Small Cell

How the rubber meets the road.

The Idea

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In the early 90′s, mite vectored viruses and pesticide contamination decimated my hives. It became obvious that using pesticides for mite control was a dead end option.

Following the example of L. Hines and the Lusby’s in Arizona, I began selecting for mite tolerant bees. And setup a untreated, small cell survivor beeyard.

The results were phenomenal. After suffering initial heavy losses and much expensive comb culling, my small cell hives survived and thrived without treatments.

I’ve got more to share about small cell.

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The Details

Mites

Typical deformities caused by mite vectored viruses.

I first saw varroa mites in 1993. Another beekeeper spotted them here in 1989, but told no one at the time. The mites decimated my hives. So I treated with mite strips.

By 1996, pesticides killed less than 60% of the mites. So, approved treatments were ineffective. For effective mite control many beekeepers:

  • used other pesticides.
  • applied continuous treatments.
  • increased dosages by using more strips.

Flying bee and a varroa mite.

Eventually many beekeepers were doing all the above and still losing their hives to mites. The downside of pesticides use quickly became obvious:

  • queen rearing was difficult.
  • queen quality dropped.
  • supersedure rates increased.
  • the bees struggled to over winter.
  • surviving colonies were often small and failed to thrive.
  • even without treatments, the bees continued to suffer through the cumulative effects of contaminated beeswax.

There were no other options. Research was mostly focused on evaluating new and more powerful chemical controls. For me, the handwriting was on the wall. Pesticides were a dead end approach.

Mite Tolerant Bees In Arizona

In 1996, Bee Culture magazine published several articles on some Arizona beekeepers who ran pesticide free bees. L. Hines used standard field methods and breeding from the feral bee population. The Lusby’s were using small cell sized foundation and also breeding from the local bee.

As a small time queen producer, I suspected the influx of African genetics was the reason for their success. I phoned them hoping to get some stock to test.

L. Hines was interesting in testing his stock up north. He contacted his other research collaborators and they decided against it. The fear of inadvertently shipping Africanized honey bees north was too great.

Dee Lusby wasn’t selling stock. But she was passionately convinced that cell size was the key to mite tolerance. She preached small cell for over an hour. I don’t think I interjected ten words during that time. :-)

Something was working in Arizona. But I wasn’t convinced enough about small cell to buy a foundation mill. And I couldn’t get any Arizona stock to test.

My Small Cell – Mite Tolerant, Healthy Bees

This is my bee yard after regressing 16 colonies and 6 nucs.

In late 1999, Dadant offered small cell foundation. 16 hives and 6 nucs were put on on it. After much comb culling and 90% hive loses,12 hives were stabilized on small cell comb.

These small cell colonies:

  • tolerated varroa mites.
  • vigorously detected and removed mite infected pupa.
  • all bee races cleansed the broodnest.
  • over wintered better.
  • build up faster in the spring.
  • were more healthy.

During early spring and late fall, over 95% of the natural mite fall was damaged by the bees.

No magnifying lens was needed to detect the damage. Bite marks were visible. And twitching, gimpy, injured mites perished on the mite trays.

I had no idea cell size could so dramatically change bee behavior. Or play such a vital role in colony health. My small cell hives prospered without treatments for 8 seasons.

Lusby’s Small Cell Theory

Here’s a summary. If anything gets mangled, it’s my fault.

Basically it goes like this:

  • foundation making produced worker cells that were too large.
  • queen breeders selected for larger bees that thrived on the larger comb.
  • the resulting large cell bee was out of balance with its environment.
  • large cell bees are inferior to the smaller bees found on natural sized comb.
  • large cell bees easily succumb to additional colony stress.
  • beekeeper introduced pesticides pushed colonies beyond survivable limits.
  • returning bees to clean, small cell sized comb restores colony health and vitality.

To get back to small cell:

  • the bees are regressed or sequentially stepped back down from the larger cell size to smaller cell sizes.
  • all treatments are abandoned.
  • stock is selected from survivors.
  • isolated mating yards are required to maintain stock.
  • feral bees are sought out for their small cell genetics.

Interested? Thanks to Barry Birkey at Beesource, there’s a link to the Lusby’s original manuscript.

Lusbys

Southern Arizona, home of the Lusbees.

Early in 2002, I visited the Lusbys. They:

  • are keen bee observers.
  • think for themselves.
  • are very opinionated.
  • love to speculate.
  • test their theories in the real world.
  • talk nothing but bees day and night.
  • didn’t get on the beekeeping fringe by following behind the crowd.

In other words, they are interesting folks to meet, if you’re a beekeeper.

