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    Categories: ScienceSkepticism

The Urban Beehive is an urban legend

I started getting questions about this “urban beehiveearly in November.  I thought it was fairly obvious that it was a gimmick–a PR op by a company that wanted to get some free press.

And yet…it has become the story that will not die:

“The extraordinary contraption hangs inside the house and features see-through materials so you can watch the insects at work.  Separated into two parts, a flower pot and entry passage sit on the outside wall and the hive hangs indoors. Owning one means doing your bit for the environment – since honey bees are key pollinators – and getting a handy supply of very fresh honey….

The removable glass case even cleverly filters light on a special ‘orange’ wavelength, which is used by the insects for sight.  Called the Urban Beehive, the design is part of a new project by Philips called the ‘Microbial Home’.   

Today, I found an article in the UK Mail–not a good major newspaper, but still a major newspaper, printing the entire press release unchallenged.  I expect better from professional journalists.

I was able to find out this product was vaporware in less than 1 minute. It is, as Patsy says in the Holy Grail, “only a model.”  What ever happened to finding at least one–ONE!–secondary source to comment on something? Every story that I have seen so far has printed the basics of the Philips Press Release with pretty photos. And NONE of them seems to have had the thought:

“Hang on. Perhaps I might ring up some beekeeper chappie and ask him about the feasibility of this beehive?”

Yes. That would be a good idea.

Since there seems to be a lot of coverage about this thing, and I fear that the earlier bump of coverage is about to be repeated, I thought I would take some time to point out that this hive will not be coming to a store near you. Ever.  Philips introduced this as part of a design contest called “Microbial Home.”

Their designers came up with some pretty crazy ideas about what the home of the future would look like–including a creepy diagnostic bathroom tool that will analyze your feces and saliva, and something called “bio-light”, a methane digester that looks like a molecule with nipples. (The digester is where the feces and saliva go after the creepy diagnostic bathroom is done with them. I still don’t know why there are nipples, though.)

None of these, including the “Urban Beehive”, are real products. They are entirely conceptual, other than the pretty plastic model made for the Design Show.

WHY did so many media outlets that should know better unquestioningly tout this story, completely unchallenged?   I wish I knew the answer.   Even if this beehive did exist, it would be a very bad idea, indeed.

As best I can tell, this indoor hive is what you get when you build a hive based on information about bees that you got entirely from Wikipedia. Or maybe Sports Illustrated.
It is nice and shiny….and shows a complete lack of understanding of how bees live their lives.

First of all, the purpose of a bee hive is to make more bees.  The honey is stuff that we steal from the bees.  That’s why they get so cranky about honey harvesting–we are taking the food away from the mouths of their children. Literally.

This hive has no place for bees to lay eggs and rear their young. You’ll end up with brood mixed in with the honey and pollen stored in the hive.  Which means…you are going to get a lot more protein and fiber in whatever honey you manage to extract than you might be comfortable consuming.

But hey, bee brood is actually delicious, and eaten in many other countries. So perhaps you will boldly go forward with a plan to extract honey. That’s going to probably destroy all your larvae. Whoops, no more bees.

This design for smoking the bees doesn’t really solve the problem that to get at the honey you have to remove the cover completely…while the hive is inside your house.  While bees that are smoked are pretty mellow, they do still move around, and quite a few will escape.  If you have Junior playing around the area, or a curious cat, this will not end well.

The sealed nature of the hive will make it nearly impossible to look at your bees and see how they are doing. A tremendous number of things will kill bees:  Foulbrood. Nosema. Tracheal Mites. Varroa Mites. Hive Beetle.  And that’s just the short list!  Regular inspections are needed for the health of your hive. With this hive, that means taking the cover off the hive and removing comb with bees on it to look at it inside your home. I’m sure nothing could go wrong with that…..

The hive itself is tiny.  That means that it will probably be generating swarms on a regular basis, as the hive grows and has nowhere to expand. I’m sure your neighbors will be just fine with swarms of a thousand bees or so landing on their balconies.

A major issue for bees is regulation of temperature and humidity within their hive. If it gets too hot, they will ‘fan’ at a hive entrance to create a sort of air conditioning.  The tiny entrance to this hive means that will be impossible.  Because the hive is inside, it will be at room temperature–which may not be the temperature the bees want it at.  They also won’t get cold and slow down for winter, since the temperature will be mostly constant, and the artificial lighting of the room will mimic the long days of summer.  It’s difficult to forage for pollen and nectar in winter!

