Flow Hives

This article was originally written for Surrey Bees newsletter and is a general summary of my first year with a Flow Hive.

Imagine, honey flowing directly from hive frames into a jar. No uncapping, spinning and cleaning up required, just fresh, clean fabulously tasty honey.  What makes it even better?  It’s not a marketing gimmick on a video but my own hive, in my own back garden, and I’m having fresh honey on toast before it’s even hit the jar!

It’s felt like a long road getting here though.  The Flow Frames are made out of plastic, partially prebuilt honeycomb that can be ‘split’ open when the honey is ready to harvest and allows the honey to flow down through the frame and out of a tube in the back of the hive. Having seen this fantastic looking contraption on a crowdfunding site and been intrigued enough to go back and have a look more than a few times I decided to invest in a hive back in March 2015.  For those not familiar, crowdfunding is a way of raising capital for startup businesses before they’re established.  The Flow Frames themselves had been developed and tested by the Anderson family in Australia over a period of about 10 years and the Andersons now needed capital to set up production. Initially looking for $75,000 the campaign clearly appealed to a lot of people. The target was hit in less than 5 minutes and ran into the millions shortly after. With this amount of interest, the Andersons had their work cut out for them getting hives and the Flow Frames built and shipped.
In the meantime, it was time for me to start learning about bees.  A quick investigation online told me it was going to be best to start my hive in the spring – a good thing as the hive only arrived in January.  My lovely girlfriend got in touch with Surrey Bees and bought me the beginners theory course as a gift for Christmas. What a great gift that was – having a basic understanding of bees and how to keep them before you start is probably the best recommendation I could make to anyone interested. Every week taught me more, and every week I left realising how much more there was to learn. I’m sure it will take me a lifetime and then some!
Within the first week or so I’d signed myself up for the practical beginners course and was eagerly looking forward to handling bees for the first time.
Having joined a number of beekeeping groups on Facebook it was clear that the Flow hives were somewhat controversial.  Lots of people were sceptical about them working and how practical they would be and some strong opinions were being thrown around. Whilst on the theory course I’d kept quiet as I didn’t want to get into discussions I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to have. Once the practical started though, my hive was obviously different as it’s based around an 8 frame Langstroth rather than the more usual 10 frame size. It also has ‘Founding Supporter of the Flow Hive’ etched on the side of it – there was no hiding from that!  Sure enough, opinions from established beekeepers ranged from “it’s a load of bollocks” to “it’ll be interesting to see if it works”. My hive went home with me as soon as the nuc had been installed. As a keen gardener with space it will certainly help with pollination in the local area, and give the kids an exposure to bees that they wouldn’t otherwise have.
In the brood box, nothing changes with the flow hive. We still check through regularly making sure the hive is Queenright, that brood is Building Up, that there’s Room, no Disease and that the colony has Stores (QBURDS – a very useful mnemonic). Long story short, the brood built up nicely and it was soon time to put a super on. Or not. The weather was awful and it was tricky to tell what the right time was to add the super and when I did, the bees didn’t seem to want to touch it. Was the Flow a failure?
A few weeks later and the brood had built up further, still weren’t using the super and were building queen cells!  A worrying moment, but my theory course had shown me the Pagden Method of swarm control and I went with that (having bought spare equipment knowing I’d need it at some point). 3 weeks later again and it was clear both queen cells had failed and only one hive was queenright so I had to recombine (paper method). This worked a treat and the combined colonies were clearly desperate to store nectar from what was now a strong flow. They were building up the cells in the Flow super the week after recombining – success was almost certain!
Once they’d started building it was business as usual until the frames were ready. One of the potential challenges of the Flow Frames is honey crystallising in them. Oil Seed Rape at the beginning of the season and Ivy at the end are the most likely to cause this so at the beginning of August I decided to harvest and then store the Flow Frames over winter. I’ve now added a ‘regular’ super so the bees can continue to make stores for the winter and I’ve no plans to take this from them.
That brings us right back to the start, on a sunny Saturday in August, watching honey flowing directly from my hive into jars. The bees undisturbed and still foraging at the front of the hive while I held a bit of buttered toast under the flow and tasted the best honey I have ever had.  Lovely.
I only took about 10Lbs of honey this year, but as a first year and the bees having to build everything from scratch I personally don’t think that’s bad as I know some keepers who haven’t had any harvest this year.
Pros and cons in a nutshell?
Pros – No mess, simple easy extraction, no bother to the bees
          No additional extraction equipment required
          It got me, and hundreds of other beekeepers around the world, started in keeping bees
          It’s a great discussion point
Cons – It’s costly (about £500 for the whole hive)
           Crystalising honey needs to be avoided so different supers and a different method of extracting is still required if you want to take these harvests
            Some of the discussions can get quite heated as people write off ‘the new fangled technology stuff’

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