Category: Bee Blog

Small cell bees a controversial subject

Why have bees on foundation cell size of 4.8mm to 4.9mm????


Are there compelling reasons why a beekeeper would choose to regress there bees down to a 4.8mm or 4.83mm or 4.9mm or at least down to 5.1mm wax foundation cell size compared to the standard of 5.4mm or 5.7mm up to 6.8mm wax foundation cell size used throughout most of the beekeeping community worldwide?

For the past year I have been combing through article after article about bees, I have been reading every book I can get my hands on and studying this subject in the most intense manner and I have come to the understanding that the standard wax starter used by most beekeepers is totally UNNATURAL and is outside the normal range of natural cell size’s used by bees. I recently grabbed samples of comb from old ferrel colonies and measured the cells and in all cases the breading chamber cells where 4.8mm to 4.9mm which fits totally with all historical records of natural cell size for bees. In many countries where beekeepers are not experiencing disease issues its common that the beekeepers use only starter strips in there frames or go foundation less in there frames and this allows the bees to make natural comb that ranges from 4.8mm to 5.1mm for the main worker breeding chamber so the use of starter foundation wax with a printed cell size of 5.4mm or above is I repeat OUTSIDE the normal range of what is natural for bees.

This unnatural size has become so ingrained in the beekeeping community that the mere mention of using 4.8mm cell size is likely to have you excommunicated from most beekeeping clubs and here in Australia it’s almost impossible to find anyone selling commercially produced 4.8mm foundation wax. In fact most commercially produced wax foundation in Australia is not even labelled to tell you what the cell size is, so if you don’t take along your verniers and measure the cell size at the shop you don’t even know what you are buying.

What I don’t understand is why this unnatural standard has persisted within the beekeeping community and continues to be propagated and supported by the beekeeping communities and government authorities around the world as I believe there are very strong and compelling reasons to get bees back to a more natural standard foundation size of 4.8mm to 4.9mm

Beekeepers have spent the past 100 years using unnatural foundation cell sizes of 5.4mm to 6.8mm and as a result bees have become about 5% to 15% larger than they were in the past. The consequences of this are vast and fare reaching in all areas of bee culture from disease control to the bees’ ability to fly and compete.

This is a debate that has been raging for the past 20 or more years and seems to have no end but one thing is clearly accepted by all parties and that’s the historical evidence going back hundreds of years that shows very clearly that all apis mellifera spp bees in the past had a cell size range of 4.8mm to a maximum of 5.3mm in the main breeding chamber. The majority of mellifera bees only use cell sizes from 4.8mm to 5.1mm with just a few examples from tropical area of up to 5.3mm

Before the use of pre-printed foundation and removable frames beekeepers always let the bees do their own thing and then along comes man with his wisdom and we know better attitude and as always we decided to overly interfere with a natural system that was working quite nicely all by itself till we intruded in there natural ways. Now bees are having so many issues it’s amazing they are still alive with all the insect pests and diseases and chemicals we use both on the bees and chemicals we use in the bees wider foraging environment.

Regressing bees back to the smaller cell sizes of 4.8mm to 4.9mm can take up to 5 years before the full range of benefits emerges so any study that is less than 5 years in length cannot and will not show the true value of this process. Most scientists trying to regress bees back to small cell foundation were not successful in this process and resorted to full depth plastic small cell foundation to compensate for their lack of ability in properly regressing there bees and then they preceded to get results that were at odds with the experiences of those who have been successful at full regression and these bad results have been used by many people to deter beekeepers from regressing there bees back to small cell size foundation of 4.8mm. This is the same bullshit science that you can observe in the diet industry but most people have no training or desire to spend hours and hours a day reading all the available material in order to get to the truth of the matter. Reports of there being no benefit in regressing bees to small cell foundation in connection to Varoa control without going the full 5 years for the regression process to be completed are simply false because it takes time for the genetics of bees to normalise back to their original standard. Re-queening each year for 5 years with your own queens is the only way and in the 4th or 5th year you will finally see a tremendous difference with your bees compared to the old bee stock. Every time you buy a queen from outside your apiary you will need to go through this process with the new queen unless it’s from a fully regressed small cell 4.8mm up to 5.1mm breeder.

