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Are small cell bees better?

Do small cell bees help with mite control? Are large cell bees more productive? This is an on-going controversy among beekeepers. Until the late 1800s honeybees in Britain and Ireland were raised in brood cells of about 5.0 mm width. By the 1920s this had increased to crica 5.5 mm.

In the late 1800s, A.I.Root, founder of Dadant, first made wax foundation. It was approximately 5.1 mm. Later he introduced an even smaller 4.9mm size. In the early 1900s it common thinking that the size of the bees could be affected by changing the foundation cell size. It was also theorized a larger bee would be more productive. So, companies began producing wax with larger cell grids (5.4mm), what are now called normal. But more production turned out not to be true since the larger bee consumed more resources.

When feral colonies are studied, they are typically in the 4.7-5.0 cell size. As a result, the 4.9 size is considered closer to the natural cell size. During his travels, Father Adam of Buckfast fame went to Africa to study several strains of bees that appeared to be resistant to mites. One of his observations was those bees were smaller. In fact, even the feral “Africanized” bees in the U.S. today are smaller.

In his book The Practical Beekeeper, Michael Bush highlights what he considers are two distinct advantages to the small cell bee. First, the small cell bee has smaller trachea which the tracheal mite finds difficult to enter. As a result, small cell bees have very little issue with tracheal mites. Second, the small cell bee emerges from 24-48 hours sooner than the typical 21-day cycle. This impacts the growth cycle of a female varroa mite (10.5 days) in capped brood. This allegedly results in fewer mites that reach maturity and reproduce. Another advantage of the small cell bees is the number of bees in the hive. There are approximately 17% more bees per frame in a small cell hive.

Our NUCs at Hon Taylor Honeybees are small cell bees. If you choose to use normal 5.4mm cell foundation, in a couple of cycles, your bees will become larger. For that reason, we recommend you use only small cell foundation or starter strips in your hives from our bees.

As this picture shows, when given starter strips, the bees will naturally draw worker cells smaller. Note that most plastic foundation has 5.2 to 5.4mm cell grids.

If you currently have larger bees and want to change to small cell, you must go through the “regression” process. You cannot simply change to small cell foundation. The process is to gradually change your frames to smaller cells using first 5.1 foundation then 4.9. This is done a few frames at a time. It can take 2-4 laying cycles to complete the process.

The controversy will continue but it is important to note that most “organic” beekeepers today use small cell.


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