ABJ, November, 1996 – Page 757-758
I’m a Belgian beekeeper and I read with interest the article “Natural suppression of honey bee tracheal mites in North Dakota: a five years study” (A.B.J. May 1996). I read with even more interest the answer by Mrs. Dee A. Lusby (Letters To The Editor, July 1996). I fully agree with the remarks and the questions raised in this letter. I was interested because it was in 1893, more than 100 years ago, that Baudoux stated that “Bigger would make more honey” (Le Progres apicole, June 1893). Since that day till this moment, there have been discussions and quarrels about these questions.
Baudoux, his disciples and his followers asserted that it was possible to enlarge the honey bees by at least 40% in the length of the tongue and the capacity of the honey stock by 60%. His statements were contradicted many times: Dr. Miller, USA; Dr. Goub, USA; Roy A. Grout, USA; Perret-Maisonneuve in his book “apiculture intensive”, Zappi – Italy; Descourt – France; Baldensperger – France; Michailov – Russia, etc.
These researchers said that the enlargement was only 2%. The discussions were often vehement – and that is only about the possibility to enlarge the bees.
Another question is: if it is possible, is it also profitable? “Yes!”, said Baudoux, “Bigger bees make more honey because the bees are healthier, stronger and live longer and to prove that, he compared too small (950) cells/dm2) with large bees (700 or 640 cells/dm2). It is clear that in this case the smaller bees are at a disadvantage – the more so as the bees brought on the small cells came from large cells and had to adapt.
As far as I know, Baudoux never compared the natural cell size and comb distance with his own invention.
I, myself, together with other beekeepers, often compared colonies on 750 cell foundation at a comb distance of 37 mm with colonies on natural built comb at a distance of 34 mm. The “natural” colonies were always stronger, developed faster and had less winter loss. As a result, they gave more honey (an average of 20% in my apiary of 30 beehives). The bees were also healthier: This past year there was an outbreak of chalkbrood, only the “natural colonies” had no trace. If foundation with the natural number of cells (±850) was available, I would fit all my hives with it.
To do the tests, I used small strips of foundation or specially designed top bars and after 10 years, I can tell you, it’s not easy to make the bees build nice, regular combs. I don’t think there is a method, something that works well one year, doesn’t the next.
I think the natural size of brood cells and the natural distance of the combs is the most profitable for our honey bees. I do know there are small bees (Apis cerana and even florea) that are adapted to build small nests and to forage at a short distance. I also know Apis dorsata that build great colonies and many colonies together and forage at a great distance.
Our bees became what they are during an evolution period of millions of years and they are adapted to forage at the distance they do and to build the nest the way they do. In fact, they are still wild. I think we can’t intervene in the life of the bees the way we did with other animals. We bred chickens that laid more eggs, pigs that produced more meat in a shorter time, cows that gave more milk. To do that we have to provide these animals with balanced diets, artificial light and warmth (not to mention hormones and other additives). We can’t do that with our bees. We can’t feed them sugar from which to make honey.
During their evolution period, it was not the colonies that swarmed most that survived, not the colonies that put every drop of honey that was gathered in the brood, but the colonies that gathered the most honey and that saved that honey carefully – that’s our goal.
If the goal was a beautiful body, I suppose we could breed bees with blue eyes and red wings. If the goal was to cook them for dinner, we could breed fat, large bees as we did with the cows and the pigs. But, as long as honey and pollination are the goal, we can do no better than did nature by natural selection. The only thing we can do is to try and repair the damage caused by mismanagement and errors of the past (and at present).