I’ll toss one more objection in to this by-no-means comprehensive list of why the hive design won’t work: bee space. That phrase will not mean much to you if you haven’t worked with bees before. Bee Space is a special measurement–3/8ths of an inch, or slightly less than one centimeter.  Anytime there is a space in a hive bigger than 3/8ths of an inch, bees will fill up the gap.

This photo shows a nice example of how bees will build additional comb to fill in gaps, or to brace comb that might be getting a little saggy because it’s full of heavy honey.  This is exactly what would happen in the “Urban Beehive”.  The second you tried to open that hive, you’d have angry bees and comb spilling out all over your floor.

I honestly don’t know if the bees would tolerate horizontal comb in the Philips design–they usually build vertically.

Having said all this: If you want to raise bees, and have your own observable bee hive, that can be done! Just not with this design.

Bees are incredibly complex animals, and you shouldn’t just decide to get a hive like you might decide to get a puppy. They need special care and feeding.   There are usually beekeeping classes offered by gardening groups, extension offices, or your local university. Setting up a hive is not cheap–take the time and invest in learning how to take care of your bees. You’ll fall in love with them once you have them.

bug_girl: Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

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  • I once had a bee hive in my apartment wall and when the sun would warm that side of the building my place would flood with the most glorious smell. I highly recommend it. Of course, there were a lot of bees.

  • I'm not sure I follow the objection that there would be no place for bees to place their brood. Wouldn't they simply build brood cells at the bottom of the enclosure, just as they would in a normal, boxy hive? Or are you saying that the hive is too small, and thus you won't get frames that are -only- honey?

    Or is this really just an objection to the very foolish labeling on the thing? The whole design is very silly, on a moments reflection, but I don't understand this particular complaint.

    • Bees normally mix their brood and food supply--it makes sense to have the food next to the brood, from a bee point of view.

      In regular hives this is handled with a queen excluder--you prevent the queen from entering the upper layers of the hive, so she can't lay eggs in the areas where the honey is. There is no way to keep the queen in one spot in this hive design, so she's going to lay eggs wherever she wants to.

      • Actually they're mostly quite organised. If you leave them with a couple of supers to do as they will, usually the brood will be collected towards the bottom in the middle. Close to the brood, usually surrounding it on the sides and top of each frame, there will be pollen, and outside/above that, they keep the honey. So even if you don't use queen excluders, you'll usually get some more or less completely brood free supers towards the top of the hive at the seasonal peak. The brood that does crop up in the honey supers seems to mostly be drones, which can happen even when you do have a queen excluder, suggesting the presence of laying workers (someone always has to cheat the system...). The reason for this organisation is that the bees keep the brood chamber at a constant temperature, whereas the mature honey is capped and left to fend for itself. So the brood can't be scattered throughout the hive or heating's going to be very inefficient.

        But in a hive as tiny as the one pictured, there probably won't be any combs that are purely honey, so yeah, harvesting's gonna be a hassle.

        • Yes, exactly. It's the small size I'm thinking of. In small wild hives, it's a bit of a mixed bag where the brood end up.

          In larger hives, yes, they will keep things more organized. Brilliant little buggers.

  • This is a fascinating article, Bug Girl, but I have a question. I recall that, in the bug room of the Natural History Museum of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. there is an active hive that essentially is two sheets of plexiglass with a lot of bees in between them. A tube lets the bees go outside and wander around the Mall, presumably finding nectar in potted plants or discarded Coke bottles.

    Obviously the bug room has several etymologists on staff, but still, how can they open the hive to inspect it, as you say, without bees going all over the rest of the exhibit room and creating all the problems you mention above? If the Smithsonian can manage an indoor hive, that seems to make home versions a bit more feasible.

    • The bug room has entomologists--no idea if they have etymologists, but probably :)
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etymology

      Anyway--here is where the horizontal vs vertical comb is important. In the photo I used in this post--which is a vertical display hive--you can clearly look at the comb and bees, and see if there is something nasty developing (foulbrood, for example) and check to see if there are healthy, developing larvae in proper amounts. You can see if there are new queens or lots of drones being made (not a good sign).

