Flow Hive: Honey on tap

29 Dec 2015

Author: Simon Webster



A beehive that makes honey available on tap has captured the public’s imagination and set a crowdfunding record by raising more than US$12 million. Father-and-son inventors Stuart and Cedar Anderson, who suddenly have an international business to run, hope that bees, and the environment, will also benefit from their invention.
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When father-and-son team Stuart and Cedar Anderson put their backyard invention on crowdfunding website Indiegogo in February 2015, they had no idea what to expect.

Fingers crossed, they hoped they would raise the US$70,000 needed to put their revolutionary beehive into production.

It took three minutes. After two days they’d hit the US$2 million mark, and by the end of the eight-week campaign they had sold about 26,000 hives, raising US$12.2 million, setting an Indiegogo fundraising record.

Six months later, production was underway, and the Andersons’ company, BeeInventive, was receiving $30,000 worth of orders a day. Sixty per cent of their orders have come from the US, 20 per cent from Australia, and the rest from more than 130 countries around the world. 

“It’s extraordinary,” says 61-year-old Stuart from his home on a community farm in the hills of northern New South Wales. “I never imagined it would be as big as this.” 

The Flow Hive makes harvesting honey so easy that the Andersons say it is the biggest thing to happen to beekeeping for 150 years. Rather than having to dismantle the hive, disturb the bees and use equipment such as suits, smokers, centrifugal honey extractors, decapping knives and sieves, the beekeeper simply turns a tap at the back of the hive and collects the honey as it pours out.

Stuart hopes the invention will encourage more people to stick with a hobby that is all too often given up because it can be so time-consuming.

“Weekend after weekend, beekeepers don’t get round to robbing their bees,” he says. “There’s plenty of honey sitting in urban hives which doesn’t get harvested because it’s going to take a day or a day and half to do it all, and you’re going to end up with a sticky kitchen. It’s a shame.”

Not only does the Flow Hive potentially make beekeeping easier, but it is kinder on the bees, whose hives need to be dismantled less often. Bees that are less cranky also means fewer stings for the beekeeper. 

Protective clothing is only needed when giving the hive a thorough health check a few times a year. 

Flow Hives can also be more productive than standard hives, the Andersons say. Beekeepers can harvest as much or as little as they like, freeing up space for the bees to make more honey, and increasing a hive’s yields through more frequent collection. 

With bee populations worldwide under pressure due to pesticide use, the parasitic varroa mite and the mysterious colony collapse disorder, another advantage of the Flow Hive is an observation window that allows the beekeeper to keep an eye on the bees’ health. 

Cedar, 35, says the window brings keeper and bees in closer contact. 

“You can actually see the bees’ tongues filling the honeycomb cells with honey,” Cedar says. “You can tell when the honey is full and tell how the bees are going. Backyard beekeepers are more in tune with the hive and able to see whether the hive is in trouble or not.

“It’s my hope that we can build a community of beekeepers around the globe keeping bees this way. I think that dream is really quite possible.”

Cedar, who lives about an hour’s drive from his father, near Byron Bay, was the driving force at the birth of the Flow Hive project in 2005, inspired by the idea of making honey collection easier.  

“We had bees when we were kids,” Cedar says. “Pulling the whole hive apart, disturbing the bees, and having to do the long, labour intensive process of harvesting honey… I just thought, ‘there has to be a better way’. So we set out trying to achieve the beekeeper’s dream.”

Cedar’s persistence was crucial, says Stuart. “We’d bounce ideas around and Cedar would go off and make the ideas, constructing what we’d dreamed up. He put in most of the work in the early days.”

After experimenting with lots of prototypes, the Andersons overcame their biggest challenge - getting the honeycomb cells to release the viscous honey - by inventing a system in which the bees are given a partly formed plastic honeycomb structure that they complete with their wax. When the beekeeper turns the tap, the honeycomb cells split, to form zigzagging channels that send the honey down a pipe and out of the hive. 

“We didn’t know whether it was going to work,” Stuart says. “We were really pleased to find that that the bees crawled around on the surface of the comb as if nothing was going on while the honey was coming out beneath their feet.”

In 2011 Stuart gave up his job as manager of a men’s family centre to work full-time with Cedar on developing the Flow Hive. Cedar had all but phased out his work as a paragliding trainer. Trials at home and among other beekeepers showed that the invention worked, and the crowdfunding soon revealed the extraordinary level of demand.

The next challenge was managing that level of interest and producing the hives. A Brisbane manufacturer, Marco Engineering, was engaged to produce the flow frames. The hive boxes are being built from sustainably grown western red cedar by Bee Thinking, a company based in Oregon, in the US.

“It’s been all hands to the pumps,” Stuart says. “We couldn’t have done it without a network of family and friends who have been willing to drop everything and help us. We have a team of six to 10 people dealing full-time with email and Facebook inquiries.”

The Andersons are now in the process of giving their company a proper structure as well as trying to the meet their orders. Commercial beekeepers as well as backyard hobbyists have shown an interest in the Flow Hive, but they’re going to have to wait. “There’s too much going on,” Stuart says.

It’s a far cry from the usual peace and quiet of Stuart’s life on a community farm that he describes as “a small village of friends”. Stuart helped establish this “intentional community” in 1977. He was one of a passionate group of people living the hippie dream in the beautiful Northern Rivers region of NSW, which was attracting large numbers of alternative lifestylers.

“We were lucky that we were able to buy land relatively cheaply,” Stuart says. “It’s meant I haven’t needed much to live on and I’ve been able to focus on the invention. 

“You need an economic system that gives people time to pursue their interests. If I was flat-strapped trying to pay off a mortgage I wouldn’t have had time to do this.”

Stuart had grown up in the suburbs of Melbourne with bees in the backyard, and then in Canberra, where his father, an academic, had a hive on the garage roof.

When he moved to the Northern Rivers, aged 22, Stuart set up his own hives on the farm. He also developed his self-sufficiency skills, helping build houses and a standalone solar power system for the community.

Cedar inherited the inventing gene, in spades, pulling apart a car and using solar panels to light up its dashboard, and persuading his father to convert their cars to run off vegetable oil. He and his two older brothers helped make and maintain a motorised cart that they rode to school through neighbouring properties.

“We had no TV, by choice,” Stuart says, “so there was more time for Cedar to make things and hang outside and run around the bush with his friends.” 

Flow Hive Indiegogo crowd funding full reveal video - 2015

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