from Enjoy Beekeeping
Bees are bees – right? Well, not exactly. Have you heard the term “small cell bees”? Just the term itself “small cell bees” makes one wonder. How did the bees get small in the first place? If there are small cell bees, are there also large cell bees? Is one better than the other? Well you are in for a pleasant discovery as you read on. So this article serves two main purposes. (1) To educate you on what the term means and (2) to show you the definite advantage that one has over the other and why you should know more about small cell bees.
It all begins with foundation. Beekeepers often use sheets of wax or plastic that is coated with wax with the hexagons stamped on it as a guide to manipulate or guide our bees to build the cell sizes we want. Even if you have never kept bees yet, you’ve no doubt seen pictures of foundation in the beekeeping catalogs. And you’ve probably already noticed that worker bees emerge from one size cell, drones emerge from a cell that is larger than a worker, and finally the queens emerge from the largest cells that bees make. Since the drones have often been viewed as the enemy of production in bee colonies because they don’t forage nectar or pollen, clean house, or seem to contribute in any way to life inside the hive, for around 100 years beekeepers used foundation to steer the colony into drawing worker cells and avoiding letting the bees draw more drone cells. Sounds logical at first right? Now it does make you wonder how bees managed for thousands of years before we invented foundation with cells stamped on it? Thank goodness man came to their rescue! So that is when and where foundation was first introduced in beekeeping management.
As time went on, realizing that a beekeeper can manipulate the size of the bee based on the foundation cell size, the old notion that bigger must be better began to set in. Bigger worker bees can forage more nectar and pollen and make even more honey than the natural sized bee, right? So beekeepers increased the foundation size over time from 4.9mm to 5.4mm where most foundation is today. Unfortunately this assumption has not been correct. Raising bees on larger foundation did indeed create a larger bee by up to 30% – 50%. Sadly the productivity did not go up at all. In fact the larger bees have proven to be less productive and more prone to disease and mite problems as a result of being larger than what nature intended. Think of an average human being that nature has intended to be a certain size to be healthy and productive – now add 30% – 50% more body weight or mass. Most people that are carrying that much more weight are typically not more productive or healthy. In fact the closer we get to our ideal weight and body mass, the better we feel and the more energy we have and the less prone to illness we become. The same is true for the honeybee.
So from now on, anytime you hear the term “small cell bees”, think of them as natural sized bees as nature intended. This is the size of bees that you would find in the wild living in a forest where no man has never been before. If you climbed up a tree to find a honeybee colony, you would find these natural sized bees drawing natural sized worker comb and producing more natural sized bees, living happily ever after – all without our “help”.
Are there any advantages of having small cell bees? Yes! Just like us when we are close to our own ideal body size and weight, bees are in fact healthier too. Probably one of the biggest advantages is the control of mites. Two types of mites can destroy a colony in short order. One is the trachea mite, which as you probably guessed by the name attacks the bees in their trachea. Well, guess what? A trachea mite can not fit down the trachea of a small cell bee, only the ones that are raised on larger cell size foundation. That’s a winner for you and your bees. Just letting them be the size nature intended eliminates one pest completely from becoming a concern for treatment in the first place. The second mite of serious concern is the varrora mite. This mite attacks bees when they are in the pupa stage of development inside their cells. The longer the bee is inside the cell the longer varrora have to multiply exponentially. Every day they can literally double in numbers, so they can be a serious threat. Small cell bees generally emerge 2 days sooner than large cell bees, which does not sound like long, but even just 8 hours difference in capping time and a couple days less time before emergence is HUGE when it comes to controlling the life cycle of the varrora mite. So many small cell beekeepers do not even need treat for varorra because the bees natural cell size and emergence time keeps the mite under control. This is what organic style or integrated pest management system is all about. You eliminate the need to treat with medications or chemicals and you still get to keep your bees.
So when you shop for bees, ask if they are small cell bees. Most of the organic bee produces are using small cell foundation for their colonies, or they simply let the bees draw their own comb without even giving them foundation. Many top bar beekeepers seek out these particular bees for their hives. And the good news is you can have small cell bees in a top bar hive, a Langstroth hive, or any other kind of hive for that matter. And if you have used the larger cell size foundation for your bees, you can actually regress your bees back to their natural size in a few generations by introducing them to smaller cell foundation and stepping them down gradually from 5.4mm to 5.1mm and finally to 4.9mm.
I have only raised my bee colonies using small cell 4.9m wax foundation, or let the bees draw their own comb on frames. My mentors showed me these natural methods for which I’m grateful and I hope that I’ve passed along something helpful to all of you fellow beekeepers! My goal is to show new beekeepers the natural approach to keeping bees, and to educate them so that they can enjoy beekeeping without using dangerous chemical treatments or meds on their bees.
I will have a limited supply of package bees and nucs for spring this year. I’m just a small scale beekeeper, however so I do NOT ship out bees at this time. Everything is local pick up only. However if you are in the North Georgia area and would like to place an order, please feel free to contact me. For more information on this subject, check out Enjoy Beekeeping on Facebook, or feel free to e-mail me at enjoybeekeeping [at] gmail or visit my site www.enjoybeekeeping.com.