough data to make any claims and I have not seen any anecdotal evidence to suggest Flow Frames are harming bees. It would be different if the bees were forced to lay their brood in plastic combs, but that is not the case. I just don’t think a single super of plastic comb is that big of a deal and one could argue that there are some benefits for both bees and beekeepers.
For the Beekeeper
For the beekeeper, the benefits are that you will save time and effort when you harvest honey. That’s it. You still have to inspect your hives, deal with mites, monitor for diseases, add supers, make splits, requeen, lift heavy boxes, lose colonies to pesticides etc.
I think it’s curious that so many new beekeepers latched onto the Flow Hive under the misguided impression that it would make beekeeping more accessible to them. It’s a pretty box with a clever mechanism inside, but it can’t give you power over your bees or nature. It will only ease the burden of labor involved in harvesting honey. New beekeepers have never experienced that before so most of them enjoy that process. It’s still novel! It seems like experienced beekeepers would be the ones to get the most excited about this invention, but the majority of them seem to have shunned it.
When I did my first Flow Hive harvest it really was like magic. It’s so wonderfully easy to turn the key and drain the honey right into a bucket. I was giddy! Because I run my own beekeeping business almost entirely by myself, time is insanely precious to me. Especially in spring. The time and effort the Flow Hive could save me if I were able to harvest this way on all my hives would be invaluable.
For the Bees
After seeing it in action, I think there is no way to dispute that the Flow Hive’s method of honey harvesting is less invasive for the bees. We could tell through the window that the frames were capped and there was no need to open the hive at all for the harvest. Other methods for harvesting honey not only involve opening the hive, but physically removing the bees from each frame. People use brushes, leaf blowers, strong smells and smoke to drive bees off the honey. It’s never a fun process. The trap-out board is the least invasive traditional method, but even with that you have to lift the super and put the board on. A process that usually crushes at least some bees.
The practical drawbacks of the Flow Hive are similar to using plastic foundation. The bees sometimes will not accept the plastic combs until they have been coated with beeswax. It is an easy enough fix. Simply brush or rub some wax on the face of your Flow frames.
Another similarity to using plastic foundation is that some hives seem reluctant to fill Flow frames when there isn’t a strong nectar flow. San Diego’s climate has fickle nectar flows and I have trouble getting bees to make and cap honey at some of my apiaries, especially during drought years. This year we received above average rainfall and the bees have been more willing to fill the Flow super.
Like everything in beekeeping, the Flow Hive has pros and cons. It is a trade-off. If you choose to use it you will sacrifice one super of natural comb in exchange for a less invasive and time-consuming honey harvest. Like everything in beekeeping, you will have unique challenges because of your particular situation and climate. You might decide that these challenges outweigh the benefits of using a Flow Hive and find that it doesn’t work for you. Another beekeeper may find the opposite result. Like everything in beekeeping some people will disagree with you. Some of them will have interesting, challenging thoughts that change your perspective and others will just be a-holes. Just remember, in the end it’s your journey.