So what are the compelling reasons why beekeepers might choose to go against the established culture of using unnatural cell size’s and go through the process of regressing there now oversized bees back to their original natural size of 5% to 15% smaller than the bees we are breeding today?

Advantages of small cell bees bread on foundation of 4.8mm to 4.9mm

o   Full depth plastic frames of 4.8mm to 5.1mm cells do not achieve this extra density of brood and should not and cannot be used as part of any trial as it nullifies all results. It has been shown as a tool that can be used for some bees in the process of regression where bees didn’t naturally want to regress and its lazy bad science to use this method and the results cannot be trusted.

o   They can live for 8 to 12 weeks during summer compared to the Average of 6 weeks for our current artificially enlarged bees

o   By living longer they can double the number of bees in a hive to an average of 120 thousand or more

o   The longer they live the more honey they can collect

o   Smaller bees hatch 1 to 2 days quicker than larger bees

o   Quicker turn around in the re-use of the breeding cell allows for more bees in the hive and better use of the breeding chamber

o   This also has an effect on the Varoa Mite breeding cycle and makes them less effective at breeding in the hive

o   Diseases and fungus have a shorter window of opportunity to be destructive on the brood

o   All this means you get more bees per area in a quicker time frame, shorter time for spring build up.

o   More bees means more honey and a cleaner hive with less disease.

o   Varoa becomes bigger to the bees and this allows better management by the bees and leads to better control of Varoa.

o   If the pest on your back is 5% to 15% larger you are naturally more aware of its presence and this greater awareness will automatically lead to better control by the bees of Varoa and better survival rates

o   Increased survival rate from Varoa Destructor and tracheal mites by 30% to 40%

So is cell size the answer to all our prayers, absolutely not as it is just one of the many issues facing bees today. There will be people who totally disagree with everything I have listed above but the number of people who are having great success with small cell foundation is growing and they don’t need to use any chemicals in their hives anymore and it’s easier to do than risk 100% colony deaths trying to achieve this on oversized bees as the general survival rate of fully regressed bees is clearly much higher. There are some very small number of beekeepers who have achieved no imputes on large cell foundation but they are far and away the minority in this debate as most beekeepers claiming success with no imputes i.e. no chemicals or poisons are using small cell foundation bees.

The use of Small cell foundation is just one part of the management of your bees that can be used by the beekeeper to finally gain the upper hand against issues such as disease and Varoa Destructor Mites. Bee breeding programs are ongoing and many alternative solutions can and will be found but for now this has been shown as the only truly working solution to many of these issues and I highly recommend that governments and scientists take this issue seriously and do the proper science on fully regressed bees and show clearly the way to regress oversized bees back to smaller cell size without cutting corners to avoid false and misleading information whilst remembering it’s about survival and has nothing to do with mite numbers. Mite number counting as done by many people and scientists tells you nothing about the colonies ability to survive which in the end is the only thing that matters. The bees that survive will be your honey producers of the future and they need to survive regardless of the mite population.

In Summery

Using all the available tools to help the survival of your bees makes sense and to dismiss a tool without truly trying it is to miss an opportunity that just might save your bees.

It therefore makes since that beekeepers should have a wide range of genetic stock in there apiary’s and after several years of survivors a new class of bee will emerge and there is your perfect queen a great survivor.

The biggest problem you face is finding someone to supply foundation of 4.83mm or 5.1mm as these are not as yet common sizes for commercially available foundation. Here in Australia it is simply not available as far as I know. To this end I am currently purchasing my own foundation rolling machine from china and will start making my own foundation at 4.83mm. Due to the cost of these machines it’s not practical for the backyard beekeeper to do this so we need more commercial availability of small cell size foundation. Ask and demand your local supplier to provide a wider range of foundation cell sizes is the only way we will see a change in this industry.

Feel free to contact me about getting some small cell foundation for your hives.

Further reading can be found here and there is always Google