CENT A swarm to backyard beekeeping - CNET

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Yara Shahidi Winter 2018 cover

See more great articles from CNET Magazine.Mark Mann

I'm wearing two pairs of pants, a long-sleeved shirt beneath a white heavy-duty jacket, thick goatskin gloves and a round helmet with a wire veil. I look like a combination of the Michelin Man and Buzz Lightyear.

Earlier in the morning, my husband picked up a cardboard box of bees, or a "nuc" (pronounced "nuke" and short for "nucleus colony"), from our local backyard farm store, and now it's time to transfer the buzzing mass to our hive. Despite my protective getup, my hands are shaking, and nervous sweat is trickling down my forehead -- exactly how I don't want to be reacting. Bees can't necessarily sense fear, but they do respond to any sudden nervous movements, and if one bee is in distress, it will send out "attack pheromones" alerting the others that the hive is under threat.

I've been growing fruits and veggies and raising chickens in my Northern California yard for nearly a decade, and delving into harvesting honey has always been the next logical step. But there's one thing that's delayed my leap into beekeeping. I'm, well... terrified of being stung.

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Bees form comb on the lower frames of the Flow Hive.Josh Miller/CNET

That's partly what drew me to the Flow Hive earlier this year. It's an alternative to the traditional beehive, one that promises to let people harvest honey with "minimal disturbance" to the bees. The hive, which started as a crowdfunding campaign three years ago, is the brainchild of Stuart and Cedar Anderson, father and son beekeepers from rural Australia.

"I just felt that there had to be a better way to harvest honey than the way I was doing it. It was hot, heavy work, nearly always on a hot day, and it felt pretty rough on the bees," Cedar Anderson says in an email interview. "It's pretty hard to harvest in the conventional way without ending up killing at least some."

Going with the Flow

The old-school method of honey harvesting typically involves a traditional Langstroth hive, named after its inventor, Lorenzo Langstroth, a Philadelphia clergyman who designed it in the mid-1800s. Inside, movable boxes are stacked vertically, each with eight to 10 frames on which honeybees can build their combs.

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The author's husband opens up the back of the Flow Hive.Josh Miller/CNET

To extract honey from a Langstroth hive, you start by removing the frames one by one, brushing the bees loose (inevitably squashing some of them) and using a serrated knife to scrape the wax covering the cells, all while working hard not to stir up a cloud of angry defenders. Then you use a device, either hand-cranked or powered by a motor, to spin the frames using centrifugal force until the honey runs out of the cells and is drained into buckets. It's a process that can take hours or even days.

Though you may still crush a wayward bee or two, the Flow Hive dramatically changes the harvesting process. It looks similar to the Langstroth on the outside, and in fact, it borrows a lot of features from it, but the Flow Hive's frames have preformed partial honeycomb cells made of plastic.

When the beekeeper inserts a tool and turns it (sort of like a beer tap), the cells in the comb form channels that let the honey flow down and out of the hive. For the beekeeper, the benefit is that you can harvest the honey without opening up the hive and disturbing the bees. "People have been scraping frames and spinning honey for hundreds of years, and that works and that's fine," says Matt Bludorn, a backyard beekeeper and ER physician in Bryan, Texas. "But I think this works a little better."

The Andersons debuted the Flow Hive on Indiegogo in February 2015, and within minutes of its launch, the campaign had surpassed its goal of reaching $70,000. By the end of the campaign, they had raised $12.2 million and reached a new Indiegogo record. Since then, they've expanded to around 35 employees and sold more than 54,000 hives.

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The back of the Flow Hive allows you to view and access the honey without disturbing the bees.Josh Miller/CNET

Buzzkill?

But the hive has stirred up controversy among traditional beekeepers, starting with its steep cost. The original Flow Hive starts at $699, and the latest iteration of the hive, the Flow Hive 2, is a staggering $749. That compares with around $200 for a standard Langstroth kit.

Novella Carpenter, author of "Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer," says the Flow Hive's high price doesn't really make things easier for people who are struggling to get started in beekeeping. She points instead to the increasing popularity of DIY methods that let you build hives from scratch using wood from a building supply store. "There's this whole DIY movement of people who want to have bees but they don't want to pay for all the expensive equipment," she says.

Carpenter, who teaches writing and urban agriculture at the University of San Francisco, also objects to the amount of plastic used in the Flow Hive. "A lot of times the last thing the bees want to do is build out comb onto plastic," she says. "Who knows why?"

Even Anderson admits that sometimes it can take longer for bees to fill the comb on the plastic Flow frames with honey than they would with conventional wooden Langstroth frames. "In that case, you can press some wax or burr comb onto the frames," he says. "Once it's been used the first time, bees will treat it like any other comb."

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Bees beginning their work in a hive.Josh Miller/CNET

Tapping into controversy

But the most contentious debate concerning the Flow Hive has to do with the hands-off mentality surrounding it. Traditional beekeepers worry that because you can tap in to the hive easily, it sends a message to people that they can get the honey without the hassle, when actually you need to be constantly maintaining your hive and managing your colony's health. "The idea of oh, you just crack it open and no work, no muss ... I don't totally agree with it," Carpenter says.

