Yes, I’ve Seen the Flow Hive Video
I really appreciate that you’ve taken an interest in my hobby, but I’m going to say this once.
Please stop sending me links to the Flow Hive hype video.
Even if I wanted a Flow Hive, even if I had a Flow Hive, just way too many of you are dog-piling me with videos of the amazing new bee hive from Australia that you can tap like a keg of Foster’s.
I don’t want to bore you to death with the esoteric debate among beekeepers about the Flow Hive’s inadequacies (we all hate the thing, the debate is about why). Instead, let me tell you about the time I was nearly stung to death.
My wife and I are bad, lazy beekeepers. We often neglect to do hive-checks to assess the health of our colony, because we have to get up so damn early, and because we have to pull on funny clothes, and getting my hood and veil on correctly is a real pain, and the gloves are a bitch to work with, and the smoke stings the hell out of our eyes. We’ve found it’s a lot easier just to sleep and let the wild civilization of soldiers and nurses do their thing in our yard’s back corner. We’ll check the hive some day. Hell, maybe we’ll even harvest this year.
One of those days finally came when we actually had to crack open the hive and see what the bees had been up to. My wife was slow to get up. It’s a two person job, but it needed doing and quick, because after 10:00am the colony is fully active and less docile.
I was already out of bed, my wife likes to sleep, and all I had to do that morning was replace a frame we’d removed the week before to make space for a queen cage to, introduce a new queen to the colony. While inside I’d just take a peak at the other frames to make sure the new queen was busy laying eggs.
So I let my own queen bee take her time getting ready, while I bounded to the garage, fired up the smoker, and set to work pissing off a hive of bees!
You’re probably assuming that I wear some kind of sting-proof suit when I actually get around to opening up my beehive. This is not the case. Most beekeepers don’t wear anything that can be called “sting proof”, and even if there were such suits, they’d be heavy, and way too hot in the summer. Some beekeepers feel comfortable enough handling their bees in short sleeves.
The best way to avoid stings is by not making the bees sting you. Which is to say, avoid pissing off your bees. Wear light colors, and definitively not black or red, which will excite them. Wear a hood and veil over your face, because if you do get stung, at least it won’t be your eyes. Some beekeepers go without gloves, but I’m not crazy.
Bees communicate through pheromones. When guard bees outside the hive sense a threat, they release chemicals that alert the rest of the hive, calling on soldiers to attack. This is why beekeepers use smoke. It masks the scent of attack pheromones and keeps the colony calm as you work with them.
Work slowly, and deliberately, and don’t disturb the bees too much, and you should be able to inspect each frame of your hive without getting stung.
I set about doing just that; blowing smoke into the hive entrance before removing the lid. All was going well enough until I removed a frame from the center of the hive. If you’ll recall, we had removed a frame a week earlier to make room for a queen cage. In that time the bees had built a sheet of “wild comb” (a wavy, natural strip of comb, not attached to a frame), in the empty space created by the queen cage. It was attached to the bottom of the frame I was removing, so I found myself suddenly holding a heavy mass of wax, filled with honey and larvae, and covered in bees.
It was as I tried to remove this rogue comb that I got my first sting, on my elbow. It hurt, but no more than cologne on a freshly shaved face, so I pumped some more smoke into the hive and around myself and kept working.
Then I got another sting on my elbow, and one on my ankle. And soon bees were boiling out of the hive.
When a bee stings, she’s sacrificing herself for her colony. Her stinger is barbed so that it stays in your skin, but that also means that when she flies away (to continue harassing you) she pulls out her intestines, and will soon die. Her stinger continues to release venom into your skin and emit a powerful pheromone directing her sisters to continue attacking that location.
I ran away from the hive to my front yard, pulled out the stingers, covered myself in smoke, and returned to finish my job.
The bees resumed their attack almost instantly. They could still smell their sisters’ stings on me, they could still recognize me, and they knew that I was no good. Dozens chased me down my driveway to my water spigot, where I tried to hose them off.
And this is the part of the trauma that I remember in slow motion: Swiping bees off my ankle and elbow, trying to pull them off, screaming, turning the handle on the spigot, my neighbor across the street getting a free show. I can still clearly see four bees clutching the fabric of my sleeve, each of them deliberately lowering their abdomens to deliver four more sharp stings to my extremity, before being joined by more of their sisters. More than with pain, I was struck with the thought that these were astonishing creatures.
Individually, each bee is just a stupid insect, but together, evolution had blessed them with remarkable intelligence; identifying a threat, orchestrating an attack, and pursuing their target. Watching those bees sink their stingers into me was excruciating, and fascinating, and holy.
I lost count of how many stings I took after I hit nineteen. My wife had to suit up and put the hive back together while I watched from inside the kitchen, angry bees throwing themselves at the window, able to smell me through the door, all the while ignoring my wife.
I spent the rest of that day on the couch, unable to walk due to stabbing pain in my foot,and nauseous from toxic levels of venom. For more than a week I couldn’t step outside my kitchen door without a half dozen bees darting away from the hive to kill me. Since then I’ve never tried to do a hive check without help, and it’s always been with caution and trepidation.
On summer days the activity of the hive reaches a peak. Workers enter and emerge from the hive by the hundreds. These foragers can fly as far as five miles from their home to collect pollen and nectar. They work all summer turning drops of sugar-water into gallons of honey. Each will die within weeks from exhaustion, but their mother continues to lay tens of thousands of eggs that their sisters care for until they emerge from their cells and instinctively begin doing their own work feeding the young, cleaning cells, carrying away the dead, finding food, and protecting the hive. They do this without instruction. They sense work to be done, and they do it.
Always, around 3:00, this ceaseless coming and going becomes a frenzied cloud of silvery wings, whirling like a cyclone around the hive. If I’m home, I’ll sit by the hive and watch in amazement.
The Flow Hive promises to make beekeeping easy. It forgets all the work that’s required to keep a colony healthy throughout the year, and fixates on one chore which is no more difficult than any of the others. A proper beekeeper — even a lazy one — will still need to don hood and veil, and smoke the hive, and take it apart to make sure the bees are not sick from parasites or fungi. Whether or not I harvest by removing frames of honey comb or cracking them open with the turn of the Flow Hive’s crank, there is still a lot of work to be done until that day.
What the Flow Hive promises is to take beekeepers a step away from their bees. It promises to turn a bee hive from a brilliant sisterhood of nurses, caretakers, soldiers, and foragers into a mere honey factory.
Honey is just a happy circumstance of sharing our yard with bees. I don’t keep them for the honey, but because they are beautiful, and they are fascinating. By feeding their colony they pollinate the flowers and vegetables in my neighborhood, making it possible for our gardens to bear fruit and propagate.
The bees remind me that the universe is infinitely bigger and smaller than any of my human worries, and that any anxiety I suffer from work or bills are minor in comparison.
The Flow Hive offers to take me further away from bees and the natural world they come from. Why would I want to do that? I want more opportunities to encounter them, not fewer.
The Flow Hive looks amazing, but the bees are amazing.
If this wasn’t too stupid for you, please click the heart to like it, and share it with your friends. Unless the Flow Hive video is cooler.
Peter J Roth is a scalawag playwright from Cleveland. Follow him on Twitter @PeterJ_Roth.