That's not how it works. That's not how any of this works.
May 4, 2015 7:27 AM   Subscribe

The Flow Hive, the 12 million dollar Indiegogo campaign is a brand new way of keeping bees. But did we need a brand new way? And if we did, is this the right one? Erik Knutzen, co-author with his wife Kelly Coyne of the Urban Homestead and Making It calls the Flow Hive, “A solution in search of a problem.” Bees are in trouble, but the FlowHive only solves problems for the beekeeper, not the bees.

Meanwhile the entire Midwest has become a “corn desert” without weeds or other diverse crops for bees to feed on due to glyphospate-resistant (aka, Roundup Ready crops) and since bees don’t pollinate corn, they are not thriving in this environment. We are creating monoculture after monoculture in which bees find it difficult to thrive.

In California’s Central Valley, 1.7 million hives are trucked in every February to pollinate the almond groves. They arrive with the bloom still days away and there’s nothing for the bees to eat. The orchard floors have been flattened with giant rolling pins and mowed so that harvest machines can later scoop up the nuts after claw machines shake them from the branches.

Almond orchards cover almost a million acres in the Valley, which now produce four-fifths of all the almonds in the world. At the Beekeeping Federation conference last winter in Baton Rouge, Pettis (PDF) explained that even pollinating a crop like almonds, which provide abundant and nutritious pollen, is “like living on nothing but broccoli”—in other words, not a balanced diet.
posted by Sophie1 (30 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
Well, then, why don't we genetically engineer bees that can thrive in monocultures? Super-bees for super-crops!

There's no way that can go wrong!

the sad part is that this is probably being attempted by Monsanto, et al.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 7:41 AM on May 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


The first comment on the "solution in search of a problem" link calls the author a "Bee purist" and another says "bee snob" (works better as "beer snob"). Pretty apt and pretty funny. While he has a good design criticism about robbing potential from other hives, I think anyone interested in beekeeping enough to buy one of those damned things is not part of the problem. Not everyone has a "sacred vocation" to animal husbandry--some people just want fresh eggs, meat, vegetables, honey, or to teach their kids about life, whatever. Those people aren't part of the problem.

Sure, if every house on every block in every neighborhood in every city gets a beehive, then we can talk about best practices. Not everyone is going to be super organic right away--I mean, what's the end-game for these people, put on a bear suit that you made from a bear killed by godless poachers and wander into the sacred wood to eat only as much comb as you can carry, then apologize profusely? Anything that gets people interested in the decidedly fringe practice that is apiculture, or makes it easier, is a good thing.
posted by resurrexit at 7:48 AM on May 4, 2015 [6 favorites]


After seeing the pitch before they closed their campaign, I was really curious to see the price on this. ~$500 is a lot, and the author of that first link brings up an issue (honey robbing) that I hadn't seen discussed. So I can understand bristling at it. But I don't see anything in that or the second link (thesis: bees naturally want to produce a wax comb, so interfering with that will hurt bees and we're already hurting bees) that's particularly clear about whether this will really cause colony stress. But I'll acknowledge the point: it's plausible that it might.

But on the flip side: this contraption made me, and a handful of other people I know online and in person, think once again about whether we should start backyard beekeeping. And while it may be an overpriced, over designed luxury item to existing beekeepers, for someone who thinks suiting up and smoking a hive out is more time and energy than they'd realistically want to put into beekeeping, this seems like a worthwhile (and pretty neat) invention. Plus overall, I have to think that increasing the number of people raising and learning about bees in their spare time is a good thing.

So will this invention be a net positive, or a net negative for honeybees? Seems like it's too early to make that call, but I hope some experienced-but-ambivalent beekeepers will start playing with the setup and reporting back instead of just drawing these dire comparisons between industrial ag's use and abuse of bees and this contraption for backyard use.

For myself, watching and thinking about this and whether it would be a cool thing to try out someday led me to reading about building mason bee houses to help out some of the non-honeybee species that pollinate my garden, which looks super-easy and is something I think I'll actually do this year.
posted by deludingmyself at 7:54 AM on May 4, 2015 [7 favorites]


About two dozen people have sent me the link to this contraption because I keep bees, and man, it reminds me of those trays that automatically tell you how old your eggs are. It probably works, but it's so overdesigned it's positively rubegoldbergian
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:08 AM on May 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


But I don't see anything in that or the second link ... that's particularly clear about whether this will really cause colony stress.
(I know almost nothing about bees...) Two things I got from the 2nd link:
-All the cells are the same size, which is worker size, not drone size. (and I believe not queen size- you have to pay extra for that) If you don't have any drones, you have less genetic diversity.
-The bees build the hives according to what's going on in the world- if it's getting colder, wetter... Part of the superorganism communicates by building the hive. or something like that.