I appreciated their warm hospitality. Their insight into bee behavior changed my beekeeping forever.

They taught me the most valuable beekeeping principal I’ve ever learned. They stressed:

Let the bees show you.

So I did.

Experiments

I couldn’t argue with success. Small cell worked. But I had many questions:

  • how can an artificially enlarged, inferior bee, displace a naturally adapted and superior small cell bee?
  • how can putting a bee on larger cell change its genetic disposition?
  • if small cell is so natural, why do bees only draw out so much of it, then rework the rest into larger sizes?
  • and if it’s so natural, why is it so hard to regress bees?

So, I did a little experimenting to let the bees show me:

  • top bar hives were used to observe natural comb building and bee behavior.
  • natural bee comb from small cell bees, large cell bees, Lusbees and feral bees was measured.
  • relationship between cell bottom patterns and comb orientation in natural comb.
  • small cell hives were marked, organized and monitored using Housel positioning.
  • small cell foundation starter strips were compared with natural comb building.
  • small cell bees were put on clean, large cell comb and unregressed.
  • evaluated Lusby stock with a host of other commercially available stock on small cell comb. No significant differences in mite tolerance was observed.
  • recorded seasonal bee size from both large and small cell hives.
  • tried using variable sized foundation to mimic natural comb.
  • read historical literature concerning foundation manufacturing and cell size measurements for myself.

Results

I expected these experiments and historical research would confirm small cell beekeeping’s concepts. And I expected to answer to those nagging questions. But like the song says, “Taint necessarily so”.

My small cell observations and experience show that small cell works even better than I anticipated. But not because bees were artificially enlarged. They weren’t. And not because small sized bees are more natural than larger ones. They aren’t.

The implications should be good news. Most of the onerous small cell regression process can be eliminated and the benefits still obtained. It’s possible to move beyond small cell beekeeping and focus on a more natural way to keep bees.

Small Cell’s Dark Side

Getting bees on small cell size comb produced great results. But it has a downside. It’s expensive in bees, time and money. I started with 16 three deep hives and 6 nucs:

  • after the first season, I ended up with 4 dinks and 6 very small nucs, losing over 90% of my bees.
  • less than 30% of the small cell foundation was acceptably drawn out. 70% was culled.
  • selecting from small cell survivors produced a genetic bottleneck with foulbrood susceptible stock.
  • it was impossible to set up isolated mating areas or breed out of season in my locale.
  • it took three years of intensive effort to get a stable, mite resistant population established in 12 small cell hives.

That’s the price paid when working against the bee’s nature.

Just mentioning small cell stirs up controversy. And suggesting regression could be changed or eliminated is just as controversial. In any small cell discussion, it’s not long before more heat than light is produced. It’s a great winter sport, especially among the informed and regressed kind, as each group rallies to defends it’s sacred cow. I think it’s how some of them stay warm during the frozen winter months. :-)

Small Cell’s Lighter Side

The surprising results of using small cell comb forced a re-evaluate of my beekeeping. It was a stepping stone to a better, a more natural way to keep bees.

Today, my bees are healthier. They are more productive. And unlike anything related to small cell beekeeping, my beekeeping is easier than ever. It’s just better to work with the bees than against them. I’m a natural and not a small cell  beekeeper now.

17 Responses

  1. George Baker says:

    I am a new yet old bee keeper. I had bees 50 years ago when I was at home in southwest virginia.
    Now I am i Illinois and started bees this year and am very intereested in your experince with small cells. That is all I ever saw whwn I was first in beekeeping.
    Thanks for the info. I am going to build and try two of your top bar hives from your plan.

    • -dm says:

      Hi George,

      Thanks for the notes. I know you will enjoy getting back around the bees again.

      -dm

  2. George Baker says:

    I am very interested in your small cell research and I plan on building two top bar hives like your deep one on your internet site.

    Thanks for info.

    George Baker
    gdbake@comcast.net

  3. Paul says:

    This article is very interesting but confuses me. It persuades me that small cell is an important deterrant against Varroa, yet I get the impression that you don’t recommend it at the end.
    Anyway I like your writing and have learnt a great deal from your site.
    Best Regards.

  4. Dave Jackson says:

    Interesting reading. I currently run two British National hives and have just populated a top bar hive. Interestingly they are foraging on something different from the two movable frame hives which are producing an orange wax, presumably OSR, whereas those in the top bar hive the wax is a lovely white. Obviously this is not scientific but I am looking forward to comparing the two systems.

    Thank you for contributing to the sum of information I am digesting. – It is only my third full season of beekeeping.

