Small Cell

Natural cell width size across 10 cells.

The Idea

The Details

Mites

Typical deformities caused by mite vectored viruses.

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 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 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, over the next decade, 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 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.

Small Cell War

Initially there were only a few beekeepers were willing to try out small cell beekeeping. These early adopters were experienced beekeepers who put some bees on small cell. They openly shared their observations and questions. Initial successes with small cell mites tolerance fueled their enthusiasm. Problems with regression cast doubt on the reason small cell worked.

The next generation of adopters were different. Most of them were novice beekeepers who focused on the enthusiasm and success of the early adopters while ignoring their problems and failures.

In contrast, small cell naysayers focused on small cell’s problems and failures while completely denying the successes.

Amazingly, both these camps had much in common:

  • little to no actual experience with small cell beekeeping
  • parroted the rhetoric and even the grammar of their respective camps
  • indoctrination replaced observation
  • pat cliches displaced reasoned discussion
  • defending the high priest became more important than seeking the truth
  • these camps spent more time on the keys than they did with the bees

Today, just mentioning small cell stirs up controversy. And it’s not long before more heat than light is produced.

It’s a great winter sport as each group rallies to defends it’s sacred cow, especially among the informed and regressed kind. I think it’s how some of them stay warm during the frozen winter months. 🙂

But it’s an absolute waste of time as there’s no listening and certainly no learning.

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.

-dM

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