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Honeybee Comb: Size and Ramifications – Part 4

The Way Back to Biological Beekeeping, Part 7

Cheshire in 1888 “Bees and Beekeeping” noted that: “Flowers and bees have been constantly interacting. The build of every floret is adapted to that of its fertilizer, and, could we suddenly increase the dimensions of our hive bees, we should throw them out of harmony with the floral world around them, decrease their utility, by reducing the number of plants they could fertilize, and diminish equally their value as honey gathers. Mechanics, physiology, economics, and botany alike, show any craving after mere size to be an ill-considered and unscientific fancy, for which it would be even difficult to find an excuse.”

E.B. Wedmore’s “A Manual of Beekeeping” 3rd Edition adds by saying “Too large an increase in cell diameter involves increased size of brood chamber and some loss of economy in wintering, the cluster being less compact. Undoubtedly the beekeeper needs to study foundation in relation to the size of his bees. Although larger cells produce larger bees, there is no evidence that they are better bees. They are of lighter build.”

These two paragraphs mean alot to today’s beekeepers since both plants and honeybees have evolved together, they are linked together in the evolutionary chain, each dependent upon each other for survival. Change the size of the honeybee by artificially making her bigger and you decrease the variety of floral sources available in her diet which leads to nutritional induced stress, just like other undernourished animals, which can lead to a lowered internal immune system for increased risk of affliction by disease, or parasitic attack by foreign organisms. Also breached is overall pollination of the natural range of plants pollinated, and if the unpollinated plants cannot be pollinated by other species of insects, then reproduction is compromised leading to disappearance of native flora. Could this be a contributing factor in today’s world with the hybridization of artificial crops for bigger yields, pollinated by bigger and bigger artificially created honeybees, which has simultaneously led to diminished natural vegetation/plant species in a number of areas around the world?

Compounding, if you increase the size of the brood chamber and create loss of economy in overwintering by the cluster being less compact, you have added even more stress upon the honeybee colony. You have also added more cost of upkeep to the beekeeper in the way of extra equipment. When you have bigger artificial worker cells and bigger honeybees, you have less brood per comb raised, which means you need more frames of brood to equal a normal size brood chamber containing the same number of bees to carry out proper colony functioning with division of labor. To have bigger artificial worker cells and not add additional frames of comb for brood to equal a normal size brood chamber containing the same number of bees would necessitate a restructuring of division of labor within the colonies for continued smooth functioning.

If restructuring can not be accomplished to cover all required tasks, then stress appears and compounds as more and more tasks cannot be accomplished, for the successful continuance of the colony (we will talk more on this later). You have loss of economy in overwintering of the cluster, with the cluster being less compact, in many ways with the artificial use of bigger honeybees. First, the cluster in winter is only capable of physically covering a certain number of worker cells in the brood nest area and yet move, for stored feed of pollen and honey for daily maintenance. If even a 100 cells difference, say hypothetically, in square decimeter cell count were to occur (in actuality there is much more cell count difference), from traditional counting, to an artificially oversized count, as would occur with today’s more modern square square decimeter counting, this would equate to over the space of 8 square decimeters, on just one brood frame, as being an 800 cell difference.

Hypothetically here, that would be 800 less workerbees or physical bodies available for work within the colony on just one frame for just one brood turn. How many worker bodies can be lost, before economies of scale becomes an item, of much merit to be watched, so spring buildup is not compromised or winter carry over (shivering for warmth) is not compromised? In addition, as the bees bodies themselves increase in size with their various parts as cells are artificially made larger, all changes are not in the same proportion. One would think that the bees flight muscles must increase in proportion to the wing length, but it does not. When looked at internally, it’s like mass/muscle has been expanded over a larger surface and gone from dense muscle to less dense muscle. It’s as if pockets of nothingness are created, making for perfect cavities for parasitic mites to nest in, as the first thoracic spiracle on the thorax is artificially enlarged on bigger combs, to allow for external parasitic mites to freely walk in and dine!…and stay!…and reproduce!

Might not then, this be considered a contributing factor for an underlying causitive effect taking place helping to set the stage for today’s problems of disease and parasitic mites? When looked at externally, it’s like body mass has been expanded over a larger surface, but more loosely. Equate this to a suit-of-armour on insects i.e. the exoskeleton. On small insects it is very tight and close fitting. Even with small hot-blooded animals i.e. armadillos this is true. Now look at bigger insects and bigger similar animals. As size increases the plates are not so tight. With bigger honeybees the exoskeleton is looser than the exoskeleton of naturally sized honeybees. The bigger the honeybees get, the looser and less close fitting, the exoskeleton and various body parts become. What this means is that the tergits on the honeybees body, as one example here, are artificially enlarged enough to allow for parasitic mites to crawl under and suck bees blood. Regulate the bees body back to normal size and naturally tighten the tergits and this practice stops!

Let’s talk about RETROGRESSION BACK TO NORMAL for awhile now.

Just how does a beekeeper and an industry at the upper limits of bigger is better sizing, retrogress domesticated honeybees back to normal sizing? After all, the industry has been on this path for a good 100 years now, and it should be obvious that we as an industry do not have a 100 years time to get back to traditional comb sizing and stability for our bee stocks. We must remember that beekeepers are not all scientists with laboratories to back themselves up, and the most that many beekeepers can only afford to hire for workers are other common folks like themselves. Whatever is done must be kept simplistically simple where possible. It may in truth be labor intensive, but it must be simplistically simple (KISS principle) to follow and do.

To achieve a successful outcome in the field, beekeepers must be able to breed freely between the feral population and domestically kept honeybees. They must be willing to accept what honeybee races/strains will live in their regional areas acclimatized to their own local areas. Here it is best said that live bees make honey and can be traded, while dead bees are, well just dead!

To achieve a successful outcome in the field, beekeepers must be willing to make field management changes, keeping what modern mechanized advances will work, and get rid of those that will not.

To achieve a successful outcome in the field, it will also take looking at honeybees with a new perspective to breeding and field management, as much of today’s modern methods evidently are just not working, having been developed on an artificial oversized domesticated system not relative to the true feral population.

Nothing is hard to do or understand, to retrogress back to natural feral comb sizing, but it will take some time. While it won’t take 100 years to accomplish, for some beekeepers it will take upwards of 10-15 years, depending upon how many colonies are currently managed and their degree and willingness to participate. Many will not make it through the change-over back to traditional comb sizing, but many must for our industry to survive the long way back to biological beekeeping without the use of chemicals, drugs, and essential oils.

The way back to biological beekeeping through retrogression is a multi-stepped process. Just as it took several steps upward in sizing through-out the last 100 years, it will take more than one to down-size back to natural sizing parameters for domesticated honeybees so they can racially mingle again with the feral. It cannot be accomplished in one retrogression step smaller, due to the extent that we as an industry went bigger, in search of a better honeybee! Basic tools for every beekeeper to have should include: 1) a supply of ready-made swarm-catching frames, 2) a supply of queen excluders, 3) a supply of 4.9mm comb foundation(without pronounced sidewalls), 4) basic grafting supplies for queenrearing.


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