Seeing is believing. Or is it?
Housel positioning is a method small cell beekeepers use to orient foundation based comb to approximate a natural broodnest. Hives oriented this way are suppose to:
- be healthier.
- be happier.
- swarm less.
- stay centered.
- suffer less stress.
- produce more honey.
It would be great if true. Unfortunately I haven’t found any evidence of Housel orientation in natural comb. And my own Housel oriented hives didn’t demonstrate any advantage.
Housel positioning was offered as a method for arranging foundation based frames, in a conventional hive, to mimic a structure Michael Housel observed in natural comb. He saw order based upon cell bottom orientation. That is which way the Y’s point.
Housel positioning goes something like this:
- in a natural nest, bees construct a center comb.
- the apparent “Y” pattern, seen on the cell bottom of this comb, are oriented horizontally.
- remaining combs are oriented toward this central comb.
- the surface of the comb facing toward the central comb has upside down “Y”s in the cell bottom.
- the comb surface facing away from the central comb has a normally oriented upright “Y” pattern in the cell’s bottom.
Some small cell beekeepers reported that bees experience many positive benefits when the frames are oriented this way:
- be healthier.
- be happier.
- swarm less.
- stay centered.
- suffer less stress.
- produce more honey.
My Houseled Hives
I learned about Housel positioning after I regressed my beehives.They had suffered extensive colony losses and the few remaining survivors were very weak. In March, most had less than four frames of bees. It was very sad. If I had combined them all together, they wouldn’t have made one good hive.
Earlier, I would have shaken those bees out on the ground. But this was my small cell test yard. I kept them going and Housel positioned their frames.
I expected such small colonies would shift toward the hive’s warmer side. That was my experience with small dinks. But they stayed centered in the box. I thought there might be something to Housel positioning.
The following spring, those over wintered clusters were huge and centered in the boxes. They easily comprised 8 frames in the middle box. I thought that Housel positioning these hives kept the clusters center.
Top Bar Hive Observations
Housel positioning seemed worth including in my natural comb observations. So, I kept detailed records of the comb building sequence. And recorded all comb orientation with photographs.
- first comb was constructed top bar 3.
- within days, comb construction was underway on top bars 3 through 7
- most activity center on on bar 5.
- top bar 5 became the physical center of the broodnest.
When I examined these combs, I couldn’t find any evidence that the pattern in the cell bottom reflected comb orientation. The “Y” patterns were not consistent on a single comb face,or between combs in the broodnest.
And one side of the comb isn’t a mirror image of the other side. Cells on one side are generally the same kind. But the cells often transition at different rates and in differing amounts.
The bees don’t care much about building a uniform midrib like foundation has. They are more adaptable. And their comb building is more flexible than is our ability to make foundation.
Often, the bees simultaneously start comb at two or more different places on a single top bar. And these different combs often have a different cell bottom orientation.
There just wasn’t any evidence that the cell bottoms in a natural broodnest have anything to do with Housel positioning.
My Un-regressed, Un-Houseled Hives
As part of another experiment, I established small cell bees in hives with clean, large cell comb. In contrast to the small cell hives they came from, these hives had frames dumped into the box without any Housel positioning. These large cell hives were comparable in every aspect, with the small cell Housel positioned hives, except for mite tolerance. They:
- over wintered with strong clusters.
- stayed centered in the boxes.
- had the same kind of disposition, swarming, brood rearing, comb drawing or honey production as Housel positioned bees.
Housel positioning, or the lack thereof, simply made no difference to the bees.
There’s a small problem. The Y’s orientation is the result of human perception, not bee behavior. Just what does a Y look like anyway?
- is the vertical leg, the longest leg or the shortest?
- or is the Y’s orientation determined by how wide or narrow the spread is between the V’s?
How do your Y’s look?
In a perfect comb, the Y could be equally oriented in three different directions without bias. And if one leg of the Y was perfectly vertical or horizontal, the shape of the Y wouldn’t matter.
But in natural comb, there’s enough slippage so that it’s almost impossible to go more than a few inches and not arrive at a different orientation.
A little more slippage and cell bottom patterns are perceived as double headed Y’s, straight lines, etc.
Rotate the cell bottom orientation a little and combine that with some construction differences and it’s impossible to consistently determine any Y orientation.
The human mind loves order and relationship. And it will find order and construct relationships even when they don’t exist. Here’s an example using a piece of natural comb:
- 3 images of the same natural comb photo were used.
