Flow Hive: First Impressions

There’s so much talk on the web about the Flow Hive that it’s difficult to find data. Do a search for Flow Hive anything, and the results are full of doubters, nay-sayers, and haters, but very little helpful information. I haven’t been bogging myself down with all the nay-saying because I notice most of it is coming from those who haven’t tried and never intend to, so they have no personal experience to share, just their opinions on why it’s “bad.”

Even people who have never kept bees and know nothing about bees are telling me how bad it is:

“It destroys their home!”

Last I checked, bees don’t live in their honey. Do you live in YOUR pantry? And how exactly do they think I harvest the honey now?

“It makes beekeeping TOO easy so people who don’t care about beekeeping will want to try it.”

It may make HARVESTING easier (which remains to be seen), but the labor and heavy lifting of beekeeping hasn’t gone away. The beekeeper still has to know how to set up and start a hive, if their hive is queenright, if she’s laying well, if there are pests and how to treat them, and how to manage the hive for swarm prevention. That fancy box of frames doesn’t change any of that.

On the other hand, I have seen a handful of blog posts and videos from people who HAVE bought one, and most of them seem pretty pleased with it. Truthfully, I didn’t buy one to make harvesting easier. I actually enjoy smelling the honey-filled wax as I’m working with it, watching it drip and drizzle through the strainer, and filling jars and bottles. I bought one to support innovators who are trying to share their ideas and excitement for beekeeping. They put years of trial and error into their work and were hoping to find a handful of people who would help get their production started. I hope they do well and inspire new beekeepers and maybe a few old ones, too.

I didn’t buy a full set up, just the Flow Hive light, which is a deep with four Flow frames. The Flow Hive guys made a big to-do about upgrading early buyers to some fancy cedar, and it is pretty, but the material splits easily so has to be handled with care.

First impressions of the equipment:

The jig they’ve used to create the finger joints need some tweaking as they don’t fit properly and need to be either cut a little more or, in my case, hammered harder until some of the wood peels away (My father always says, “if it doesn’t fit, get a bigger hammer and paint it to match.”) It’s a snug fit now, that’s for sure. They have an instructional video demonstrating how to assemble the body and I noticed the guide’s box all fit perfectly.

The perimeter of the body isn’t exactly that of a standard 10-frame Langstroth body. It’s about 1/4 inch shy of standard dimensions. Maybe not a big deal for most set-ups, but it’s annoying that it wasn’t designed with a little more exactitude.

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However, this lack of precision is hardly limited to Flow Hive. I have standard frames that were bowed, entrance reducers that are either too long or too short, leaky Boardman feeders, and one screened bottom board that is a different height and takes a different tray than the rest.

The knobs on the upper door, through which the key slot is accessed, prevents either a telescoping cover or a migratory cover from being directly on the box because they’re so close to the top. I tried finding useful information on what type of cover to use, but back to the issue of searching for anything with the term “Flow Hive.” It appears that either a special cover is required or another super must go on in order to use a standard cover.

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One of my frames was missing the upper port that covers the key slot. The bees can’t get to it, so it didn’t prevent me from using it. I contacted customer service and they responded promptly and promised to send one to me right away. Wonder how long that will take coming from Australia?

The super is a deep box, which means to do inspections I have to remove a box of honey that could potentially weigh up to 90 pounds.

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The frames are interesting: partially formed hexies that shift when the key is turned. I turned the key several times to see how it shifted and really wondered if this can work. Only one way to find out.

 

There is a window on one side of the box so you can peek at their progress. And there’s an access door on the back of the box through which you can see the Flow frames without actually opening the hive. I must admit I’ve enjoyed peeking.

Since I’m feeling experimental this spring, I’ve put my Flow super on my double-queen hive. That should keep them busy for a while. I put in a frame feeder with 1:1 to help them draw the comb. I also moved the super already on the hive above the Flow super.

Just a few days after adding it, I can see the bees deep in the cells, beginning to wax in the bottoms and sides of the extra-deep cells. That’s promising.

A particular quirk of it is the need for a 2-4 degree tilt towards the back. Of course when I put a level on mine there is a good tilt, but it’s to the front. So when I’m ready to harvest, I’ll have to put a wedge under the front edge of the super. I believe the ramifications of failing to do so will be honey draining out the front rather than out the tubes in the back.

