There's a lot to be said about natural cell size. Commercial foundation sheets are imprinted with honeycomb cells that are 5.4 millimeters in diameter (some run 5.6). The thinking was that larger bees led to larger honey harvests. It's also a compromise size, still smaller than the drone cells bees naturally draw to raise male bees and to store honey in, but much larger than what they naturally draw to raise worker (female) brood in. Many studies have been done that show bees raised on small cell combs lead to smaller bees that emerge a day faster than your foundation bee, interrupting the Varroa mites' natural reproductive cycle underneath that capped cell. As it turns out the mites need that 9th day to get into the cell before it's capped. Small cell larvae tend to be capped in 8 days and emerge a day sooner than your commercial foundation bees, which are capped on the 9th day, according to Michael Bush and many others who've studied this over many years. Well, I'm a believer.
HOWEVER, it's been 4 seasons now since I started using foundationless frames. I've had some mixed results, it wasn't perfect. Some frames DID have badly stretched combs. Most beekeepers say, "see, this is why you SHOULDN'T use natural cell because it means less workers, more drones and less honey!" I kept the faith, rotated those combs out to the sides to become food frames, eventually melted down most of them, and kept feeding in foundationless frames. I kept brood combs in the center, enlarged combs at the sides, no big deal. But this morning I realized that I've been looking at SMALL CELL on my natural combs all season long so far, even on the end frames. I was scratching my head, "Why?!" until I realized that the positive change occurred once I started running narrow frames in my brood boxes. I plane down the end bars on my frames, which is a royal pain in the ass I won't lie, and fit 11 in a 10-frame box. I switched over to that last season and this season in full force and it has paid off. Once I went to narrow frames? SMALL CELL foundationless combs, all worker combs. What's also wonderful about these comb experiments is that it means the majority of my combs are fresh and new, which are SO EASY for the bees to convert into queen cells if they need or want to (see, natural and fresh is better). And my bees are tiny. And yes, quite healthy. I haven't seen Varroa mites on my bees. Small cell, along with narrow frames, really does work if you let it and keep the faith. I snapped this photo this morning on a deep frame that was 3/4 drawn. Every single cell, every one, was a worker cell. I noticed how tiny they were. WOW, they are small cell. If you count 10 cells across, you'll see that it clocks in right at 4.9 mm. If you count individual cells the number's even smaller, but the cell walls add up which is why I think you count 10 and do the math. I am committed to small cell. Looks like the bees, when left to their own devices, are, too!
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Tom Davidson is the owner and beekeeper at T's Bees.
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