The image of country beekeeping is sedate, dreamy, redolent of a bygone age. Take, for example, the Soho Farmhouse apiary which I designed, installed and currently maintain. Nested up on a south-facing Cotswold hillside, it sits on top of the Farmhouse’s gorgeous production garden – an array of 10 WBC hives, knee-deep in wildflowers. Continue reading “Trials, Tribulations and Triumphs”
With the temperature relentlessly around zero, the word “scorching” is clearly unrelated to today’s weather forecast.
Well, it is and it isn’t. This frosty time of year is ideal for a belt and braces cleansing of empty beehives. This can be accomplished by immersing the hive parts in a lye (sodium hydroxide) solution, or for smaller scale beekeepers, by using a blow-torch to singe the interior crevices and wide surfaces of brood and super boxes. That’s where the scorching comes in. Here I am, spring-cleaning a hive which I have just started to manage.
On a previous visit to Barbados, I had met Ben The Bajan Beekeeper. Following my blog post, I received an invitation from one of Ben’s fellow beekeepers, Bret Tujela, to visit his Bajan Bees when I was next on the island.
Bret responded enthusiastically when I let him know that the entire Apis beekeeping family would be holidaying in Barbados. He was keen for us to see his bees as soon as we got off the plane. That was before we had hired a car, so we postponed the invitation. That was to prove fateful.
Maff spotted the sign, on the outskirts of Bridgetown, Barbados: “Sawh’s Bee Hiving Enterprise – we specialize in bee hive removal. 100% pure Honey. 100% pure Bajan.“
Irresistible. I called the number. After a long, almost too long ring, the phone was answered by a woman’s voice. A kind, busy, slightly singing intonation. I explained that I was a beekeeper from London and that I’d like to buy some genuine Bajan honey. “Certainly”, the lady replied: “where are you staying on the island? I’ll bring some to you.”
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.
The first thing you need to know about beekeeping is that it is not glamorous. Let’s face it there’s no “Strictly Come Beekeeping”, no “Ready, Steady, Beekeep” nor even “The Z-Factor” on TV. And there’s a reason for that.
The building blocks of beekeeping are pretty humdrum. And the manufacture of them is quite mundane. In fact, if you are have a low threshold for boredom, look away now – or risk being transformed into a stick of sea-side rock with the word “Tedium” imprinted throughout. I’m going to talk about frame-making.
When I showed up for my first group mentoring in the gentle craft of beekeeping, dear reader, I was sat down at a bench in a community garden off the Walworth Road and shown how to make frames for National beehives, assembling softwood parts and sheets of wax foundation by banging in short black frame nails with a wobbly hammer. Things started to look up after 25 minutes when a mug of tea, proprietorially chipped at the rim, was placed by my elbow, but the thrill soon subsided. More exciting yet, another person showed up about 15 minutes later to join the mentoring programme – so, finally, we could get started on the wonderful world of beekeeping! Lesson one ? Frame-making, as it turned out.
Well, to be fair, that was an honest introduction to an aspect of beekeeping. Frame-making is dull, repetitious and yet requires a degree of concentration to ensure that the pins bite into the wood to secure the joints…..as anyone who has had a frame of bees fall apart in their hands and has ended up with their Wellington boots full of bees will tell you.
But I like to clear my thoughts, arrange my tools on the table and concentrate on achieving a literal “frame of mind” before I settle down to business. And so these rhythmic actions, a mantra for my hands, lull a declension of my hard-wired consciousness: I enter a shared space, meditating on the soft slabs of bees which will shimmer on each frame I construct and rovingly meditate on the measure of my little finger-nail, 7/16”, the natural pi of beespace, which distances each wax comb to allow two bees to pass, back to back, on each side. I am emulsion, the bees washing through me like a pebbledash constellation.
And then it is all over. There’s a waffle-stack of thirty wax and wood oblongs – my life measured out in beehive frames, with a little help from my day-dreamt, transcendental bees. Not glamorous, as I warned you, but at least you don’t need a yoga mat. Job done !
The Bermondsey Street Bees share their patch of SE1 with some pretty elevated company. Their greying cedar hives survey the street from a perch four floors high, a great vantage point, so they don’t miss a trick about the comings and goings on the Street.
