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Honeybee Comb: Size and Ramifications – Part 3

The Way Back to Biological Beekeeping, Part 6

HONEYBEE COMB CELLS ARE MEASURED PARALLEL WALL TO PARALLEL WALL IN THREE DIRECTIONS. THEY ARE NOT MEASURED POINT TO POINT, NOR MEASURED WITH A MIXTURE OF BOTH, ONE WAY IN EACH DIRECTION DIFFERENTLY, I.E. PARALLEL WALL TO PARALLEL WALL ACROSS, THEN STRAIGHT DOWN THROUGH THE POINTS.

Metal mill rollers were originally made by making the bottom of the cells out of three chip-out little lozenge shaped plates, that when put together formed the bottom of the cell. This was done so that the bees could beautifully build what is called a “Rhombic Dodecahedron”. Beekeepers know this figure as a common bee cell. When beekeepers measure comb foundation, they should measure the combs using the dimensions inside that of a rhombus, because in doing so they measure parallel wall to parallel wall and can arrive at an accurate figure that corresponds to that used by the mill maker in creating the mold that duplicates Nature.

This is also the way traditional comb cells were measured back to our earliest times (Zenodorus, Pappus, Maraldi, etc.). When beekeepers measure comb foundation today, many make the mistake of measuring parallel wall to parallel wall across the first row and then down straight to make a cell count determination. This is not a traditional way of measuring combs, only becoming popular just after the turn of this century. COMBS ARE MEASURED IN WHAT IS CALLED A “SQUARE DECIMETER”, BUT A SQUARE DECIMETER CAN BE MEASURED ONE OF TWO WAYS. One way is traditional going back over two thousand years of recorded history and is what our industry was founded upon, along with much of our culture relative to building, transportation, and medicine. The other way again, only became popular just after the turn of this century.

A square decimeter can be measured either with a perfect square or by a rhombus method. By changing to a perfect square measurement, we have gotten into deep trouble because…the numbers arrived at in the totals are vastly different. It is this vast difference that has wrought down upon us our parasitic mite problems as many of us try to use what we think is the proper size foundation our honeybees should be using, but in actuality it is not. By trying to approximate the old USA standard of 856 and the old world (European Mainland) standard of 800 cell sizes to the square decimeter many beekeepers have used foundation bases geared to a square decimeter using square measurements, rather than a square decimeter using rhombus measurements. The error is proving fatal to say the least.

EXAMPLE: The cubic content of a cell is of interest here. Why? The comparison of worker comb with the values for drone comb, if one were to do it, would probably approximately confirm Mullenhoff’s results announced some 115 years ago, that the drone cell has a volume double that of a worker cell. Why is this important today? Basic survival necessity, equating to a “FOOD SOURCE ATTRACTION FOR PARASITIC MITES!

Here it should be convenient to remember the figures 3, 4, and 5 as traditionally applying to the size of cells, that are their diameters in a common feral beehive as given at the beginning of this century. Three queen cells placed side by side, would then traditionally measure an inch, 4 drone cells placed side by side would then traditionally measure an inch, along with 5 worker cells placed side by side, measured traditionally, would measure an inch; or, the size of drone cells built by bees of a given size bears a constant ratio to the size of the worker cells, as does the size of the queen. In addition, the size of the bee is correlated with the capacity of the cells inside diameter, which regulates the size of the thorax, which then regulates the size of all body parts. So when you inadvertently change the size of the worker bee by changing the size of the cell, you change everything in the hive.

QUESTION: If in Nature with Apis Cerana, only the drones are attacked by parasitic Varroa mites, why would bigger be better, if it triggers a pseudo-attack by parasitic mites perceiving oversized worker larva as just another food source like drones?

QUESTION: If one believes that Tracheal mites are historically external parasitic mites on honeybees that were for centuries non-threatening, and the only place these mites can get into honeybees to do damage is through the first thoracic spiracle on the thorax of a honeybee, and changing the size of a comb cell bigger would therefore change the size of the thorax bigger and consequently enlarge the entrance of the first thoracic spiracle on a honeybee, then why would bigger be better, if it triggers an attack by parasitic external mites to today turn them into internal parasitic mites, and is there evidence to back this conclusion up? I believe that there is ample evidence to back this conclusion up, especially when it can be shown that retrogression back onto smaller natural comb size of 5.0mm stabilizes the death curve and further retrogression back onto 4.9mm comb size foundation further eliminates accompanying secondary diseases.

QUESTION: If retrogressing honeybees back onto smaller sized worker comb foundation, traditionally used for centuries, can be shown to eliminate parasitic mite attacks of both Tracheal and Varroa mites and also their accompanying secondary diseases, then what does this say about modern genetics breeding concerning honeybees, if say, retrogression to smaller traditional sizing for worker cells, eliminates parasitic mite problems, secondary disease problems, and lastly, even inbreeding problems?