- a different Housel orientation was assumed for each image.
- a few random cells were chosen.
- then a straight red line was drawn down the long leg of each Y using the assumed Housel orientation.
- then the V part of each Y was drawn out in blue.
Now here’s the interesting part. Compare the unmarked cells from one image to to another:
- does your mind prefer a certain orientation?
- maybe it doesn’t like upside downY’s.
- or maybe if you were looking for the central comb it would prefer horizontal Y’s.
How would you Housel this comb?
If this can be done on such a small piece of comb, imagine what one encounters on a large piece of natural comb! How about two independently, but simultaneously drawn hands of comb on the same top bar!
So, for those of us who have looked for Housel orientation, we’ve found it. I know I have. And then again, maybe not. Because the same piece of comb didn’t quite look the same during a second inspection.
I now know my first impressions about Housel positioning were in error. The bees ability to stay centered throughout the winter has everything to do with colony size and nothing to do with comb orientation.
Housel positioning isn’t a characteristic of a natural broodnest. It may give a beekeeper something to do and make him feel better. But the bees could care less.
After recent discussions concerning Housel Positioning on Beesource, I went back and revisited my top bar hive comb photos. While looking at the Y’s, I’ve discovered my mind prefers a Y with a long single leg. It will fudge the V part to make it work.
So, I decided to take a different track. I threw out the Y concept altogether. And I classified the cell bottom orientation by whether one element of cell bottom pattern best fit a horizontal or vertical orientation, with the least amount of fudging. No Y’s to confuse my astigmatic eyes.
I suspected that most of the comb would have a vertical orientation. Don’t know why. Maybe from decades of foundation use.
But I found something I didn’t expect. I started with comb 5 in my top bar hive. It’s the first comb that initially received the most attention from the bees. And it’s at the physical center of the broodnest core. The first patch I examined had a horizontal orientation! My thoughts: “Oh my gosh, I’ve found the central comb! How could I have missed it before!”
So, I quickly examined the adjacent combs. They had patches of horizontal oriented comb as well as vertically oriented comb.
Returning to comb 5 for a detailed look, I found it to be no different than the adjacent combs. Patches of cells with both orientations existed on each comb face, making it impossible to determine which way a comb should be oriented.
Well, my top bar hive comb flunked the test. Maybe Barry’s top bar hive comb would fare better. So, I went through his comb the same way. And got the same results.
Dumping the Y’s didn’t get rid of the problems encountered when using them.
Houseling is an interesting phenomena of the human mind. When I first observed top bar hive comb building, I thought I could see the orientation upon which Houseling is based. But as the broodnest developed, and I compared different swatches of comb on the same top bar, it became apparent the bees didn’t orient comb that way. At the start, I saw what I was looking for
The direction the Y’s point is an arbitrary assignment. How the mind collates and assigns a direction is interesting to think about. Here’s a neat test. Take a comb photo and assume an orientation direction. Then look again. You’ll find the evidence for that assumption. Then repeat the process assuming another direction. You’ll find the evidence to support it as well.
If you want to try Houseling for yourself, there’s an easy and permanent way to mark the frames. Decide on a standard orientation. For instance, all the Y’s are facing up on the left side of the frame. Take a larger, hardened Phillips screwdriver, one of those kind with a steel shank through the plastic handle. Use it and a single hammer blow to emboss an “X” on the wooden top bar. Put it in a conspicuous location. The closer to the end of the top bar, the better.
Mark every frame consistently this way, in the same spot. Then arrange one frame according to Housel, on one side of the hive. The marks for next four frames will be oriented the same way. The remaining frames, six through ten, will have the mark located toward the other end of the hive.
Now you have a tool and a system to Housel a bazillion boxes without looking for the Y’s. They’re hard to see through capped honey.
Want to test it? Be sure to use control hives. Compared Houseled hives with non-Houseled hives, under the same conditions, in the same yard, at the same time.
Many tests have been done without control hives. They often compare some characteristic for the same hive, like temperament or production, before it was Houseled. But such tests are flawed. Maybe a hive produced more after Houseling than it did the previous season. But maybe it actually produced less than it would have, if it had not Houseled. Without controls, it’s impossible to know.
I’ve experienced the same sort of thing with bee size. After getting bees on small cell comb, I looked for smaller bees and found them. The obvious conclusion was that the smaller comb produced smaller bees. But I found the same smaller sized bees when I looked for them in my large cell hives. They were always there. I hadn’t noticed them before, as I had never looked for them.