Daily Archives: November 10, 2011

“HI! I’m Johnny Knoxville, and this is ‘high-tech beekeeping.”

Oh, get a load of this

When I first moved out on my own in the Eighties, I used to work with a gentleman who regularly said “There are some ideas so stupid that you’d have to go to school for years to come up with them.” Admittedly, he was talking about some of the genius ideas coming out of Texas Instruments at the time (the fact that our CEO at the time has a technology school named after him is roughly akin to naming a culinary school after Jeffrey Dahmer), but I can only imagine how much he’d have howled upon seeing some of the goofy high-tech “green” items being offered today. I suspect that if I went to his gravesite and told the marker stone about Philips’s proposed urban beehive, I’d hear Boris Karloff-level laughter coming from the ground for weeks.

It’s not that I have issues with the concept of urban beekeeping, although it’s becoming less a matter of a legitimate hobby and more of a bored hipster attempt to have something to distinguish them from the urban chicken keepers and goat herders. (Seriously, guys: go for raising alligators. I can guarantee you that nobody’s doing that in their back yards, and you might get some upper body strength in the process.) It’s that in a lot of cases, existing techniques and materials exist for a reason. I’ve met plenty of legitimate urban beekeepers who do what they do partly because the traditions work, and partly because they’ve learned, often through quite a bit of pain, that you need to know more about bees than what a quick Google search can give you.

That quick Google search was probably where this started: what would you need to keep and enjoy bees in a highrise area? The concept photos sure seem interesting, but it’s painfully obvious that the individual or group that did the design saw cartoons about bees once, and figured “How easy can it be?” Heh heh heh.

As someone who started beekeeping when a random swarm landed in my old back yard in the spring of 1982, the old Scottish frugality kicks in over the idea of housing and caring for a random swarm. It sounds like a great idea, and real beekeepers regularly relate how they get calls from people with swarms in their trees or chimneys, offering to give up that valuable swarm “for free”. However, it’s impossible to tell if the swarm is infested with diseases such as European foulbrood or parasites such as varroa mites, and most keepers won’t bother. The idea that this high-tech hive is supposed to attract swarms, then, is folly.

Oh, but it keeps getting better. Take a look at the concept photos, and ask yourself how this hive is supposed to be installed. Do you cut holes into very expensive picture windows to fit it, or do you have to take out the window and re-fit it? Considering that bees keep the temperature stable in a hive by setting up sentries to fan their wings at the entrance, how will they be able to cool things down with that tiny tube exit? With the goofy plant tray underneath, how do you water the plants if they’re 30 stories up? Even better, since bees take their dead and drop them outside the entrance, how do you clean a plant tray that’s full of dead bees when it’s 30 stories up? In the winter, will the heat of a typical house or apartment, transferred to the hive, keep the bees from settling down for the season? And when it comes to hive growth, how do you allow expansion so the hive doesn’t abandon a too-small space?

Since the main stated purpose of this hive is to collect honey, here’s where everything really breaks down. The promotional material makes a big deal about a smoke attachment that “calms the bees” to allow honeycomb extraction, but this was obviously written by someone who has never worked with bees. Beekeepers use smoke when opening a hive to calm the bees, yes, but that’s because a bee’s basic instinct when exposed to smoke is to prepare to evacuate. To that end, the bees drink as much honey as they can in order to have a food supply if they have to leave: it sometimes calms them, but mostly their full bellies prevent them from being able to sting as readily as they’d like. Speaking from experience, every five “calm” bees is accompanied by one perfectly willing and able to sting, and they’ll gang up on anybody without proper protection. Even those lucky “bee charmers” wear hoods and veils more often than not, just to keep bees out of their eyes, and most folks (myself included) need heavy gloves, veils, and coveralls to keep bees from climbing into every available opening in clothing.

(And while we’re at it, I want to know how the designers of this hot mess thought that users could collect honey from it. Most standard hive comb is a combination of honey storage and cells for raising larval bees, and existing hive designs take into account that queens, the only bees in a standard Apis hive that lay eggs, prefer to work near the base of the hive. Will one of these brave urban first-implementers be able to tell the difference between honey comb or brood comb, know when honey comb is ready for collection, or know how to separate honey from comb once it’s out of the hive?)

And here’s the main critical issue with this whole design. Let’s just say that the person using it is one of those spectacularly lucky individuals who smells right to bees, to where s/he can just reach inside a hive and not get stung at all. It happens just often enough. The problem, though, is that the hive can’t be picked up (and you don’t know how heavy a hive full of honey can be until you try to move one) and taken outside if it’s attached to a window. This means, in order to gather honey (the hive’s stated purpose) or do basic hive maintenance (which isn’t even accounted for in this plan), this requires opening that polycarbonate case inside a house or apartment. The person opening it may be lucky enough not to get stung, but do you want to risk this with anybody else in the building? Even better, after you’ve cracked open the hive and let about 5000 to 10,000 bees loose, how are you planning to get them to go back inside? Ask them nicely?

The fact that Amanda Kooser at CNet fell for this sums up a lot of the current problems with science journalism these days. I have no doubt that Ms. Kooser is well-informed on the latest in consumer electronics, but it’s obvious that she knew next to nothing about beekeeping and didn’t have the time to check with anyone who did. Even better, I can only imagine the phone exchange if she had: “Please excuse me, Ms. Kooser. I have to go laugh myself incontinent, and I’ll call you back as soon as I’ve changed my pants.”

Now, judging by some of the comments over at the CNet article, this missive will be met with the same response from know-nothings who think that any criticism is unfair and overly negative. Let’s see how supportive they are of this idea after the first time they try to open the blasted thing.