I responded to the 2nd link much better than the 'sacred vocation' one. If you feel that way about what you do, that's cool, but I'm not that into religion.
posted by MtDewd at 8:21 AM on May 4, 2015


It's perfect for the sort of hand-me-down agribusiness beekeeping that we've come to think is natural in a hemisphere where honeybees are not remotely native to the environment and are as natural as electric parakeets. Honestly, if you can't build and manage a Warre hive, you really should just consider yourself a honeybee aficionado and well-wisher and leave it at that. If you're not ready to do the minimal work that a Warre hive requires, you're just not up to the task.

Of course, the way to solve the bee "problem" is to stop growing non-native crops that require tons of water, because this isn't a natural environment for those crops, and tons of pesticides, because this isn't a natural environment for those crops, and tons of pollinators, because this isn't a natural environment for those crops (see also: honeybees), but we're so divorced from how the parts of the environment fit together that we just can't fathom the basics of agriculture anymore.
posted by sonascope at 8:54 AM on May 4, 2015 [8 favorites]


Goddammit, farming industry. I made a deliberate decision to keep eating honey, despite being vegan, because I actually think that natural beekeeping is not that terrible for bees and a reasonable template for a good relationship between farmers and animals (it helps that I live somewhere where honeybees are native and can thrive). If you have somehow worked out how to do factory farming, but for bees...
posted by Acheman at 9:06 AM on May 4, 2015


I'm with sonascope: there's a lot to be said for letting nature find its own level. By ignoring the fact that much of the natural landscape can take care of itself if we leave it alone, we're not only threatening to wreck whole ecosystems, but pretending we're in a position to manage a bunch of stuff we barely understand. Unintended consequences, awaaaaay!
posted by sneebler at 9:09 AM on May 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


If you have somehow worked out how to do factory farming, but for bees...

Erm. I have bad news for you. Almost all bees in the US are 'factory farmed' bees, essentially. Large-scale commercial beekeeping involves packing hives up and moving them around the US throughout the year, because if you plop a hive in the middle of 1000 acres of monoculture, they will have food to eat for however long that monoculture crop blooms, and then they will starve. And it's stressful for the bees and kills a lot of them to be constantly moved around and exposed to billions of other bees and their pests and diseases, not to mention whatever they spray on all those different monoculture crops.

These days, it's fairly easy to find local, sustainably raised honey, but the vast majority of honey isn't like that.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:11 AM on May 4, 2015 [6 favorites]


I took beekeeping in college as a side-trip in my long journey of almost-minors, but it was little more than an amusing bit of party trivia to drop until fifteen years after I graduated, when I wistfully looked up beekeeping on the internet and found out about top bar beekeeping. The thing with the ship-em-everywhere, high-volume, factory-floor beekeeping is that every bit of how Langstroth hive 'keeping works is about forcing bees to do things your way. So we use fixed cell sizes on sheets of foundation, which prevents colonies from fending off mites the way they would naturally, constantly reuse old comb after the centrifuge, leaving space for AHB and wax moth larvae to recolonize, and ship truckloads of hives from one end of the country to another, and then act all shocked that diseases go wildly out of control all over the country at once. Then, of course, it's all in service to growing stupid commodity crops that are big enough moneymakers that you can afford the oceans of chemicals needed to grow things where they're not meant to grow. It's all just...messed up.

Shame, too, because bees are nice.
posted by sonascope at 9:27 AM on May 4, 2015 [8 favorites]


"I'm with sonascope: there's a lot to be said for letting nature find its own level. By ignoring the fact that much of the natural landscape can take care of itself if we leave it alone, we're not only threatening to wreck whole ecosystems, but pretending we're in a position to manage a bunch of stuff we barely understand. Unintended consequences, awaaaaay!"

Counterpoint: Without industrial agriculture, you'd likely be dead along with most of the people you know. Those who weren't dead would be tethered to the fields, doing the long, backbreaking work of farming and harvesting in order to create a meager surplus.

