Harvest with Stu and the Flow Frame design

by Flow Hive 9 min read

Today Stu was back at Flow HQ to talk about Flow Frame design and answer your questions. Unfortunately, technical difficulties meant that we had to cut the broadcast short. Stu still had time to give some tips on candied honey and cleaning Flow Frames.  




Candied honey and sample harvest

It's great to be with you again on this beautiful, beautiful sunny morning here in Northern New South Wales. It's particularly beautiful because we've had so much rain, weeks and weeks of it, and the ground's really sodden the water table is right up to the brim. But now the air is crisp and clear. It's been washed absolutely clean and everything seems right with the world, you know? 

So today besides your responding to your questions, please feel welcome to text in your questions. We'll do a little bit of a harvest and I want to talk to you a little bit about the Flow Frame design, just for fun.

One of the questions I get a lot, particularly in the UK, but sometimes in Australia and in the U.S. as well, is what happens if candied honey gets in the Flow Frames? Candied honey is a real hassle when it's candied in honeycomb or in the Flow Frames. And so the usual way that beekeepers will deal with that is to take the Flow Frames or the conventional frames, and put them in some sort of warming box. They’ll very, very slowly warm the honey to about 40 degrees, where it'll sort of liquefy again and you can extract. So you can do that with Flow Frames, or conventional

But the Flow offers some advantages. That's why I wanted to talk to you now just as I harvest. And one is that you can sample the honey just from the very, very end of the Flow Frame. And you do that by just inserting this cake in here, half an inch, a centimetre, and it's just working the very first segment. That's interesting. It's very jammed. So we might end up working the second segment. 

And so now you can see just that first drip coming there. That's a way of just getting 40 or 50ml, a small amount of honey. Which you could sample with your refractometer, if you use one of those. That tells you the moisture content. The reason you would do that, if you're worried about getting candied honey, if you know the bees are bringing in nectar that creates a candying type of honey, is that you've usually just got a short window from when the honey ripens when it's the right percentage and the bees are storing it, to when it starts candying. 

Often it won't candy actually in the hive itself. It'll be when you remove the honey usually, conventionally taking the whole super off. Then the frames cool a little bit and the honey candies in the frame. So here now we've just got this tiny amount. We could sample that if we wanted with a refractometer determine that, yes, it's good to go, it's around that 18% moisture. And therefore you could harvest the whole frame. And of course, you can just keep an eye on it, just taking a little bit at a time. “Oh yeah, it's not ready yet. It's maybe 15%. We'll wait a couple more days and we'll harvest then knowing that the bees will be fanning it off and getting it ready.” 

So there we are sampling a tiny amount. If you decide that you want to sample for whatever reason, it might be that you just want to take a little bit to give someone a taste and you're not really ready to take the whole frame yet. Or perhaps you just insert the key just a quarter of the way into a quarter of a frame, it's two litres in a frame. So that's a 500ml jar of honey by inserting it that far. So maybe you want to show it off three days in a row to your different friends that are coming. If you want to do a little bit at a time anyway, you can do that with the Flow Frames. So there we go, the honey’s just coming quite steadily actually from just the very, very end segment of the Flow Frame.

Now I'll give that example. We'll just put it in a quarter of the way and operate it. Just a guess, if you want, you can get really exact on that. So now, there's the frame, about that much of the frame is being harvested. Of course, you’ll want to take a note of that because from the end view, now it'll be looking empty. Whereas three-quarters of the frame is still full. And so you need to write your notes in whatever way you keep your beekeeping notes, and sometimes a photo or a video will help.

Flow Frame design

While that’s draining, I did want to talk to you about the process of me and Cedar inventing the Flow Frames. And you're all familiar with the main part of the Flow Frame, which are the cells that split horizontally so the honey can go down to the channel. But there were a whole lot of other aspects to making this whole thing work. 

So Cedar and I had designed this part of it, that the essential sort of guts you would say, of the Flow Frame, the way they work. But we hadn't figured out how it all would hold together and what the ends would be like. And an aspect of inventing is just being able to throw out your preconceived ideas. Which isn't always easy, because you don't know that you've got these ideas. We had assumed that these frames would hang inside the beehive, just like standard wooden or plastic frames do. And that therefore we'd be reaching through the back wall somehow for the key to access and for the honey tube to access. And we were wondering how we were going to do that, how that would line up properly.