QUESTION: This would then necessitate the question as to what is modern day genetic breeding for diseases and parasitic mite problems, really based upon 1) a traditional beekeeping historical background or 2) an artificially derived system developed just after the turn of the century on the supposition that bigger is better 3) a hodgepodge of both poorly correlated? WHAT ARE EXAMPLES OF NORMAL SIZING? In any geographical area there is a range in Nature that takes into account that which is acclimatized to an area (pure) and that which is in the process of adapting (hybrid). A pure honeybee will always be smaller in size than a hybrid honeybee of the same race in a given geographical area.

In Belgium, Prof Baudoux measured workers in the range of 5mm to 5.17mm and 5.35mm per cell. (Ordinary drone cells he placed at 5.5mm next to 5mm for worker cells.) Even he found 5.5mm drone cells next to 5mm worker cells to be double in volume of cell contents for food confirming Mullenhoff’s results. When we then consider having today, foundation on the market as large as 5.7mm, it’s not hard to see how it would not be disastrous for beekeepers to use, because of parasitic mite attraction with a pseudo-effect on worker bees perceived as a food source just like that of drones. Yet, look how much foundation on today’s market is 5.44mm in size (close to the 5.5mm drone size measured by baudoux). Wouldn’t this too, also be dangerous for attraction for parasitic mites, causing a pseudo-effect, with mites mistaking worker bees for drones? JUST HOW BIG THEN, IS TOO BIG? I would say too big is when a colony of bees starts to become distressed, which leads to stress, which leads to disease, which lets a beekeeper know through visual perception that something is wrong within the hive.

How were worker combs measured around the turn of the century about a hundred years ago, just before a newer measurement system was devised and presented at a newly formed “Apimondia of world renowned beekeepers/scientists in the 1930s?” Let’s look at a few.

From A.I. and E.R. Root in their 1913 edition of ABC and XYZ of BEE CULTURE we learn: “If the worker-cells were exact hexagons measuring five to the inch, there would be exactly 28-13/15 cells to the square inch on one side of a comb. But there is not this exactness, as will be shown by careful measurement, although the eye may detect no variation. Count the number of cells in a given length in a horizontal row of cells, and then make the same count in one of the diagonal rows, and you will find they are not precisely the same. That shows that the cells are not exact hexagons. Measure the cells in a number of combs built by different colonies, or even by the same colony, and it will be found that they are by no means all of them five to the inch.

This, of course, refers to natural comb built by the bees without any comb foundation being supplied to them. Comb foundation is generally made with cells of such size that worker comb built upon it contains about 27 cells to the square inch.”

Knowing that combs are measured in what is called a “Square Decimeter” then if we take the measurements of 27 cells to the square inch, times 16 for one side of a comb and multiply it times 2, for the two sides of a comb it would refer to, we would find out the foundation the Roots are referring to would have 864 cells for the square decimeter, which would equate to 4.8mm sizing, and the size of the foundation our industry in the USA was founded upon, if one were to read old editions of ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture.

Going further, if we look at the natural measurements given via the rhombus method, explained by the Roots, by noting the measurements given on the diagonal, we might say: 28 x 16 x 2= 896 cells or 29 x 16 x 2 = 928 cells, or depending upon your interpretation, say approximately 900 cells give or take for cell size. Does 900 cells for a size sound familiar? But herein is the problem. How does 900 cells for a size equate with 800 cells for a size relative to history and actual measurements at the beginning of our 1900s? Now measure straight across the parallel walls and then straight down the rows for a square square decimeter measurement. The numbers would be vastly different. Like an old slide of hand trick exchanging one measurement for another. However, Prof Baudoux and others back then knew about the measurement disparity. It was common knowledge. Somehow, because it was not written down, it became forgotten. But today it is paramount to understanding our parasitic mite and secondary disease problem as a major underlying causative effect and the error needs to be corrected. NOW TAKE ANY PIECE OF FOUNDATION AND DO THE SAME THING, LOOK AT THE NUMBERS COUNT AND THE AREA INVOLVED, AND COMPARE THE DIFFERENCES. INTERESTING, WOULDN’T ONE SAY!

By the way, the 900 cell size range would place foundation in the range of 4.7mm, which would be the feral size for the sea coast of the USA Gulf port states. We calculate 4.7mm as the beginning of the range, of comb cell sizes in the USA, with 4.9mm average in a major part of the USA below 3500 feet above sea-level, and 5.0mm to 5.1mm the top of the range by our own latitudinal plotting of feral comb cell sizes by latitude and altitude. However, only on 4.9mm size comb foundation could we drop off secondary diseases in our own bee colonies. On 5.0mm we stabilized with tracheal mites and varroa mites with our hives not dying due to mites, but secondary diseases would finish the job during drought years triggered by high stress. Since Nature is HARMONIOUS and secondary diseases abated by going one step smaller to 4.9mm worker cell size, we stopped our retrogression to smaller cell sizes here, because extraction of honey is more difficult the smaller the cells; and mites and secondary diseases are no longer a problem at our latitudes and altitudes in Southern Arizona between Tucson and Nogales.