Let's not get too far into Druid Romance here.
posted by klangklangston at 9:33 AM on May 4, 2015 [18 favorites]


I'm also a beekeeper, hence the reason it is so interesting to me. I use Langstroth hives but foundationless, so the bees use their own wax for the comb which takes a lot longer, but the cells are the size and shape they want it to be, not the size I want them to be. I'm also a pesticide-free beekeeper and the wax foundations tend to have a crapton of pesticides in the wax (where it is stored).

I think the most irritating thing for me about the FlowHive was that if a bee caps a cell or 300 cells and goes away, she expects there to be honey in those capped cells when she returns. The FlowHive drains from the back, so the cells remain capped and the bees lose track of inventory. Also, I'd never take honey from my hives unless I was sure it was excess and they didn't need it to survive a low flow season or a cold winter (which I don't have much of, since we're in So.Cal.) but again, if I'm draining from the back, I have no estimate of inventory so how the hell do I know what is excess?
posted by Sophie1 at 9:36 AM on May 4, 2015 [5 favorites]


Counterpoint: Without industrial agriculture, you'd likely be dead along with most of the people you know. Those who weren't dead would be tethered to the fields, doing the long, backbreaking work of farming and harvesting in order to create a meager surplus.

Sideways-counterpoint: We could also work with native staple crops, which are already adapted to our regional environment and thus need less of everything that has to be dumped onto non-native ones, be smarter about avoiding mass monocultures, and otherwise work with agriculture as if our native environment wasn't just a giant sterile plain of dirt waiting for subjugation. Large-scale agriculture and insane industrialized make-nature-bend-to-our-mighty-will agriculture aren't necessarily the same thing.

Plus, when people get the flailing panicky jazz hands over the fate of the bees and how we're all going to starve (in North America) without bees, I can only point out that bees have not been here long (honeybees didn't even get taken West across the Rockies until after 1850), and that there's a whole lot of good food that's already suited to our landscape, none of which require industrialized apiculture, even for large-scale mechanized agriculture.
posted by sonascope at 9:58 AM on May 4, 2015 [9 favorites]


A: I have found a way to make cars easier to drive and funded it.
B: What? They got that much money? It doesn't help cars get better gas mileage at all, what a waste!

I'm not seeing the equivalence; they want to make it easier to keep bees (whether it does not not is not related to the stated intent). Why would it solve the bee problem? Why bother complaining about it not solving the bee problem? Must all things bee related be purely aimed at only one dimension of things involving bees?
posted by Bovine Love at 10:14 AM on May 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


Without industrial agriculture, you'd likely be dead along with most of the people you know.

I know what you're getting at, but putting it that way is simplistic to say the least. I'm not ignorant about farming practices or why the current scale of agriculture is necessary for the food distribution system we have today. The problem with industrial agriculture is that it's another profit-making system that can't possibly be changed according to new knowledge or changing conditions. Meanwhile, we're soaking the place in biocides and fertilizer while giant ag- corporations lobby governments for handouts and less regulation. This is not sustainable, so I've got good reason to worry about the future of our food supply. On top of that, we throw out a significant percentage of food (1/3?), while people in large parts of the world barely have enough.

As a sometime biologist, it's clear to me that we're mining the soils and ecosystems around us to provide short-term profit. If you're interested in food security and the future of civilization, it might be helpful to start looking at alternatives to letting industrial agriculture run things.
posted by sneebler at 10:31 AM on May 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


As another aside, what's the world's largest crop? (I'm pretty sure it's the same for both acres planted and weight of harvest.)
posted by sneebler at 10:34 AM on May 4, 2015


Almost all bees in the US are 'factory farmed' bees, essentially.

Just to be clear - I probably should have been clearer in my original comment - I don't live in the US. Beekeeping here is very different. I guess it's possible that the system described in the OP won't make it to the UK, but I'm worried. And the 'factory farming' side of American beekeeping focuses a lot on pollination-for-pay, which is a problem avoiding honey doesn't really solve.
posted by Acheman at 10:39 AM on May 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


It looks to me like one of the main arguments is that the device is so simple that people who don't know what they are doing will use it to the detriment of bees. Maybe. It seems like a lot of people are setting up the standard style hives and they don't know what they are doing either. I'm disheartened by articles that criticize without trying out the units (I doubt even seeing one in person), and I would prefer some scientifically valid testing before pronouncing them good or bad. Also, although the standard boxes have been tested by time, they aren't natural. They're human made, so the question is whether the new devices significantly alter the hive in a bad way.

