Don't Go With the Flow, Go With the Wax (A Few Words on Saving the Bees... and Us)
If we can't manage to live in this world in a manner conducive to the existence of our honeybees, what does that ultimately say about our chances?
Over the past several years there's been a steadily growing awareness that a problem exists with our honeybee populations. Although not quite a household term, what has been called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has evoked enough concern that a chorus of observers have suggested in various ways that if honeybees go the way of the dodo bird, so do humans.
These warnings stem from what I'd say are two main understandings of the situation. First off is the fact that honeybees are used to pollinate about one-third of the food we eat, be it directly by pollinating vegetables, fruit, and nut trees, or by pollinating plants such as clover which get eaten by herbivores and so indirectly supply us with meat, milk and other animal products.
Secondly, there is the more general "canary in the coalmine" interpretation that posits that if we can't manage to live in this world in a manner conducive to the existence of our honeybees, what does that ultimately say about our chances? That is, if our honeybees can't live in the toxic milieu we force them into, will we ultimately be able to?
"What we should be realizing is that beekeeping is about the bees... that's why they're called beekeepers, not honey-extractors."
But although a raising of awareness has certainly been going on, one can't be blamed for wondering if what have often essentially been value-free campaigns – save the bees! – has actually resulted in more harm being done than good. What I'm talking about here is the unprecedented response to, and financial success of, the Flow™ hive.
The Flow™ hive, if you haven't yet heard about it, is arguably one of the biggest Internet sensations to date. With a campaign launched on Indiegogo back on February 22nd, not only did it garner $40,000 of its $70,000 goal within the first five minutes, but with a few days left in its two-month campaign it has racked up over $10 million in sales, more than 100 times its stated goal – not exactly chump change.
But although a perusal through its website may result in the uninitiated seeing a veritable miracle in beekeeping, the seasoned beekeeper concerned with holistic beekeeping practices should be easily able to see through the marketing spin and decipher what the Flow™ hive is really all about.
But before I get to that, here's a very quick rundown of the shoddy conditions that honeybees in the industrial food system must attempt to survive under, quite possibly a more destructive force than CCD on its own could ever be.
1) The honeybees' two sources of food are nectar (which they transform into honey for storage purposes) and pollen (which is their excellent source of protein and other nutrients). But because honey and pollen can command a pretty penny on the market, many beekeepers – particularly the larger ones – actually remove all their stores of honey and pollen. Since this leaves the bees with nothing to survive on over the winter, their nutritious pollen is then replaced with soy patties, while their nutritious honey is swapped for a sugar syrup if not high-fructose corn syrup. It should go without saying that this is having horrible effects on the health and immune systems of our honeybees.
2) Because the majority of our food is grown in monocultures, these massive "farms" are essentially floral deserts for most of the year and so cannot support pollinators, save for the few short days or weeks when the particular crop is in flower. Because of this, millions of beehives, which do not like being jostled with, are literally trucked across continents from "farm" to "farm" and bee-slum to bee-slum, pollinating the long list of monocrops and swapping all the diseases that their wretched food sources and living conditions make them all too susceptible to.
3) Not only then must honeybees cope and live amongst the insecticides necessary for monoculture "farms" and golf courses and suburban lawns and such, but because of their poor health, strips of insecticides are also commonly placed inside hives to kill off Varroamites and other plagues, which honeybees are now too unhealthy to ward off. In case you need me to spell it out, insecticides kill insects, and yes, honeybees are in fact insects themselves.
And that's just for starters. But suffice to say, the fact that our honeybees are dying in unprecedented numbers should come as no surprise to any seasoned beekeeper, except for those with dollar signs (or honey or wax or pollen or propolis or bee venom or royal jelly) in their eyes.
That being said, it's unfortunate that with all this (value-free) awareness-building that more holistic ventures are relatively ignored, while more of the status quo is not only sold as being good for the bees, but is praised with massive amounts of media attention from the likes of Forbes,Fox, Wired, and so forth. When it comes to the latter, I'm talking about the Flow™ hive.
First off, the Flow™ hive's claim to fame is the stunning manner in which one can turn a key and out pours honey through a set of tubes into a receptacle of one's choosing, no fuss, no muss. But really, and with the problems honeybees currently face just listed, the ease of honey extraction is – or at least should be – the last thing on the mind of any beekeeper concerned with the health of our honeybees.
Secondly, the Flow™ hive's feel-good selling point is that it reduces disturbance of the bees and avoids the squishing and possibly killing of a few of them when frames are removed and replaced for extraction purposes. However, this is little more than sleight-of-hand marketing PR since beehives must be checked throughout the year for a whole gamut of reasons, including for diseases such as Varroa mites, wax moths, hive beetles, foulbrood, etc., possibly resulting in the unfortunate squishing and killing of a few bees. The Flow™ hive can't avoid this, unless the idea is to be as shoddy of a beekeeper as one can possibly be.
But most disingenuous of all is the claim by the Flow™ hive's creators that its purpose is to minimize disturbance of the bees. In truth, and putting aside the logic of using petroleum-based frames which inevitably off-gas toxic chemicals (regardless of how "eco" the plastic is claimed to be), the Flow™ hive actually takes modern-day invasive practices to a whole new level, and is actually the epitome of what is claims to not be. What I'm talking about is its use of plastic frames to facilitate the ease of honey extraction.
To understand this, one must realize that a hive and its honeybee population is essentially a superorganism, and that the wax comb that the bees build via extrusions from their body isn't simply a widget that can be nonchalantly replaced, but is rather an essential part of the wholeness of the hive. In fact, research by Jürgen Tautz of Wurzburg University has shown that wax comb plays a vital role in the honeybee's communication system, and as many-a-beekeeper may have noticed, when given the choice, honeybees prefer to build their own wax comb than to shack up in pre-built plastic interlopers.