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Wild Swarm

Sunday afternoon on the way home from church, I got a message from a friend and law enforcement officer asking if I ever catch wild swarms. He had spotted one in the parking lot of a furniture store in Austin and was worried it would end up getting sprayed when the business opened the next day. As soon as we got home, we grabbed a few tools and an empty hive box and headed there to see if we could catch it.

It was a tiny swarm, with maybe 500 bees (compared to a swarm I caught from one of my own hives a few years ago). I trimmed away some little stems from around it so I could reach the main branch. With an empty hive box under the tree, Hial held the branch while I slowly cut through it with my loppers.

 

Most of the bees stayed in the cluster and we placed it in the box, then strapped it closed with a moving screen in the entrance.

When we got home, we put them on a stand I’d already built and left them for the night.

Monday afternoon, I prepared another hive box with several frames of drawn comb and a feeder. Then I took a frame of capped brood from another hive and added it. The ready-to-use comb with a feeder of sugar water encourages them to stay, but even better is a frame of unhatched bees. That makes them feel at home and will boost their numbers in a few days when those bees begin to hatch out of their cells.

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Donor brood from another hive.

I had planned to set the new box on the one they were in and let them crawl up, but when I removed the lid, they were clustered on the underside. New plan… Instead I removed the box with the branch and set the new box in its place, then gently tapped the lid over the frames to shake the bees down.

Almost as soon as they were in the hive, several bees started flying around orienting themselves to their new homes and one even flew straight out to a flowering weed near the hive, checked it out, and flew back to the hive.

Tuesday morning I walked out to see what activity was going on and bees were flying in with pollen, which means they’ve decided to stay and I’ve successfully hived a swarm.

Other than treating them for Varroa mites Wednesday morning, which can be done with little disruption, I’ll wait a week before checking on their progress. At that point I’ll know if they had a mated queen with them or not. Also, I placed them farther from the house and garden than other hives because I don’t know what their demeanor will be for a few weeks. Hial said maybe I’ll be lucky and it’s a swarm from Round Rock Honey, which has hives in the area

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Double-Queen Hive: 10 Days Later

I set up my double-queen hive on March 16. I wish I’d counted the frames of brood in each first for comparison’s sake, but based on memory they each had about 4 deep frames of brood and 3 medium. When I combined them, I placed a medium super over the queen excluder which had 7 drawn but empty frames and 3 partial frames of uncapped honey.

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I peeked at the honey super around March 22 and was surprised to find honey in all 10 frames. They weren’t completely filled and none were capped yet, but it seemed a significant increase in just 8 days.

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The big surprise was in checking the brood boxes. In the first half, which was a fairly weak hive going into winter and one I was concerned about this spring, there were 5 deep frames of brood and 7 medium and since one wall was sheltered from weather, the queen was laying all the way to the end frame.

The other half was similarly populated, with 8 medium frames of brood.

Inspecting presented a logistical challenge. After removing the honey super, I needed to open one side of the hive at a time, while keeping the queens isolated to their sides. I had a half migratory cover ready, smoked the bees down, then quickly removed the excluder and put on the half cover. It worked pretty well.

After the inspection was finished, I added another honey super to provide sufficient space.

Things I’d wish I’d done:

If I set up another double-queen hive, I’ll want to attach the bottom boards together. It was challenging to get them perfectly level, and even now there is a little space, but not enough to allow queens to crawl through. But the biggest reason is the bottom boards slide on the stand a bit when nudged, which is inevitable when inspecting. I kept having to put them back in place.

It’s too late to put their bottom boards together, but I am going to drive a nail in at the outer edges to keep them from moving during inspections.

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Double Queen Hive

One of my favorite beekeeping blogs is Honey Bee Suite. The author, Rusty, writes how-tos, issues in beekeeping, scientific tidbits, and unusual methods. It’s one of the unusual methods that caught my attention last fall when she wrote about setting up a double-queen hive. After a little more reading, I decided to give it a try with two of my smaller hives.

Moving a Hive

First I needed to move a hive across the property, and I followed Honey Bee Suite’s suggestion on moving a hive since moving a hive more than three feet and less than three miles is often unsuccessful. This method worked very well.

Early this spring, I closed up the hive overnight with a moving screen. The following morning I recruited my husband to help me move it.

Moving Screem

It stayed closed for 72 hours, the idea being that after that amount of time the foragers will reorient themselves to the new location when the entrance is opened again. And it worked. I opened the hive and placed a leafy branch in front of the hive. In a short time I observed foragers returning with pollen. Only about 100 older foragers were stubborn and returned to the old location.