    Dave

  5. Thomas Bandy says:

    Hello Dennis,Tom Bandy here from south jersey,I need some advice;I’m a new beekeeper,I’ve had my bees a total of six weeks,took a class given by the local beekeeping club,loved it and bought two “complete hives” ,1 ten frame deep with bottom board ,hive ,and migration lid,later we were given inner cover and telescoping cover.Also it came with internal feeder ,we were given two new frames with plastic foundation to replace feeder when necessary.We also as a class ,assembled another deep and honey super,with frames and foundation.In class it was stressed to never use old or used equipment as it may spread desise and parasites.After an inspection from my mentor and the state bee inspector it was determined that I had S.M.B., verroa,and E.F.B.Now that’s what I call a complete hive,complete with all the things one does not want.Needless to say I am somewhat disapointed.Of course they want me to treat right away,but this is just what I wanted not to do ,start raising welfare bees as Sam Comfort says.I want to get them on small cell wax foundation ,but I,m at a loss as to how to go about it.My top bar experiment was a failure they said the nuc swarmed and I have a virgen queen left .They did not go down into the TBH that I described in a earlier post.Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thanks Tom Bandy

    • -dm says:

      Hi Tom,

      My gosh! I sorry to hear this. Where to start?

      First, you’re not the cause of this situation.

      It appears an unscrupulous or very ignorant beekeeper took advantage of you and sold you some very bad hives. And I suspect that some of the diagnosis is faulty as well. The EFB might very well be PMS. But that doesn’t matter much at this point. You may have still have some financial recourse against the seller. And if he’s any kind of person, he’ll make it right.

      But as far as the conventional hives go I’d treat them. Use a non-contaminating mite treatment to keep your new equipment/comb as clean as possible. Use antibiotics if needed or if the state requires. And get those conventional hives stabilized. Once stabilized, then you’ve got the time, the bees and the clean equipment to move in any direction you choose.

      I found out a long time ago that dead bees aren’t much fun. And they don’t draw out any new, natural, or small cell comb. Those conventional bees probably came from an environment where they were routinely treated and needed it to survive.

      Treating and removing the “stress” caused by the varroa, might clear up the “EFB” like symptoms as well. The best approach to treat EFB is to discard heavily infected frames and requeen. But you’ve got enough on your plate now. I wouldn’t bother with this process just yet.

      If you desire, or the state requires antibiotics, use them for the EFB. It’s a quick fix that won’t contaminate your equipment. And can get the bees stabilized sooner.

      Sam would know more than I about the small hive beetles. But I do know that most treatments, other than the oil traps, involve some application of checkmite which will contaminate your equipment. Avoid those checkmite solutions at all costs.

      Now for the bright side and that’s your tbh. It is not a failure, yet. Bees will sometimes abscond. Sometimes they will “blame” the queen for something unusual and kill her. Or, if you got the tbh nuc from the same quys you got the conventional hives, I suspect there’s another root to the problem.

      But the tbh bees are still trying to make a go of it. So let them. There’s a good chance they will requeen themselves. And there’s still enough time, in your location, that they can make a robust enough hive to survive the winter. Feed them, when they need it. Don’t disturb them too much. And they might surprise you.

      A comment on your mentor. I think he should have been more involved on the front end. Had he been, he could have saved you much trouble. Coming around with the bee inspector, after the fact, is a day late and a dollar short. I’d try to broaden my horizons as far as bee mentors go as well.

      This year, get your bees stabilized and ready for winter. Next year, you can make you move toward a more natural way to keep bees. It’s a process that involves both you and the bees and it takes some time to accomplish.

      Good luck Tom.

      -dm

      • Thomas Bandy says:

        Hello Dennis,Thank you for your very prompt response.
        The nuc did come from the same supplyer,should I try and shake the bees from the frames in the nuc into the TBH and feed heavy,since the necture flo is about over for this area till august?, at the inspection the state inspector said there were no eggs present or brood,the nuc is full of bees he said to wait two weeks and then get them into a lang.But I don’t want to perpetuate this problem.
        As for the two other hives ,when you say stabilize the hives you mean to treat for EFB and the varroa?we treated for EFB but not the mites yet.I was going to try sugar but was told I would have to treat weekly and get every frame including those in the brood chamber also which could cause another set of problems.I was advised to go with apistan.Is this a “natural”treatment?or in the line of checkmite,which I plan on avoiding.Again thank you so much, with advice like this I think I can make a go of anything that may arise. Tom Bandy

  6. joan o'sullivan says:

    What a brilliant site ,thanks David Heaf for putting us on to it cheers joan

  7. bill castro says:

    I use small cell and have never had the acceptance failure that the author has indictated he has. The bees need to be STARTED from the get go on small cell. I have hived many packages and done many splits successfully and without issue. Small cell foundation is the same price as any other foundation sold on the market today. All my colonies, mainly russian and a few italians, have low mite loads and recover nicely in spring. I do cull badly drawn foundation when I discover it, as you should replace foundation periodically anyways to reduce wax contamination. I DONT USE CHEMICALS AT ALL!!!!