Maybe part of the answer right now is that bee populations are in a decline and we need backyard bee keepers to provide habitat and replenish the population within short distances from flowers, not crops. If these units help increase adoption because of simplicity, maybe the trade-offs are worth it.

Anyway, with a million bucks in the bank, it would be nice to see the inventors bring in their Jeff Goldblum to make sure the park is safe.
posted by Muddler at 10:40 AM on May 4, 2015


Plus, when people get the flailing panicky jazz hands over the fate of the bees and how we're all going to starve (in North America) without bees, I can only point out that bees have not been here long (honeybees didn't even get taken West across the Rockies until after 1850)

A large proportion of pollination in the U.S. is still done by native bees. Unfortunately, we're screwing that up too.
The bees you should be concerned about are the 3,999 other bee species living in North America, most of which are solitary, stingless, ground-nesting bees you’ve never heard of. Incredible losses in native bee diversity are already happening. 50 percent of Midwestern native bee species disappeared from their historic ranges in the last 100 years. Four of our bumblebee species declined 96 percent in the last 20 years, and three species are believed to already be extinct.
posted by zamboni at 10:47 AM on May 4, 2015 [7 favorites]


One great thing you can do to help wild native bees (as opposed to honeybees) is to grow native flowers in your garden, so that species which draw native bees are available year-round to feed those bees. The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center has a listing of what plants are native in your North American area, for easy searching. Honeybees will often feed off of them too, but to me, the native bees are what I'd really like to help. I only have container gardens, so I grow species native-ish to me like Salvia coccinea and frequently see bees delightedly noshing on those flowers. Plus they're pretty and they grow easily in my area's weather conditions!

Reminds me, I need to plant some more flowers. Oh, the hardship...
posted by sciatrix at 10:55 AM on May 4, 2015 [8 favorites]


a million bucks in the bank

Muddler, I misread this comment briefly as "a million bees in the bank." With bees swarming in our attic this past week, and in the woods nearby took, I feel like I could easily have a million bees in the bank. To be honest, I had been interested in this hive as a good beginner's hive, but if it contributes to the unhealthiness of the population, no thanks. Why keep your own little veal pen or battery farm?
posted by Countess Elena at 11:48 AM on May 4, 2015


My beekeper friend, Cameo, wrote about her problems with the Flow Hive:
Imagine if a company proposed a 'solution to diaper changes' wherein a baby was outfit with a catheter and a colostomy bag, thereby 'eliminating mess'. That sounds idiotic and dangerous, because diaper changes are more than the elimination of mess- they are are also a time of intimacy, regular heath checks, treatment, and observation of diet and gut response. And this ignores the added dangers involved with inserting foreign apparatus inside a living thing that we care about. No parent would just 'skip diapers' because they didn't want to deal with urine and feces.

The flowhive solves a similar 'problem’. Beekeeping during the summertime honey flow requires that each frame of your hive is inspected weekly to observe the heath of the colony, inspect for disease, and record growth. Removing honey during these checks is trivial. The only value of the flowhive is to introduce a tap in your hive so that you can extract honey in the midst of your dirty apiary. Most beekeepers just bottle their honey once or twice a year- my hives have yielded as much as 80lbs each in a productive year. I cannot imagine hauling out boxes of jars into my apiaries in order to use this system. One of the main selling points is that your bees are left alone and 'undisturbed'.
posted by adrianhon at 2:00 PM on May 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


sciatrix: "One great thing you can do to help wild native bees (as opposed to honeybees) is to grow native flowers in your garden, so that species which draw native bees are available year-round to feed those bees."

Plus once the bees are visiting, you get the native birds, including hummingbirds, and you get praying mantises and other cool bugs, and you get spiders that eat mosquitos ... and you mostly don't have to water your garden because the natives are adapted to local rainfall patterns, AND once you get it established (which takes a few years) you don't have to weed very much, because the native flowers outcompete most other plants as they're adapted to the niche.