John Chesnut, a botanist who keeps hives in California's San Luis Obispo County, agrees, adding that the hands-off attitude that accompanies the Flow could encourage lazy beekeeping and mistakes. "Beekeeping has never been a casual endeavor," he says. "The traditional kit -- a string of [Langstroth-style] hives and an extractor for honey collection -- makes more sense practically and economically for the committed beekeeper."

Chesnut, who learned beekeeping 45 years ago, believes the Flow Hive is just a fad and that once the hype dies down, the "newbies" will just move on to the next trend. "Keeping homicidal, venomous insects quickly loses its charm, unless you're deeply committed -- and the Marie Antoinette-style make-believe farmers are just going to disappear in a season or two."

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The author and her family inspect the Flow frames.Josh Miller/CNET

Anderson says that whether you choose a conventional beehive or Flow Hive, there will always be people who get excited and then lose interest. On the other hand, "There's also going to be a lot of people who become committed, responsible, long-term beekeepers."

But while an unattended garden is a problem only for its owner, a lack of effort with beekeeping can be downright catastrophic. Talk to any longtime beekeeper, and you'll hear tales of colony collapse disorder, in which the majority of the worker bees mysteriously disappear, leaving the queen and her brood to die. While colony collapse isn't completely understood, beekeeping practices play a huge part in it. Keepers who don't regularly check on the health of their bees can easily allow the spread of pathogens to other nearby healthy hives. Novices who aren't aware of the challenges, or who aren't willing to put in the effort, risk destroying their own hives -- and other hives miles away from them.

Dedicated beekeepers must stay vigilant, constantly monitoring their hives to ensure the bees have enough nutrition to carry them through a cold spell and looking out for disease and parasites such as the varroa mite, which the US Department of Agriculture dubs "the single most detrimental pest of honeybees."

Now playing: Watch this: The Honey Flow is crowd-funding gold

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Bad beekeeping

Nonetheless, lazy beekeeping will always exist, no matter the hive setup that people choose. Bludorn, who owns both a Langstroth and a Flow Hive, says it comes down to the beekeeper, not the hive type. Regardless of which hive he's using, he has to do the same things for the colonies to thrive. "You've got to control for pests, and you've got to monitor the hives; all that stuff is exactly the same," he says. "There's months and months of stuff you have to do before you actually use the 'flow' portion of your Flow Hive, and if you don't get that right, it's just not going to work."

At a time when there's an ever-growing demand for pollinators, there's something to be said for a contraption that makes harvesting honey easier and that could potentially convert more hobbyists into devoted beekeepers. The number of professional beekeepers has been decreasing every year, and between 2015 and 2016, the nation's beekeepers lost 44 percent of their colonies, according to the USDA. That's due to a combination of pesticides, parasites and loss of habitat -- and though bees have slowly been making a comeback over the past couple of years, there's still a long ways to go.

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Good beekeepers need to regularly check on the health of their bees.Josh Miller/CNET

Bees among us

Honeybees, as pollinators for many crops, are vital to our food supply. They're especially critical in my state of California, which produces about 80 percent of the world's almonds. Each year roughly 1.7 million hives are moved into California's Central Valley to pollinate the state's almond crop. That's more than half of the entire honeybee population in the United States. And a steady increase in the acreage devoted to almonds means a rising demand for honeybees.

Granted, backyard beekeepers won't boost California's food supply anytime soon, but more bees and genetic diversity can't hurt, and though there are fewer pros every year, more hobbyist beekeepers are jumping onboard. The American Beekeeping Federation has seen a 45 percent increase in membership since 1999. The majority of its members are small-scale beekeepers, or hobbyists who own fewer than 25 hives.

The relaxation of urban regulations prohibiting beekeeping has encouraged more people to get involved. Major cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Seattle have lifted beekeeping bans thanks to growing demand from hobbyists. "It's the legalization of it that's making it more attractive to people, I think," says Carpenter, "just knowing that it's not illegal. People are saying, 'Oh, OK. I can do this.'"

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Each frame slides into the Flow Hive's housing.Josh Miller/CNET

A sweet beginning

So far, my own experience with beekeeping has been limited, but I'm pretty sure I'm in it for the long haul. If all goes well, we'll collect around 35 pounds of honey in the fall. That's a lot of honey. Some of it we'll enjoy ourselves; some of it we'll give to friends and neighbors; and some of it will go back to the bees as food to help them survive a cold winter.

And as it turns out, my fears about transferring the nuc to the hive were unfounded. After we used a smoker to puff several wisps around the frames, the bees buzzed lazily around us, paying zero attention to the humans looming over them. (The smoke masks the smell of the alarm pheromones they use when they think their hive is under attack.) Without a care in the world, my 7-year-old son helped move frames swarming with bees. That's not to say I won't eventually get stung -- I probably will. But for now I'm simply marveling at the sight of the bees at work and reveling in the meditative hum in my backyard. 

This story appears in the Fall 2018 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.

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