It’s only fair then that tapping into the bees’ bountiful supply of honey reserves would involve quite a bit of work as well. For beekeepers, this means smoking the hive to calm the bees down, using an air blower to clear away remaining females, slicing off wax cappings from the honeycomb frames, running them through a mechanical extractor and straining out any residual debris. The idea is to minimize disturbance, though bees still often end up getting killed in the process.
Now, there may be a better way. Billed as the world’s first manmade hive designed to deliver “honey on tap,” the Flow Hive allows users to harvest in a matter of minutes, rather than days — simply with the turn of a lever. The final product was a culmination of a decade-long project by inventors Stuart and Cedar Anderson, a father and son team based from Australia.
“We always thought that the simple act of getting honey is a bit of a time-consuming mess. You’re bothering the bees, equipment is expensive and then there’s the cleaning. It’s a lot of work,” says Stuart Anderson. “We just had this sense that there had to be a better way to extract honey.”
Launched via Indiegogo to the tune of $12 million dollars in pre-order sales, making it the crowd-funding site’s highest-earning successful campaign to date, it also happens to come at a crucial time as bees worldwide have experienced significant decline. Just in the United States, about a third of the bee population have vanished, a yearly pattern that goes back about a decade. The cause has been linked to a host of factors, such as the spread of infections, pesticide use and the loss of habitat.
Reactions to the technology have been generally positive, with some even hoping it can rekindle people’s interest in bees and beekeeping. However, others in the apiary community see the device as little more than a clever gimmick — one that, ultimately, does more harm and good. Besides questioning whether the product works as well as advertised, they’ve raised concerns over how the use of synthetic materials, along with the potential for blatant misuse, could negatively impact the welfare of the colonies.
Now the concept behind the Flow Hive isn’t new (A patent for a similar design was submitted in 1940) and is based on the Langstroth frame hive systems used on commercial honey farms. But instead of a basic honeycomb foundation, the frame is comprised of partially formed cells that bees fill out with wax, pack with honey and seal. Housed in a special wooden box that features plastic side windows, beekeepers can observe when the cells are fully capped.
To harvest the honey, the user simply inserts a tool into an opening at the top of the frame and twists. This activates a mechanism that splits the columns vertically, automatically forming a channel for the ripened honey to flow down and out through a tube located at the bottom. Each frame nets about seven pounds of honey and takes between 20 minutes to two hours to drain out, depending on temperature. Once finished, the cells can be returned to their original alignment so that the bees can chew out the wax and begin the process all over again.
Few things are ever as straightforward as they seem though. Skeptics suspect that over time natural processes, such as the buildup of propolis, a glue-like resin bees use to patch unwanted cracks, and crystalized honey, can end up gumming up the entire system. Meanwhile, proponents of “natural beekeeping” techniques have roundly taken issue with the use of plastic, which they argue messes with bee hormones and lacks the temperature-regulating properties that would enable the nectar to ripen properly. Advocate Jonathan Powell of beeswing.net writes:
In my experience bees hate plastic comb and they use it when there is no other option. You will often see bees build wax comb on top of plastic wax comb if they are given the space opportunity. They will hate capped empty plastic comb even more. When in the 100 million years of bee development have bees experienced uncapping an empty polypropylene honey cell?
In response, Stuart Anderson has assured everyone that the current prototype has been thoroughly tested for three years at select sites in Australia, Canada and the United States, without any known problems. “When used properly you shouldn’t see any buildup of propolis since the substance is primarily found in cracks inside the hive. And with regard to crystallized honey, we generally found that the bees would chew out those areas and replace it with honey,” he explains, emphasizing that bees are “very smart creatures.”
As for concerns over the use of plastic cells, a hot topic in beekeeping circles, former honey bee researcher and editor of trade publication Bee Culture Kim Flottum says they’re mostly overblown. “We’ve been using plastic materials effectively for a long time and in the commercial industry it’s pretty well-established,” he says. “The bees don’t particularly love it, but they’ll use it if they have to.”
What really concerns him, however, is that while the new system may very well represent a solid improvement upon existing extraction methods, the company’s slick marketing approach (honey on tap!) might give less experienced consumers the mistaken impression that beekeeping is much easier than it really is.
“You have to have healthy bees to make honey and that means being aware of diseases, parasites, antibiotics, pesticides as well as knowing how to inspect and manage the population so that the bees have enough food,” he says. “There’s still a lot of responsibilities and none of that goes away.”
Laura Bee Ferguson, a natural apiarist and founder of the College of the Melissae Center for Sacred Beekeeping, has gone as far as suggesting that with such ease of use, the technology would encourage irresponsible, possibly even abusive practices, unwittingly or not. On the school’s blog, she writes:
“Put this machine in the hands of greedy or uninformed beekeepers and we will see many populations of bees succumbing to starvation or in need of additional over-winter sugar feeds which studies are showing may unnecessarily disrupt bee gut health and immunity…”
To that end, Stuart Anderson says the company plans to support and educate its customers on the how to maintain a healthy and productive colony by expanding the educational portal and discussion forums on honeyflow.com as well as providing instructional videos and online courses. Furthermore, he points out, many states also have specific criteria and registration requirements for the care and stewardship of bees.
“When we pitched this project, we wanted to make it clear that the Flow Hive isn’t a substitute for good beekeeping,” he says. “With our product, you’ll still need to wear a bee suit when you inspect the hive and you will still get stung stung every now and then.”
Cost-wise, though, the Flow Hive can be quite expensive compared to standard removable frame setup, which typically runs about $50 for a hive with about eight to ten frames. Minimum orders start at $230 for a package of three honey comb frames without the box and goes all the way up to $600 for the complete six-frame system, though prices for parts may go down as production scales up to meet the growing demand, he adds.
Initial units are slated to ship out by the end of the year.