Also encourage your state DOT to plant wildflowers on interstate medians (and not use pesticides), and support policies that encourage crop field margins be planted with wildflower mixes (including policies that encourage a return to circle-in-a-square crop styles where appropriate). We can support a much more robust wildlife habitat, including for insects, even in industrial farming areas if field margins are left wild. Increased efficiency in irrigation and in various tilling/harvesting equipment has allowed more farmers to plant "corner to corner" ... simply returning to leaving a few feet of margin wild at the edge of the field, or allowing the "circle in a square" corners to remain wild, provides an enormous amount of habitat, especially in prairie areas where grasses (just not cereal grain grasses) were the dominant plant anyway. It doesn't solve the pesticide problem, but it's a step in the right direction for native insects.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:07 PM on May 4, 2015 [5 favorites]


This post is pretty timely, as I was just thinking of borrowing my father’s old beekeeping equipment from a couple of decades ago. I remember a suit, a smoker, a centrifuge, and three of what I just learned are called Langstroth hives. I was hoping to set them up this season, do a little reading, and start colonies next spring.

I was surprised to see sonascope come out so stridently against the only type of hive I had ever heard of—“It's perfect for […] hand-me-down agribusiness beekeeping […]. Honestly, if you can't build and manage a Warre hive, you really should just consider yourself a honeybee aficionado and well-wisher and leave it at that.” Further research only compounds my doubts. Some people seem to be using Langstroth hives without commercially produced foundations, which addresses some of the criticisms regarding large cells, plastic, and pesticides. The stated goals of the Warré hive align well with my own: low intervention, simple maintenance, healthy bees, and adequate honey production. On the other hand, as a mediocre and reluctant carpenter with a lot of other projects, the need to build my own hives or spend hundreds of dollars on prebuilt western red cedar showpieces would probably put me off of the whole endeavor for now, and the design’s fans are so devoted I wonder if they overlook its own shortcomings. On all sides there is hype and strong rhetoric.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, other than that I entered the thread with an interest in trying beekeeping and with access to free supplies, and I will be exiting it with only the impression that I cannot begin beekeeping both casually and conscientiously. It’s pretty clear that the hive in the FPP is not the answer, but I think low-maintenance backyard apiculture could indeed stand to be more accessible.
posted by musicinmybrain at 5:53 AM on May 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


Just in case I'm being opaque, I am very very in favor of Warre hives and not so much in favor of Langstroth.

In my return to beekeeping, I started with Kenya top bar hives, and they're okay, though it's really easy to mess up your hive if you're just starting out, but it was the old-school-new-school Langstroth hives that kept me from even considering beekeeping for so long, because they are to beekeeping what being a leatherman is to sex—just sooo much accessorization and hardware required. With TBH hives of either variety, I never owned a smoker, never bothered with a centrifuge, and built my hives out of 1x10 pine stock and that's about it.

I had to hand down my Warre apiary to a friend when I left the job where they were set up, but they're all going fine two years later, because it's pretty hard to botch a Warre. In the worst case, you just let it go a little feral and don't harvest.

There are plenty of Warre suppliers who aren't the fancypants western red cedar showy hive builders. Basic whitewood shelving wood is fine. An ebay search should turn up some good results.
posted by sonascope at 5:26 PM on May 5, 2015


And as a quick caveat, I'm nowhere near the be-all-end-all on the subject, not by a long shot, so one need not take my advice and HO without a grain of salt here or there. I'm pretty set on foundationless keeping, but you can actually do that in a Lang, too—it's just fussy and I like to constrain my fussiness to bitching on the internet.
posted by sonascope at 5:28 PM on May 5, 2015


If you really care about bees, you'll be making habitat for the native species, not honey-bee species. Mason bees just want a 1/4" hole drilled in a block of wood. And they don't sting. And they pollinate.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:15 AM on May 6, 2015


Thanks for the follow-up, sonascope. I’d still like to keep bees at some point, and your good experiences with the Warré hive really do encourage me not to try to use my father’s equipment.
posted by musicinmybrain at 5:43 AM on May 6, 2015


musicinmybrain - If you already have free equipment, you can do what I do and use the foundationless Langs. Then, once you're comfortable with beekeeping and have decided that this is an avocation for you, check out the Warre and top bar hives. Also, MHO.
posted by Sophie1 at 6:41 AM on May 6, 2015 [2 favorites]


I use Langstroth hives and was taught to go foundationless with them by 'checkerboarding' by alternating frames of foundation or drawn comb with empty frames, then waiting for them to draw out comb on the empty frames before removing the previously drawn-out frames and adding in new empty ones.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:08 PM on May 6, 2015


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