Bees

What the Flow Hive and Aquaponics Share in Common

No topic in the beekeeping community has elicited more controversy than the Flow Hive. For those who are not familiar, the flow hive is not actually a hive but rather a ‘super’ that is placed on top of a traditional Langstroth style beehive and is used for honey extraction. Numerous criticisms of the flow hive have been put forward, many from natural beekeepers and those in the permaculture community.

Langstroth beehive
Image by feck_aRt_post, flicker.com under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Proponents of the flow hive have pointed to the ‘efficiency’ of honey extraction which relies on mechanical means to open plastic cells which then release honey through a tube, thus avoiding opening the hive. The manufacturers of the flow hive state that avoiding opening the hive reduces stress on the bees. However, those opposed to the flow hive point out that this efficiency leads to over-harvesting of honey and the endangerment of the colony due to lack of resources; honey being the bees food. This efficiency is also what attracts new beekeepers to the ‘technology’ but opponents further point to new beekeepers avoiding learning the basics of beekeeping and what biology deems a super organism. As a result, this leads to new beekeepers approaching beekeeping as a use relationship with a singular focus of honey extraction. New beekeepers are somewhat shocked to learn that the latest model of the flow hive is priced between $800-$900 (USD). This in comparison to natural beekeeper’s favorite hive, the Kenyan Top Bar, which can be constructed from old scrap wood as a weekend project.

Kenyan Top Bar Hive
Kenyan Top Bar Hive
Image by Stew and Vee Carrington, Flickr.com under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 

One of the largest criticisms of the flow hive is concern over plastics inside the hive which will inevitably off gas. Although the manufacturers of the Flow Hive state that the bees will coat the plastic with wax and actively fan the hive which may ameliorate this issue, opponents suggest this point is negligible and just because plastic foundation has been used in the past, this is no excuse for the continued use of plastic. In addition, many believe the artificial environment inside the hive creates additional stressors.

The population of honeybees is quickly declining as ecosystems around the world deteriorate. Honeybees suffer primarily from pesticides and parasites however honeybees have lived alongside parasites for roughly 130 million years which suggests their susceptibility to parasites is more a factor of pesticide use and environmental degradation. A primary motivating factor of natural beekeepers is to act as a steward of the bees and their environment. With declining bee populations and bees under constant stress from a world inundated with pesticides, many believe it is not ethical to introduce further stressors to the bees and the flow hive, on the whole, most likely introduces greater stressors than it solves.

From a permaculture perspective, there is a criticism which hasn’t been discussed with regard to the flow hive and interestingly enough, this criticism is also shared with aquaponics. The flow hive and aquaponics both rely on non-living based resources. Non-living based resources are subject to entropy whereas living based resources can counteract entropy. Civilization and the environmental consequences thereof are based on humanity’s continued use of non-living based resources. From a systems perspective, the flow hive would not be considered a resilient system nor would aquaponics. Resiliency comes from living based systems that are interconnected in a web of life. Plastic breaks and needs to be replaced. There is an environmental cost associated with the manufacturing process, use of petrochemicals, the associated supply chain, etc. However, you can always grow a tree to replace the components of a top bar hive and growing in soil while applying permaculture principles, encourages more soil creation whereas aquaponics does not. Neither aquaponics nor the flow hive would stand up to an energy audit. In addition, if we accept that the permaculture definition of sustainability is a ‘system that produces more energy than it consumes, enough in surplus to maintain and replace the components of that system over their lifetime’…then neither the flow hive nor aquaponics is a sustainable addition.

With regard to the flow hive, the bottom line is that the flow hive violates the earth care ethic of permaculture both from a component perspective and a human behaviour aspect. The flow hive is the marketplace providing an ‘innovative’ solution to a problem you don’t have, motivated not by earth care, but rather a different form of green. As of early 2019, the company has raised in excess of $20 million dollars and flooded the marketplace with their hives attracting thousands of new beekeepers. The company relies on targeting influential beekeepers with the enticement of a free hive in turn for positive advertising and word of mouth. Most beekeepers with a social media influence have a flow hive and readily speak highly of it despite the obvious biases. In addition to social media influencers, permaculture’s most widely known property, Zaytuna Farm, is no exception as the property now supports a flow hive.

This article was written by Chris DeVault, a permaculturist located in San Diego California. You can find him online on Instagram @upgradedownloading

One Comment

  1. I agree with the questions raised about the Flowhive. That is a horrible way to treat bees. Traditional beekeeping has a better relationship with the bees and is not merely extractive.

    There are two flashpoints of contention in permaculture, biogas and aquaponics. The biogas is easier to dismiss because Bill Mollison mentions it repeatedly in the Designers Manual, and because many hundreds of thousands of biogas systems are operating at various scales around the world. The language used to attack biogas is often similar to the language of this article. Biogas is a proven technology that is world wide, often turning the problem of surplus manure into the resources of energy in gas form for cooking, lighting or generation, and converting the potentially pathogen laden faeces into a high value liquid fertilizer.

    Aquaponics is still a nascent technology. There are developments in it every day, and there are tens of thousands of systems at various scales. I think that the question of aquaponics in permaculture needs an “It depends” before answering the question. The equation of comparing aquaponics to the flowhive is incomplete, and misses some points in favour of aquaponics, points totally absent from the extractive flowhive.

    Aquaponics is not a universally appropriate tool, but it has its place in our tool kit. Much of the objections to aquaponics are emotional and not scientific. “Aquaponics is not natural”. Neither are gardens. Neither are ponds built with bulldozers. The issue of energy, for example begs the question: How much energy does it take for a bulldozer to make a pond, including the energy to make the bulldozer? An aquaponics system can be made from old bathtubs and IBC’s, or from recirculating water from a pond through grow beds that are designed as water filters may very well produce more food at a better ratio of energy returned on energy invested than a “pond”, in places where other forms of “natural” farming, including gardens and ponds, are simply not possible.

    The difference between the pond, created by a bulldozer, and an aquaponics system created from recycled elements is worth considering. Ponds tend to be part of extensive systems that have interactions with larger ecologies. This is not possible on a small property. Aquaponics are developed as intensive systems, relatively closed loop, and generally small in size and suited well for small properties.

    As for “entropy”, I live in a 33 year old food forest on formerly degraded land. Trees grow, and die, and fall over. Ponds leak. Gardens lose fertility if not maintained. Terraces, swales and hugelkulture beds become compromised. Things breakdown. Aquaponics could have problems of broken pipes, broken pumps, but things decay over time. Aquaponics is not unique in this.

    Some situations that might be suitable for aquaponics include:
    1 Institutional settings, prisons, schools, hospitals, clinics.
    2 Food deserts, places where healthy food is not available
    3 Places with limited access to soil/land
    4 Places with contaminated land
    5 Places with limited available water
    6 Places that produce fish consumable byproducts, fish processing facilities, bakeries, etc.
    7 Urban areas of high population density.

    Like most things in permaculture, the answer to questions are nuanced. This article misses the nuance.

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