To risk belabouring the point, for the Flow™ hive's creators to claim that little disturbance is parted upon the bees simply due to gimmicky extraction methods is a deceit of the highest sort, since the hive's replacement of its wax comb with a prosthetic plastic comb is quite possibly the largest disturbance that the honeybee superorganism can experience. In essence, the Flow™ hive is the continuation of perceiving nature in a mechanistic manner, with the honeybee as machine that can be manipulated at will. The estrangement of beekeeping from actual honeybees is taken to a whole new level, with the Flow™ hive essentially transforming the honeybee into the latest incarnation of the Chia Pet for the Toys "R" Us crowd.
Is there an alternative to this beekeeper-centric form of beekeeping, one that would place the health and "beeness" of the honeybee before what are essentially short-sighted goals of rapacious resource extraction?
There most certainly are, and they don't entail reverting back to skeps (which actually destroyed the hive for extraction), nor simply downgrading one step to conventional, Flow™-frame free Langstroth methods (Langstroth hives being the commonly recognized stack of hive boxes whose very purpose with their introduction some 150-odd-years ago was to usher in convenient-for-the-beekeeper, extraction-centric practices in the first place). No, the alternative I'm talking about is none other than the very unassuming top bar hive, or a bit more specifically, the non-use of foundation.
In short, foundation is a sheet of wax secured in a frame (generally with wires), imprinted with hexagons on both sides of which the bees are thus guided to build their cells out from. This is where the problems start. One issue is that the cells are sized, relatively speaking, perversely large, the original motivator for this sizing being that bigger bees would harvest more honey and thus produce higher profits for the beekeeper. Organic beekeepers on the other hand have recently countered this with foundation that has smaller sized cells. While this might be an improvement, it unfortunately sidesteps the greater issue of whether or not we should be imposing on honeybees how we think honeycombs should be made. For really, while the initial stated purpose of inventing foundation was said to be to give the bees a helping hand in getting started, the underlying purpose was to standardize the whole process so that honey production could be maximized. But the problem with both of these approaches is that we are imposing upon honeybees a homogenous array of cell sizes, the monocultural method being, of course, the darling of industrial agriculture. For when honeybees – be it in the wild or with a top bar hive – are given the chance to create comb the way they think comb should be built, they create comb with a diversity of cell sizes (see the photo at the top of this page).
Hives that allow for what is referred to as "natural cell" comb building are commonly known as top bar hives and come in a variety of setups – from vertical top bar hives (the Warre hive), horizontal top bar hives (of which a variety exist), to methods that allow for a Langstroth hive to be adapted into a top bar hive. This implementation of natural cell comb is a welcome situation for the honeybees for a variety of reasons, and probably some that we aren't even aware of.
While different cell sizes enable the queen to lay her eggs for different sized bees in the appropriate cells (the male drones are noticeably larger than the female worker bees), it also means that the hive is able to raise larger bees who can collect more stores over the busy months, and smaller bees who eat less during the more barren months. An increasing amount of evidence is also showing that honeybees who are able to create and live amongst their own comb are healthier and/or have the resilience to better deal with Varroamites, hive beetles, and other modern bee plagues.
Returning to the Flow™ hive, probably the only good thing it's got going for it is that it costs so much, which means that it's not ideal for large-scale, migratory beekeeping, but rather for those of the small-scale or backyard set (and who have a bit of money to burn). Likewise, the fragility of top bars (they're not held in place with a frame or wires) don't lend themselves to being bounced around on the back of a truck to go from monoculture field to monoculture field, which is actually a blessing in disguise since what we need to be doing anyway is moving towards small-scale, localized, and sedentary beekeeping where honeybees are allowed to become adapted to the place.
Where the Flow™ hive and top bar hive really differ though is that while honey comes out of the Flow™ hive with the "push of a button," in a top bar hive the comb must be crushed to squeeze out the honey, or sold whole as comb honey. Although this is often decried by conventional (Langstroth) beekeepers as a reduction on honey harvests since honeybees must expend resources to continually create new wax comb, this may also be a blessing in disguise. Since the conventional method with foundation-based frames is to extract honey with centrifugal spinners and re-use the comb for years if not decades on end, this ultimately leads to a build-up of unsanitary (if not disease-ridden) conditions imposed upon the bees. Fresh comb doesn't have this problem.\
What we should be realizing is that beekeeping is about the bees (that's why they're called beekeepers, not honey-extractors), and that the condition of the comb – or more specifically, the wax – should be at the forefront of our minds. As Christy Hemenway of Gold Star Honeybees likes to put it, "It's not about the honey, Honey!" Furthermore, top bar beekeeping is by no means "easy" beekeeping, and nor should it be, and is probably part of the reason why Hemenway named her excellent book on the topic The Thinking Beekeeper.
To sum it all up, if we can become the good stewards that our honeybees need, and allow them to create comb the way they see fit, then I see no reason why the collapse of our honeybee populations needs to continue. However, if we jump on the bandwagon of the in-between-commercial-breaks style of beekeeping that the Flow™ hive allows for, then the updating of an old saying seems highly appropriate: only dead fish Flow™ downstream.
Full disclosure: Although I have no affiliation with Gold Star Honeybees (besides being given a few images to use upon my request), I did attend a course of theirs back in 2013, which was fantastic. That being said, since there are a few top bar hive designs on the market, and since this style of beekeeping can be even more finicky than the Langstroth design, the top bar hives designed and sold by Gold Star Honeybees are both the best quality I've come across as well as the most effective setup for both the bees and beekeeper.