Now let’s look at measurements for honeybee cells around the turn of the century for England and see what we get. We will reference E. B. Wedmore and his book “A Manual of Beekeeping”. In the third edition on page 78 we find some interesting information.

Namely, Wedmore like the Roots, talks about the size of hexagon cells being generally measured across the flats, which would be the parallel walls. In fact to quote E.B. Wedmore for the range of cell sizes to be found in England we note: “Foundation for worker brood is generally made to give comb with about 4 3/4 to 5 cells per inch run (measured across the flats), the latter more commonly, and 4 cells per inch for drone brood. The area of the hexagon of a cell then becomes such as to give 26 to 29 worker cells per square inch and 18.5 drone cells, in each case counted on one side of the comb, and not allowing for stretching”. E.B. Wedmore then goes further saying: “In nature the INSIDE dimensions of worker cells across the flats may vary as much as from, say, 0.195 to 0.235 inch with the same lot of bees, and will vary still more as between races having the smallest and largest bees. Similarly, in one lot of bees drone comb may run from 0.22 to 0.26 inch”.

Again, knowing that combs are measured in what is called a “Square Decimeter” then if we take Wedmore’s measurements of 26 cells to the square inch, times 16 for one side of a comb and multiply it times 2, for the two sides of a comb it would refer to, we would find out the comb would have 832 cells for the square decimeter, which would equate to 4.9mm sizing, for the large cell-range size. If we then take Wedmore’s measurements of 29 cells to the square inch, times 16 for one side of a comb and multiply it times 2, for the two sides of a comb it would refer to, we would find out the comb would have 928 cells for the square decimeter, which would equate to 4.66mm approximately for small cell-range. Lastly, 27 worker cells per square inch would equate to 864 cells for square decimeter, and 28 worker cells per square inch would equate to 896 cells for square decimeter.

Notice that if one is referring to a small black bee of Europe at sea level then the 4.66mm would be the very smallest sizing reported by Wedmore and if the same were found in Belgium at sea level would show why some beekeepers believed the small black bees of Europe were quite small indeed. If you look at the 864 cell sizing, it is close to the 4.8mm sizing then used in the USA and quoted by the Roots. If you look at the 896 cell sizing you are looking at the old quoted 900 sizing or 4.7mm for honeybees found on several coastal plains from Belgium South through France and Spain to Italy around the Mediterranean Sea including the North of Africa. (Also 4.66mm cell size at its smallest). If one looks at measurements given by Cheshire in England in 1888 one would see that he gives 28 13/15 worker cells per square inch for an answer for cell size in England. Here, just like with the Roots in the USA, we might say: 28 x16 x 2 = 896 cells or 29 x 16 x 2 = 928 cells, or depending upon your interpretation, say approximately 900 cells give or take for cell size.

So what does all this mean? It means that for old small black bees found in England the range of sizing went from 4.66mm to 4.9mm in worker cell diameter. Cheshire’s measurement for drone cell size was 18 178/375 per square inch relative to Wedmore’s. If one references Anne D. Betts of England, she gives the number of cells at 830 worker cells in “Bee World” January 1934, which would also equate to 4.9mm worker cell sizing. One might ask the question here: In England, like in the USA, could the variance from traditional worker cell sizings quoted by respectable noted early beekeepers, be a major underlying causative factor in today’s world for secondary diseases, and parasitic mites brought upon by ever bigger and bigger cell sizes?

My husband Ed and I have told beekeepers calling and emailing, that if man should ever seek to change honeybees so that they no longer relate to Nature’s and GOD’s law, they would likely intervene in such a way as to preserve the necessary balance originally created. For there is some reason to believe that in the plan of Nature, the honeybee was not only created to conform to the necessity of its mission as a pollinating agent, but that the plants and their bloom may have been fashioned to conform to the convenience of the bee also in one large masterful plan.

There is a barrier we have crossed as an industry both locally and worldwide we need to retreat from, that seems to have been deliberately placed there by GOD and Nature to prevent any wide deviation of the honeybee in size and action from what they designed that it should be, this being accomplished by limiting the size of the bee to that of the cell in which it is developed, as set down in the feral bee, beyond which it cannot go far off size without being forced back for fear of extinction. Diseases and parasitic mites are forcing us back now into balance with native regional floras. Shouldn’t beekeepers heed their traditional past, to learn from it to protect their future as an industry?

Time is getting short now as our politics catch up with us. Time is short now for our industry as our breeding mistakes, breeding for superior races catch up with us over that chosen naturally. Time is short now for our industry as our chemical treatment mistakes catch up with us. We are deepening the chemical treadmill we have put our bees upon, which can only end with total brood nest contaminations and hive collapses of the very hives we love. Time is short now for our industry as our oversized now pseudo worker bees, now perceived as drones are eaten for food. We as an industry want to run fast and cheap and it won’t work. For those who want to go back to naturalist beekeeping with a clean sustainable system, it is not hard, but it does take a lot of field management and work, and TIME. Isn’t it about time we as an industry got in tune with traditional history again and Nature’s system?


Signed: Dee A. Lusby, Amado, Arizona, USA