New Location

A leafy branch over the entrance encouraged foragers to reorient to their new location.

I placed the hive close to another hive, hoping the workers were drift between the two hives and become a little more familiar with their neighbor’s scent. After a couple of weeks, it was time for the big merge.

Double Queen Setup

I removed the covers from both hives and moved them to a new stand I’d made earlier in the week. The hives were pushed up snug next to one another, creating a double-wide hive.

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I placed a queen excluder over the center, straddling the two hives. This allows the workers to move through, but prevents the queens from coming in contact with one another.

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Last, a super was placed over the excluder.

The theory is the combined work force allows the two hives to create more honey than they would be able to accomplish individually. I decided on a deep brood chamber and medium hive body for this experiment.

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That was a lot of activity and disruption for these two hives, primarily because moving them to the stand required taking the top boxes off so I could lift and move the bottom. I’ll leave them alone for at least a week and then see if both hives are working together amicably. Since the comb in the super is all drawn, I expect to need another super very soon.

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Long Live the Queens

I’m happy to believe things have settled here at Happy Florence Bees. It’s been a wild and crazy summer, especially with the queens.

On September 2, I made an unplanned inspection of a strong hive and discovered not only had the hive superceded their queen, but I opened the hive at the right moment to find two newly hatched virgin queens duking it out. Today I checked the split I made from that hive and both queens have mated and are just beginning to lay eggs. I hope to get a picture of the queens soon because they are HUGE.

The new queen in the smaller split is a bit skittish, and started running frantically when I pulled her frame. I gently led her back into the hive so I could check the frame for eggs, and after she reentered I HEARD HER PIPPING! I’ve never actually heard a queen making that distinctive sound. It’s a high-pitched pip. They’re the only bees that make a call. I wonder if she was calling for help because she was lost or because she felt threatened. Maybe she heard the tale that I carelessly squished a queen last month.

Just a week later, on September 9, I was apparently over-ambitious in my attempts to “manage” a hive They had an entire deep box of frames they weren’t using, so I removed it. At the same time, I put on a screened bottom board for better ventilation and to help control varroa mites. I guess they were happier with the extra space and preferred the darkness of the solid board and most of the hive took off the next day. I found a small clump of bees hanging under the entrance. They hung there overnight. The next day, Hial helped me shake them onto a sheet and I discovered the queen in that little clump. After trying to merge her little clump of bees with another hive, I ended up putting her in a push-in cage (a wire cage about 4-inches square) into a recently queenless hive. I left her in the cage for a full week and finally released her yesterday. The bees seem happy with her and so far she’s staying put.

I was concerned my other strong hive had also superceded their queen, but they haven’t and don’t have any queen cells started. She’s still laying well, so hopefully all eight hives will focus on getting ready for winter. Fortunately, they all have ample honey stores, with a little extra for me.

I’ll find out in about a month how the temperament of my queens’ brood is. Hopefully they found friendly drones and not mean ones.

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Timing is Everything

Like the time last summer when I walked out with a bag of trash just in time to see a hive swarming. Or this summer when I checked on a hive a week too late and discovered they’d absconded. But sometimes the timing is just right, like today.

I was doing some planned work on hive 5, rearranging brood to be in the same box, removing empty frames, and preparing the hive for varroa treatment later this week. I was pleased to discover that hive has more brood than I thought and plenty of honey stores, so they should be ready for winter.

It was such a pretty morning, so when I finished in that hive, I decided to check on hive 2. The last time I’d checked them, they had almost completely backfilled their top deep with honey in preparation for winter. At about 80 pounds, it was too heavy to lift, so I hadn’t checked the brood chamber. My goal this morning was to pull several deep frames of honey, but most of it was still uncapped and not ready to harvest. However, on one frame of drone comb, I found a capped queen cell. Odd. A deeper inspection was necessary.

First, I had to divide the honey frames so I could even lift the box, so I moved half of them to another box. In the bottom deep box, the first frame I pulled was an end frame and it had lots of capped brood. I also noticed a ball of bees that appeared to be fighting. I poked a little to separate them and discovered TWO QUEENS locked in mortal combat. They must have just hatched and went in search of each other for the battle to decide who would reign. I quickly separated them and moved one to a nuc in the back of the Gator and one to a frame from the hive body. I marked them both and split the hive, with half of the brood and honey for each.

I removed an older queen from a small, weak hive and put her in a nuc for safe keeping and replaced her with the capped cell from hive 2. If it doesn’t hatch, I can put the old queen back in.