    • Dale says:

      Could recommend a few sources of small cell bees. Having difficulty finding some.

      • -dm says:

        Hi Dale

        I’m not sure what’s happening with small cell bee producers. So, can’t recommend anyone. I’d just work with the best bees for your area.

        -dm

  8. Ralph McEwen says:

    -dm;
    I have not been able to find the top bar hive info on this site. I would like to buy or build one. I am still looking for the sidebar that is supposed to have this information.

    This is a great site and has excellent information.

    Thanks for any info you can provide.

    Ralph [Bob] McEwen
    drmcewen98@bellsouth.net

    • -dm says:

      Hi Ralph

      You must have caught me switching between themes. I like a very minimal theme. But maybe this one is too minimal.

      All navigation is at the top of the site above the header image. Mousing over the Top Bar Hive category will display the top bar hive pages below the menu categories. Clicking on Top Bar Hives will take you there. And allow clicking on the pages.

      -dm

  9. Kitty says:

    Dear Dennis,

    I am sorry…I am confused.

    1. you say: “My small cell observations and experience show that small cell works even better than I anticipated. But not because bees were artificially enlarged. They weren’t. And not because small sized bees are more natural than larger ones. They aren’t.”
    IF not, then why?
    2. you say: “Most of the onerous small cell regression process can be eliminated and the benefits still obtained. It’s possible to move beyond small cell beekeeping and focus on a more natural way to keep bees.”
    So…what exactly are you doing if not small cell regression? What is your natural way to keep bees?
    3. you say “And unlike anything related to small cell beekeeping, my beekeeping is easier than ever. It’s just better to work with the bees than against them. I’m a natural and not a small cell beekeeper now.”
    Same question: if unrelated to small cell, what is it related to? What is a natural vs. a small cell beekeeper?

    Thank you!

    • -dm says:

      Hi Kitty

      Maybe I could be clearer on the progression of my beekeeping experience.
      - started out in high school mastering traditional commercial beekeeping practices.
      - after college moved on to several decades of ‘enlightened’ commercial beekeeping.
      - suffered the consequences of enlightenment and tried alternative approaches.
      - then small cell.
      - left commercial beekeeping.
      - ended up natural beekeeping.

      Small cell was a stepping stone to get this commercial beekeeper thinking in a new way. But continue thinking I did. And becoming a natural beekeeping was the result.

      1.IF not, then why?

      Remember I was trying to find a way to keep healthy, productive bees without killing them and wrecking all my equipment with pesticides. Using small cell comb allowed me to do that. Small cell worked because it’s a better approximation to a natural broodnest core. And it’s in the core area where some very important seasonal behavior, like broodnest cleansing, occurs.

      2. So…what exactly are you doing….

      Small cell beekeeping involves much more than just running bees on a smaller cell size comb and not treating. The Lusbys proposed that today’s honeybees were artificially enlarged and suffering from the consequences. They offered an entire beekeeping methodology to return, or regress, the honeybee back to it’s original state. It’s available on BeeSource’s POV. In small cell beekeeping regression is the main focus. Cell size is just a part of that focus.

      Natural beekeeping has nothing to do with regressing bees. In natural beekeeping cell size can play a part, as natural beekeepers use available beekeeping equipment to approximate a broodnest’s natural form. But a natural beekeeper not constrained by equipment will allow the bees to build a natural broodnest. And then will design/build his equipment to suit that form. Hence the popularity of the tbh.

      But tbhs aren’t for everyone or every situation. A commercial beekeeper with 10,000 can become a natural beekeeper. But I doubt he could remain a commercial beekeeper if he had to convert and run 10,000 tbhs.

      I think my home page best details my thoughts on natural beekeeping. Notice it’s not nearly as complicated as the Lusby approach.

      3.if unrelated to small cell, what is it related to?

      Kitty if you read the Lusby’s paper, you’ll see the difference. The Lusby offer a ‘regression’ solution to artificially enlarged bees. In the process the bees are often forced into situations that aren’t natural for them. As a result, regression becomes an onerous process that’s prone to fail on many levels.

      In contrast, natural looks at what the bees want and facilitates it with the least amount of interference.

      -dm

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