Picture from thermosolarhive.com

Picture from thermosolarhive.com

The fundraising effort for this new hive technology is not flooding the internet as the FlowHive did, perhaps because there is no dramatic visual like the infamous pancake video. Just claims of dead varroa and live bees without chemicals. Or perhaps the internet does not wish to rouse those grouchy, skeptical beekeepers again?

The hive is basically an insulated version of the familiar vertical hive of stacking, frame-holding boxes with solar heating built in. When treatment is required, the beekeeper removes the outer cover exposing a "thermosolar ceiling" to the sun. When the built-in thermometer indicates 117°F(47°C) the cover is restored and this elevated temperature is maintained, causing mites to fall off and die while not harming bees or brood. Such is the claim anyway. What is our take?

  • It is true that bees tolerate elevated temperatures much better than varroa mites and so hive heating treatments have been attempted before, usually requiring the hive body or some frames to be moved to an incubator and back. The promise of treating in situ is appealing.

  • This hive has the advantage of using solar radiation for the heating so no batteries to charge, no fuel tanks to fill, and nothing to transport to the hives.

  • This hive also has the disadvantage of using solar radiation for the heating so the time required to reach therapeutic temperature is unpredictable. In our area sunlight is a tremendously variable resource.

  • There seems a bit of marketing with avarice aforethought being perpetrated as they list all the nasty miticides not needed. Better chemicals are more commonly used these days. Still this uses none.

  • They also list in passing a number of bee diseases (including European and American foulbrood) implying that this hive prevents or treats all those as well. There seems little reason to expect this.2016-06-24 Per a reply from one of the developers this was a misunderstanding on our part and the diseases were listed without intention to imply efficacy against them but merely to indicate how many problems beset honeybees.

  • Naturally the beeks of the internet are already bickering over whether the recommended temperatures may harm brood or melt wax or weaken drone sperm. Just as naturally the makers claim none of these are a problem.

In conclusion there is a germ of scientific truth at the bottom of the claims. Whether that has been effectively exploited in a product that will reliably work wherever varroa is found is another question. Our interest is piqued but we will once more leave it to others to find out first.

2016-06-24 Not everyone reads the comments to a post so we will draw attention to this Bad Beekeeping Blog post about a bee sauna, which links to fifteen-year-old USDA report on applying heat to remove varroa from bees. That report states that such application of heat had been in use for twenty years in parts of eastern Europe. This kind of treatment seems to have a long history yet the report concludes that "Overall, heat treatment is a risky procedure. Even 40°C, the lowest temperature that can remove all the mites is perilously close to temperatures that kill bees."

Meanwhile the developers express understanding of skepticism but stand behind the product and invite interested parties to a public treatment in August held in the Czech Republic.

FlowFrameIf you are a beekeeper then, of course, you have. Ad nauseam. One weekend last February you could not swing a LOLcat without hitting an enthusiastic article about the apparatus at left, part of a system to drain honey from a hive without opening it. The articles were mostly the same few news reports being repeated along with excited blog posts by non-beekeepers with many links to the marketing video. Beekeeper opinions seemed harder to find except for a few surprising testimonials on the company site. Perhaps, as we were, the beeks were getting emails from friends and family asking for an opinion.

Before we could finish researching and mulling for our readership the energetic Emily Scott scooped us with a detailed report including a link to the the patent and a poll of her readership. Other bee bloggers slowly and thoughtfully chimed in, such as Rusty at Honey Bee Suite or globe-trotting beekeeper Kris Fricke or this beekeeping vlogger or vlogging beekeeper whose work we shall be watching.

That left little for our inexperienced selves to add to the discussion and the furor seemed to die down. No doubt there will be more once the early adopters start using the devices but until then it is beekeeping as usual.

But then the flow hive was brought up during a question and answer session at the SEMBA conference in March. We ourselves were asked about it at the April meeting of Ann Arbor Backyard Beekeepers. A co-worker emailed us in early June. A friend asked our niece the week after. Someone asked our beekeeping host at a party near June’s end. A week ago a store-owner brought it up to us as we were chatting at the register. It appears with such regularity that we went looking fruitlessly for a widget to add to our layout that would show "Days since anyone mentioned that flow-hive".

So for the sake of our non-beekeeping readership who does not regularly read all the bee blogs we do, we should at least point to a few references, which we have just done two paragraphs ago, and perhaps organize our own bullet-pointed summary after all if only to show off the cute little animated gif on which we spent so much time. The longer we delay this post the less of its dwindling relevance it will have and we will have completely wasted our time on the rough drafts. So here we go, succumbing to the sunk cost fallacy for any of our readers who still may care:

  • First of all, we give the inventors (in a warm, sunny part of varroa-free Australia) the benefit of doubt in believing their reported experiences. They are surely honest beekeepers but just as surely someone has committed marketing on their behalf.

  • Honey flowing into an open jar (or onto a stack of pancakes as in the video) seems to be asking for a robbing frenzy in the beeyard although the inventors claim their bees take no notice. The patent mentions the more credible draining into sealed containers.

  • Not all honey flows readily. Ivy and heather are notoriously difficult to harvest. Even more common clover or multifloral honey can be reluctant to flow in cooler temperatures.

  • How can the beekeeper decide if the frame is ready for harvest? Peeking in the device’s window just shows the edge of the comb. Hefting the box to judge by weight is not quite opening the hive but neither is it leaving the bees undisturbed.

  • It seems to be promoting the wrong-headed notion of a beehive as just a noisy honey jar with a tap like a beer keg. This is probably what provokes the most visceral negative reaction.

  • flowFrameIt is, one must admit, mechanically clever. There, we have said something nice about it.

  • The mechanism is expensive. If it catches on one would expect the price to drop but it is unlikely to become inexpensive. For a commercial beekeeper one per colony would be a significant investment.

  • Plastic mechanisms are prone to wear and breaking. How long before an expensive replacement is needed?

  • Bees have a well documented reluctance to use plastic foundation. How well will they take to these plastic cells? One could counter this pessimism by pointing out the success of some beeks at using entire polystyrene hives.

  • For a high price it seems to merely make more convenient the least difficult part of beekeeping. Honey harvest can admittedly be messy and sticky but becomes less so with practice.

As keepers of non-conventional beehives it is hard to see how we could retrofit this device. And, as the skepticism in our comments indicates, we are neither inclined to try nor tempted to go Langstroth for the sake of using it. Perhaps this will sweep the world and revolutionize beekeeping as the marketing claims but at risk of being old sticks-in-the-mud we only foresee a brief wave of badly kept bees before the idea is abandoned.

And you kids should get off our lawn.