Small Cell

How the rubber meets the road.

The Idea

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.

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18 Responses

  1. joan o'sullivan says:

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

  2. 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

        • Eve says:

          wolfcreekapiearies,LLC.com its where I got mine though my queen arrived DOA and after they sent me another she was not a good layer and they replaced her. I have a weak hive as it all set us back and when I tried to get some help from them they did not reply back so all in all a great big failure but they do have a good strain of 4.9 bees as far as I can tell. Stuff happens

  3. 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

  4. 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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