So after the disasters of squashing a good queen, having a big hive abscond, and getting slammed with varroa mites, I’m back up to 9 hives plus a little nuc for emergencies. If I’d waited even an hour longer, I would have missed the queen battle and the opportunity to make a new hive. I don’t know what happened to the old queen in that hive. The population is too high for a swarm. This was her 2nd year, so maybe she was slowing down and the hive decided to replace her.

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The Year of Everything

This is turning out to be the year I experience just about everything in beekeeping.

The Good: Increase

I split four hives in April, increasing my growing apiary to nine hives. I also managed to avoid any swarming.

I merged two weak hives into one very strong hive. This merged hive was then requeened with an Italian queen from Koehnen Apiary. Her bees were like little drops of gold.

My most recent queen, raised by one of the hives rather than purchased, is laying well and the hive seems well-prepared for fall and winter. I have three very strong hives and three pretty good hives that have potential to overwinter successfully.

The Bad: Death

One of the queens I ordered from R Weaver got stuck in the candy in her cage. The candy was too soft and sticky and it was a warm and humid day when I put her cage in the hive. I was able to take a frame of eggs from my favorite hive and the new split raised their own queen from that frame.

A second-year queen was starting to slow down and the hive was preparing to replace her. I moved her and a couple of frames of bees to a nuc and the hive raised a new queen while the old queen was quite happy in her miniature hive and continues to lay eggs.

The Ugly: Vampires and Death

Things seemed to be going so well. New hives, new queens, happy bees. Then, tragedy.

My favorite hive was really slowing down and I discovered they had been hit hard by varroa mites. Little blood-sucking mites that get into the brood right before it’s capped and suck on the poor little bees until they hatch, assuming they survive. Once capped, the varroa mite hiding in the cell lays 4 eggs with will hatch 3 female and 1 male mite. They new mites reproduce while feeding on the larva, then the females attach to it and emerge with the bee when she hatches. Varroa carry a virus called Deformed Wing Virus and I saw a few bees that had it. They’ll never fly because their wings aren’t fully formed.

But it gets worse. It’s too hot to use most of the varroa treatments, so I dusted the hive with powdered sugar which gets makes them groom more and pick off the mites. But in my research on various treatments, it was suggested to temporarily remove the queen until all the brood in the hive have hatched so there’s no new brood cells. I thought it would be worth a try. But instead of fixing the problem, I accidentally killed the queen. She and all her bees were still unhappy about being dusted with sugar so when I opened the hive a second time, she was in the honey super, not where I would expect to see her, and she got crushed when I set the super aside.

I’ve noticed most of my hives that have a queen from Koehnen or a daughter of a queen from them are suffering from varroa infestation. My suspicion is one side effect of their docile nature is they aren’t as diligent about removing the mites from each other or from cells containing the mites. The hives with queens from R Weaver and BeeWeaver are less effected because those apiaries have been working to breed bees less susceptible to varroa.

The Uglier: Abandoned

One of my strong hives, the one made from two merged hives and queened with the beautiful golden queen, has absconded – flown away.

At the beginning of July this hive was doing great, lots of brood, honey, and pollen. The queen was laying very well. Over the past few days though, I’ve noticed there was less activity around the entrance. I knew it was trouble when I opened the hive. A few bees, mostly robbers, in the honey super. But in the hive body, nothing. No eggs, no larva, no capped brood, no stores. There was one capped and one uncapped queen cell and a handful of bees left to tend them, but the rest of the hive is gone. It wasn’t a swarm either, because not only is it not the right time of year, a swarm would leave brood and more bees behind to continue the hive. The purpose of a swarm is to increase. This hive was just gone. And they took everything with them.

What Now?

I’m continuing to research varroa treatments. The EPA has recently approved oxalic acid to kill varroa and I’ll be trying that on my queenless hive in two weeks (when the remaining brood will hatch). Then I’ll merge them with my nuc and queen and hope to carry them through the winter. I’ll write another post with the results.

When the temperature is cool enough to treat the other hives, I’m wanted to try Api-life-var, a soft chemical treatment that is supposed to be effective, but can’t be used when the temperatures are above 90 degrees, which might not happen until the end of September, far too long to wait. I’ll have to try something else.

I’m trying not to be discouraged by the ugly and uglier experiences. I was very unhappy to kill my favorite queen, but in truth I would have had to replace her next year.

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