There was another problem too, and that is that theplastic polypropylene that the main part of the frame is made from. It's food-grade and BPA free and so on, really high-quality plastic, but it's not the right one for the ends. The ends have to be a lot stronger because most of you watching will already have been levering these out of a beehive. And you know that the bees will stick them all together with propolis. So the ends had to be quite tough plastic and Cedar had this idea: “Well, we've got to make them accessible. We've got to make them tough. Why don't we make it out of polycarbonate? And why don't we make that clear? And if we did that, would we be able to make them join together at one end and actually form a wall to form the outside wall of the hive?”

Great idea, I thought, but I don't know if either of us had realised what that would mean. It meant that you can see the bees as they’re working up and down in between the frames. And you can actually see them go down into the end-most cell because the clear part forms the end cell. So you can watch the bees working down in the cells, watch their tongues licking in and out, watch them clean up the cells. You can watch them jostling around in between the frames and you can get a sense of how crowded the hive is from that. And you can just enjoy watching them. Sometimes they'll have a little sleep there and you can tap on there and wake them up if you want. So you get that lovely end view. 

And we had another thing we didn't realise with Cedar's idea of, well, let's make it out of clear ends, is that you'll be able to see the different colours of honey. And even on this hive, you can see there are some different colours. They're indicating that the bees have separated the various nectars and are storing them separately. And when you harvest with Flow Frames, it's so easy just to access mono-floral honey, that is honey from just one source. And therefore just be tasting one plant, not a mixture of plants when you're tasting your honey and putting it on your breakfast. 

What is the best method to clean the Flow Frames?

Generally, you don't need to clean them. Although, sometimes I find when I look down the tube before I put the honey tube in, when I looked down the trough, it has got dirty.  In which case I'll take the key and get a wet bit of cloth, like a tea towel or something like that. And just poke it down the tube, poke it down this hole here and maybe twist it a bit and pull it out. Usually, I find a  strip of cloth works best and just clean down in the trough. 

The bees should keep the frames themselves clean, but you notice that after a while they get sort of stained from use. And there's not much you can do about that. You can take them out and use a pressure cleaner, perhaps a hot pressure cleaner, I've only used cold. And that does clean most of the excess wax off, but they'll never look brand new. They'll be clean as far as the bees are concerned. But they'll be stained by the wax and the footprints of the bees over time. 

The very end parts though, the polycarbonate ends that I've just been talking about, it's really nice to have them clean. So if you're really keen to clean them, then you're going to have to carefully pull the frame apart. I wasn't going to go into that in this session, but perhaps we should do a session on pulling these apart. So that you can really access this, this here as a piece and clean out each part, either with a pressure washer again, or manually. It's polycarbonate, but it will scratch quite easily.

These frames are a couple of years old. And you can see they're covered in wax. in various places. They don't look brand spanking new anymore, but they're quite serviceable and the bees will keep all of this clean and ready for themselves. Remember that the bees cover every surface with a fine layer of wax. So even if there somehow has been some impurity that's got stuck on the frames, the bees would cover that again with a layer of wax. So you don't have to worry about your honey. But it is nice to have them looking clean on the ends.

Designing the Flow Frames must have been a difficult trial and error process without the advantage of 3D printing. Can you comment on that?

Well, 3D printing was available, but not as good quality as you can get now. And I guess the machines were a little bit more expensive. So we did send prototypes off to get 3D printed, but 3D printing even now finds it very, very difficult to do walls that are just a couple of millimetres thick, 2mm to mimic how thin the bees make their wax comb. So we did use it, but we were forced to go into injection moulding to make a decent prototype to give us any sort of chance of success. And that, as many of you would know, is quite expensive. It was certainly was for Cedar and I in those days, we didn't have any money at all, so we had to borrow it. Luckily, I was able to borrow from my dad for some of the prototyping.

So, you know, for most inventions, they're not an individual's effort. They're a whole group effort and a whole lot of factors coming together. You know, I'm not sure what we would've done if my dad wasn't in the position to help us make those early prototypes. And of course, I'm very, very grateful for my dad and the extended family and all the good friends that have helped in a myriad of ways to make this thing work. 

So 3D printing was useful for some things, but it wasn't useful for the actual mechanism of the Flow Frames themselves. 

So this is coming out quite slowly because I've only harvested a quarter of the frame. So it doesn't have the push of the whole rush of honey which is fine. But just in case you're thinking, oh, this seems to be so much slower than normal, I've deliberately made this just a small section of the frame. And so there's not a great rush of honey. There's a quarter of the amount as usual.

Technical difficulties meant we had to end the livestream early today, but we’ll be back next week.

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