When you walk through the doors of Hamley’s toy store on Regent Street, you’ll find small crowds around several stand-alone “magic made easy” sales booths. The cards, cups and conjuring tricks are performed by slick professionals and the appeal is spell-binding. The engaging showmanship and nonchalant skills of the demonstrators seduce the punters into make an impulse purchase of a box of tricks at an affordable price.
In the beekeeping world, there is an equivalent. It is called the Flow™ hive. And it has just raised USD12.2 million / >£8 million, from over 36,530 supporters on crowd-funding site indiegogo, against an initial subscription target of USD70,000. Flow™ hive has been as busy online as Hamley’s on Christmas Eve.
Check out the Flow™ hive’s great video. In a nod to the magician’s art, it is titled the “Full Reveal”: an attractive visual narrative to get the punters’ attention, an appeal to instant gratification which linked through to a “Contribute Now” button on indiegogo. A complete, full Flow™ hive will cost you USD600 / £400 (excluding bees and the USD116 / £77.50 cost of shipping a flat-pack hive to the U.K.).
But I wonder how many of those bright-eyed purchasers of magic kits in Hamleys have subsequently become members of the Magic Circle? Not many, I’m guessing. And how many only-three-times-used conjuring kits are there out there, gathering dust in the attic? The mind boggles. Now on to “Hey Presto Honey“…
The Flow™ hive’s proposition is a short-cut to honey, breaking down the barriers to beekeeping with technological innovation: basically, when you crank the handle, moving frame parts rupture the honey cells’ cappings, allowing the honey to flow out of the cell to the core of the plastic super frame and then out of the hive through a plastic pipe, straight into a jar. There’s no need to enter the hive to get to the honey. Interestingly, there are several old U.S patents on hives which operated on similar mechanical lines. Here’s one from 1940. Essentially, though, the Flow™ hive’s appeal is that it is being promoted as providing honey on tap. Literally.
Don’t get me wrong. It is constructive to challenge the conventions of the craft of beekeeping. And I can’t help but be impressed with the easy charm of the Andersons, the Australian inventors of the Flow™ hive and their powers of persuasion.
So it is worth recording that opinion is divided between enthusiasts for the crowd-funded Flow™ hive and adherants to the traditional craft of beekeeping. I am not a fan of the Flow™ hive. I dislike the soft-sell insouciance of their marketing message. Putting the science and engineering in the front window, their crowd-funding video moves swiftly towards an idealised vision of the product. Sure, I get it – that’s what media promotions are supposed to do. But the Flow™ hive’s advertorial projects a stylised slant on the product’s positive feature – honey -, while distracting attention from its more problematic aspect – keeping bees (let’s call this little sleight of hand the “Faux™ hive”). I foresee problems with this approach: as an experienced beekeeper, I suspect that Flow™ hive will lead to an epic increase in swarming, as a high proportion of Flow™ hive owners will have signed up simply because Flow™ hive has magically made beekeeping accessible, without learning the beekeeping basics. Swarms are inevitable in these circumstances, (so let’s call this version the “Flown™ hive”). I also mistrust the notion of taking something simple and “improving” it by making it more complicated. The more complex a mechanism, the more there is to go wrong. Combining moveable plastic parts, gloopy honey and inexpert handling with a hive of flying insects of uncertain temperament sounds like trouble to me (let’s call this version “The Flaw™ Hive”).
My objections to the Flow™ hive are based on my own moral compass and my practical beekeeping concerns and are set out below. But, essentially, I believe that the Flow™ hive promotional video exploits credulous would-be beekeepers. Here’s why:
- The snappily-titled Flow™ hive’s marketing campaign is fundamentally misleading. Broadly, it portrays bees as a life-style accessory which can deliver honey at the turn of a tap through the novelty Flow™ hive. This is beyond responsible marketing and way beyond responsible beekeeping.
- Flow™ hive positions itself as a technological advance in beekeeping. Innovation is both important and inevitable, but the basic rules of bee-husbandry still need to be observed. In extolling the Flow™ hive’s ease of use, the narrator proposes that most beeekeepers only inspect their brood box “a couple of times a year“. In reality, 10 days is the maximum gap between inspections during the Spring / Summer to forestall swarming. Furthermore, any suggestion that Flow™ hive will diminish regular inspections which also detect disease, brood type, varroa, nosema, brood condition, Queen well-being and adequate food stores strikes me as highly disingenuous.
