I Review The Flow Hive
If you’re looking to get into beekeeping, there’s a good chance that the Flow Hive has inspired you. But does it work? Is it worth the price? And does it make keeping bees easier?
A New Hive Design?
The first thing to understand about the Flow Hive is that it’s not a new type of hive but a Langstroth hive with a built-in extraction tool. The innovation of the hive is in its plastic flow frames that allow the honey to drip out the back of the hive when harvesting.
Like all hives, the Flow Hive needs regular maintenance and inspections every 7 to 14 days to stay on top of any problems. The frequency of hive inspection is determined by honeybee biology and not by the hive. So it doesn’t matter what your hive style is; you’ll need to suit up, open the hive, pull off the honey supers, find the brood, and inspect each frame every 7 to 10 days. That means that the hive is just as much work as maintaining any other style of hive.
Considerations For Keeping A Flow Hive
Others have written at length about the pros and cons of the Flow Hive, so I won’t go into too much detail. My biggest concern is that new beekeepers assume the hive is a zero-maintenance honey machine. It’s not. But it’s also clear that many people have successfully used Flow Hives. Here are a few things that I would consider when utilizing this design.
1. The Bees Don’t Always Accept Flow Frames
As mentioned, the Flow Hive is a Langstroth hive with plastic Flow Frames. Unfortunately, likely because they prefer wax, the bees sometimes ignore the plastic Flow Frames. If they decide not to use it, the bees will store honey in their brood chamber, run out of space, and potentially swarm. One local user described his Flow Hives as a “swarm factory.” Of the three Edmonton Flow Hive users I’m aware of, two have had issues with the bees accepting the plastic Flow Frames. Most of these beekeepers have eventually coaxed the bees into the flow frames with tricks like misting them with sugar water.
2. Flow Supers Require Queen Excluders
I can’t think of anything more tragic than excitedly turning the key on your Flow Hive and accidentally crushing a frame of brood. To prevent this, the makers of the Flow Hive recommend using a queen excluder to limit the queen to the brood boxes. Unfortunately, queen excluders aren’t 100% effective, and since they limit the size of the brood, they can further contribute to swarming.
Whether to use a queen excluder or not is controversial amongst beekeepers. Full disclosure: I’ve never used them. Bees don’t use them in nature, so I’ve never cared to add them to my hives. I use Beecentric Hives that use medium-frames for honey and brood.
3. You Can’t Use Flow Supers For Winter Storage
When it starts to get cold, the bees huddle together at the bottom of the hive. As winter progresses, they’ll consume honey upwards until they’ve reached the top of the hive by spring. At this point, the queen will start laying again. However, if this upper box is a Flow Super, the queen will start laying in the plastic Flow Frames. That would be a mess, so removing any Flow Supers in the fall is essential. This isn’t a big deal – it’s what conventional beekeepers do all the time – but it defeats the point of spending hundreds of dollars on frames that are supposed to save you work.
4. Not Enough Room For Brood in Summer
In the height of summer, hives in Edmonton can reach two or three brood boxes. In contrast, the Flow Hive comes with one brood box. You’d need at least one (and likely two) more to provide enough room and prevent swarming. You can purchase additional Flow Hive Supers for around $70 Canadian.
To save yourself some money, purchase woodenware that uses the same size of box as the Flow Hive (like the Beecentric Hive).
5. Extracting Has Its Drawbacks
Ironically, extracting honey from a Flow Hive isn’t as straightforward as it looks. To determine if it’s time to harvest, you’ll have to open the hive and remove the flow frames. Since the whole point of the Flow Hive is to avoid opening the hive, this defeats the Flow Hive’s entire premise. If you don’t check to see if the honey is ready to harvest, you’ll risk extracting uncapped honey that will likely ferment (uncapped honey is much higher in water). The flow frames also rely on the caps to direct the honey down the frame. Extracting uncapped honey in a flow frame is likely to spill into the brood box below.
How well the honey will flow from the back of the hive is dependent on the weather. Though the bees do a decent job of maintaining a warm internal temperature, I have been told by local Flow Hive users that they’ve had the most success when the outside temperature is above 24 degrees Celsius.
It’s worth noting that it takes about 20 to 25 minutes for the honey to drain from each flow frame. This means a lot of waiting. It also exposes the honey and attracts wasps, bees, and other interested parties.
At this point, I would be tempted to remove the flow supers with all the flow frames and perform the extraction inside the controlled environment of my kitchen. So, in the end, the Flow Hive is just as disruptive and isn’t any less work than conventional extraction methods. At a price of nearly a thousand Canadian dollars, it’s not less expensive.
You Want To Use A Flow Hive. Here Are My Suggestions
At around $1000 Canadian, I believe that the Flow Hive is far too expensive to buy outright. Fortunately, you don’t have to, as all you need is a Flow Super (~$630 Canadian*) and some compatible 8-frame equipment, such as the Beecentric Hive ($200). By pairing your Flow Super with less expensive 8-frame equipment, you’ll save some money and get a few extra perks. A Flow Hive/Beecentric Hive combo would give you:
- Flow Super with 6 Flow Frames (same dimensions as an 8-frame box)
- Three boxes (8-frame, medium)
- IPM Screened Bottom Board
- Warre Top-Quilt
- Warre Hive Style Roof
- Bottom Entrances w/ Reducers
In the end, you would have a functioning hive with flow frames for less than the full price of a Flow Hive. With the exception of the bees not always taking to the plastic Flow Frames, this combination of Flow Super and Beecentric Hive would solve all of the issues mentioned above. This is what managing the hive would look like:
- Spring: Install package of bees or nuc into one box 8 frame hive. Perform regular inspections until the box is three-quarters full. Add a second box so that the brood can expand. Eventually, add the third box.
- Summer: Once the hive is three boxes high, you should see the bees storing honey in the top-most box. At this point, add the Flow Super to the very top. Perform regular checks to make sure the bees have accepted the plastic foundation and are using it. Continue with regular inspections. When the Flow Frames are filled and capped honey, extract. Reset Flow Frames and repeat as often as possible.
- Fall: Remove the Flow Supers when the honey flow slows down towards the end of the season. Let the bees backfill the remaining three boxes with honey. They will start storing honey at the top. Monitor progress. The goal is to let them fill two boxes with honey for the Winter. They should be able to do this by the time Winter hits, but feed them if you think they’re going to run short.
- Winter: Wrap the four sides of the hive. Fill the top quilt box with straw or mulch for insulation. Wish the bees well and start over in the Spring.
Click here for more information on the Beecentric Hive or here from some of the most Frequently Asked Questions.
*Prices converted from USD to Canadian Dollars on Nov 3, 2016. Flow Hive and Super prices do not take shipping or customs into account.