      You can't tell any of that on the Philips design without completely taking the thing apart.

      You will still need to take a display hive apart at times, but less often, and it's also a lot easier to do it in the evenings or at times when the museum is empty.
      I hadn't thought about it until now, but if you wanted to make sure the bees were good and "sleepy" when you open the hive, you could give them extra smoke--but doing that in your living room is not going to be fun.

      • Yeah, most display hives are either normal outdoor hives with one glass wall, or small mobile hives with just a few frames where you can easily see everything without having to open it. Also, note that I mentioned "frames". Frames are the foundation of modern beekeeping, without them we are quite limited in what we can do. The bogus hive some designer came up with seems to me like basically going back to straw skeps. The bees will build as they will and anything you do is going to ruin the combs.

  • I have two questions. 1) Is that one small flower pot supposed to feed the entire hive perpetually, or is it just for decoration?

    2) The blurb says

    "The removable glass case even cleverly filters light on a special ‘orange’ wavelength, which is used by the insects for sight"

    . I thought bees see in a much broader band than humans, into the infrared and well into the ultraviolet, for which reason many flowers that look bland to us have distinct and vibrant patterns as seen by bees.

    Or am I over-analyzing this?

    • Personally I'm mostly confused about why they would NEED to see inside the hive? If anything, I would think choosing glass of a tint that only lets through light of a wavelength bees CAN'T see would be best, so that they won't be disturbed by things going on in the room?!

      This thing is giving me "This isn't right, this isn't even wrong" moments over and over.

      • Yeah, I should have noticed that since I was assisting my niece who was building a Blue Tongued Lizard habitat out of an old oatmeal box the other day. She was installing a window made from the red filter from a pair of cardboard 3-D glasses, because lizards can't see in red light and this way you could watch the lizard in what it thinks is darkness.

        I'm not sure how she was planning to transport the completed habitat back to Tasmania, but she told me she would have no problem acquiring the necessary reptile license. I don't know how the parental units will feel about having their entire (tiny) strawberry crop devoured by her latest craze, but then she eats all the strawberries anyway.

    • Buzz--you are correct, bees do see in a much broader spectrum than just orange. The post was long, and I though I would skip adding "and here is another paragraph about why this is bogus" :)

      • Bug Girl,

        Truth be told though, I don't remember seeing any picture of bees, that were not yellow with Black stripes. There's probably much more diversity than that, but I haven't seen any bees that don't look like that. Do you have any pictures of other types of bees?

          • felicia, are you from sweden? in which part of sweeden?
            how do your bees live in your land?
            i would like to know the northern limit to beekeeping! 60' north? polar circle? artic ocean? :-)

        • My bees (a mix breed with mostly carnica) are mostly black with grey stripes. Truth be told I've never seen any honeybees that conform to the black/yellow stripe stereotype. Those are wasps, not bees. The breeds of honeybees beekeepers normally use range from almost completely black to a warm orange, with varying degrees of stripyness.

          • wow felicia! where are you from? i live very close to carnia (30 miles), in north east of italy, where the carnica bees are from. i hade a mix from carnica and ligustica, but the carnica's ones are the most tranquil and paceful bees in the world. till the late 1800 (and seldom still today) carnic, austrian and slovenian people use hives as a wall of the house, and open hives with bees in dining rooms. i know a beekeper who has carnic bees and use this solution still today! ;-) ah, this philips urbani beehive is a bullshit!

  • Thanks for that wee fisking. I saw the press release and boggled a bit just at the odd shape and open space, but your list of problems is suitably comprehensive. I do like the idea of the designer of that thing having a house full of angry bees the first time they open it up.

    FWIW, bees seem to adapt to cats quite well. In the last drought we got wild bee swarms in the city quite regularly and the one in our garden was not bothered by the cat(s) at all. So I'd worry more about the people in the house than the urbanised pest species.

  • The shape of that contraption looks a lot more like it would accomodate a wasp nest than a beehive. Wouldn't that be entertaining! You could watch the wasps build and develop from inside your home, and also provide a robust wasp population to entertain your neighbors. Cool!

  • This just seems terrifying to me. I once had a wasps' nest somewhere very near to my flat and would have to consistently liberate at least two or three wasps daily after they found their way inside. The thought of having an entire colony of bees hanging out in my living room does not appeal to me at all.