- The Flow™ hive video carefully seperates Honey, Bees and People. Honey is mostly depicted without bees, just as people and bees are portrayed seperately. Young children are pictured eating honey dripping out of a hive-tap. With not a bee in sight. And when there are bees to be seen, there are no children. Open-topped honey jars glint in the sun and honey flows from the hive on the screen, but there are no bees excitedly exploring this free gift. It just doesn’t work the way.
- The sales pitch has been carefully crafted: Sure, the price of a Flow™ hive is less than the price of an ordinary hive AND the honey extracting equipment. Yes, an extractor is expensive, but it is like the handle of a razor blade – you buy it once and constantly re-use it for all of your hives, every year. On the other hand, The Flow™ hive system is not scaleable – you need at least one for each hive.
- The Flow™ hive marketing video silkily distracts the viewer from the important questions. No consideration is given to what your bees are going to use to make the honey from. This is a key factor. Not every location is bee-forage-rich. Indeed, in London, forage is thinly stretched. Bees are livestock and need sufficient food to live – and even more to make a honey harvest. And where are these bees going to come from? How do you know if they are healthy? And how are you going to get them attached to your Flow™ hive?
- The Flow™ hive video demonstrates the viewing window which allows a sideways-on sight of the supers. Very pitcuresque. The problem is that there is no reliable way of discovering whether the honey is ripe (ie capped) all the way along the super, without opening it up. Harvesting ripe and unripe honey will degrade the ripe honey and ultimately will lead to fermentation of the honey.
- The promotors also say that this window allows you to “easily check that the hive is healthy and that the colony is strong”. Not so – only an inspection of the brood box can do this, which entails removing the Flow™ hive (with its heavier plastic comb and with pipes). Cumbersome – and not exactly “no more lifting” as a key attraction of the pitch.
- The inventors of the Flow™ hive claim that their system spares bees from the being “disturbed“, as they would be when supers are removed during inspections of the brood box below. In my experience, it is rare that an inspection bothers bees in the supers. And it is hard to imagine that the grating movement of the Flow™ hive’s own honeycomb-splitting aparatus is not, like a minor earth tremor, somewhat “disturbing” for the bees.
- Worker honeybees have six glands dedicated to producing wax. The plastic cells of the Flow™ hive reduce the need for wax production. While this is a good thing for honey yields (the ratio is 9 pounds of honey to produce 1 pound of wax), the lack of wax production to build wax cells may be interfering with the bees’ natural processes. Problematic.
- In my experience, intricate plastic parts are hard to clean. I am concerned that bee parts, pollen, propolis, debris, wax will lead to clogging of the Flow™ hive’s moving parts and possible mechanical failure. Doubts have also been voiced about the ability of British honeys to flow through a narrow plastic tube (Ling, Heather, Oil-Seed Rape, Ivy: honey derived from these are prone to crystallise in U.K. temperatures).
- Bees know better than any of us how much work goes into producing honey. That is why a strong hive will rob honey from a weak hive – they know that it is easier to steal it than to make it. The video portrayal of the Flow™ hive’s exposed honey would make it an irrestistable target for robbing – which not only involves, bad-tempered, fighting bees, but is also the primary method of disease transmission between honeybee colonies.
Roll Up, Roll Up ! I suspect that the Flow™ hive will go down in history as a classic extraction system – extraction of money from credulous people who want plug ‘n’ play honey on tap – and that the outcomes will generally disappoint its eager new punters.
That incomparable showman, P.T. Barnum, found that his American Museum entralled visitors to such an extent that they lingered there. And the queue to get in was soon stretching around the block. Ever the businessman, Barnum quickly erected a sign over the Exit which urged the Museum throng to visit “The Great Egress”. The crowds obeyed. And then they found themselves, blinking, on the street, realising too late that “Egress” meant “Exit“, while Barnum eagerly funnelled the waiting punters through his entrance turnstiles.
As a ruse, it worked. But it had the advantage of being incredibly simple.