In recent years, the proliferation of art venues had caught their attention. Not to be outdone, the bees of Shard Hive have offered their crownboard for your delight and delectation. (Curator’s note : Media : wax on perspex. Runic maze or a devotional QR barcode ?)
At the White Cube Gallery on Bermondsey Street, Gilbert and George have just taken a bow with their in-your-face, factional “Scapegoating” show (You’ve got to admire their brio: “We don’t want to offend. We just want to get away with it”. Brilliant !). And at the Eames Fine Art Gallery, we’ve enjoyed a great sequence of shows, most memorable of which was local hero Norman Ackroyd’s Sea Changes summer display, not to omit Marc Chagall’s The Bible Lithographs, which opens next week.
Stepping up now at White Cube is Tracey Emin, whose exhibition is entitled “The Last Great Adventure is you”, which is etched in orange neon at the entrance. (Why Tracey, George and Gilbert, all of whom live at addresses in Fournier Street E1, think it best to ford the river to exhibit their works in Bermondsey Street SE1 , I can not say). As usual from her Eminence, great draughting, picasso-esque lines, but the greeting-card philosophy is too trite.
So how about a new, al fresco, roof-top, female collective atelier on Bermondsey Street ? Cool ! We’ll call it @piary.
Honeyfacturing is a 3-day job which takes twelve whole months to complete. That’s because the simple secret to great honey is rearing healthy bees – and that is an all-year-round project. So the countdown for a new honey year starts as soon as the final lid is twisted onto the previous year’s batch. In my book, that makes the gestation period for a jar of honey 25% longer than that for a human child.
And the culmination of that process, the first flow of honey, has one other thing in common with child-birth – all those in close attendance are ritually altered. Grown men coo and clown, brusque functionaries flash melting smiles and stalwarts of the Grumpy Club temporarily mislay their membership cards. And that’s just over a jar of freshly-poured honey !
The sun has started slanting towards Autumn. Inspecting the comb requires a little twist of the wrist to catch that glint of light which can delve to the bottom of each wax cell. The year is moving on and it’s time to nod to the inevitable and commence preparations for the end of the season. It’s a sad capitulation, but it has been a great bee year, abundant and forgiving.
Now the honey harvest is here, which means long, secluded hours in the light-industrial zones of honey extraction, bottling and labelling. Not to mention the drudge of defending hives against wasp attacks, varroa and nosema treatments, preparing for the honey shows, stall management, invoices and accounting, feeding bees, the scrubbing and cleaning of equipment, running repairs to clothing and hives, not to mention those blustery autumnal beehive inspections between sharp showers.
All in the knowledge that what follows is the silence of the winter months, the mute separation of bee and beekeeper until the first thaws of Spring.
Hey-ho ! It’s just as well that I’m a natural optimist…
Each year, the baton-change from fresh Spring flowerings to bountiful summer blooms is interrupted by “The Gap“.
This dearth of nectar-yielding plants and flowers normally occurs each June in the U.K, but this year, things are different, as I discussed with John Chapple recently.
With the horsechestnuts and the fruit blossoms now a distant memory, the Bermondsey Street Bees are usually patiently awaiting the flow of nectar from Lime trees in July, tided over by bushy plants like cotoneaster and pyracantha providing a ration of sweetness.
But right now the nectar from the lime trees and the snowberry flowers is in full flow. Even the brambles are out – and the summer equinox is still over a week away! The supers are filling up with sunshine-sweet honey and you can hear the hum of bees fanning hard in the hive to reduce the moisture content of their honey stores to below 20%, before capping it over with fresh white wax. Perfection!
But once the lime, snowberries and brambles are gone – by July – my bees will be relying on scraps from exotic plantings in private gardens, thoughfully staggered municipal plantings like those by Ian, the gardener at Potters Fields and some late wildflowers, until the autumnal ivy is available. So it’s quite possible that we could see a July-August forage gap in some less well-provisioned areas of London.
Beekeepers need to “Mind The Gap“, especially if it comes at an unexpected time of year. 2014 will prove to be a tricky year for beekeepers – just like 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 20…………….