More on Small Cell Foundation for Mite Control

Lusby, ABJ – June 1997

Since you printed my letter to the editor in your November 1996 issue of ABJ, my husband and I have again been swamped with letters and phone calls seeking more information. Consequently, I feel I should write more as other readers may also be interested in what the information desired has centered on. Namely:

  1. Telling beekeepers more on how to measure combs with diagrams.
  2. Explaining how our honey bees chew out Varroa and what beekeepers should look for.
  3. Converting to naturally smaller brood combs for one’s own area.

Concerning honeycombs – Honey bee 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. They can, however, be counted either parallel wall to parallel wall or with a mixture of both, one way in each direction. (See diagrams 1, 2 and 3). What is so interesting is that each is correct when properly applied, with the exception of exclusively measuring point to point.

Dia. 1- (Spivak, et al., 1988 #39, Africanized Honey Bees and Bee Mites.

Dia. 1- (Spivak, et al., 1988 #39, Africanized Honey Bees and Bee Mites.

Beekeepers in the field measure parallel wall to parallel wall. Normally, the mean diameter of the worker cells is recorded by measuring the distance by 10 to 20 linear cells with a ruler. In all cases, the three diagonals of the rows of hexagonal cells are measured to average out any cell irregularities.

Dia. 2 - Counting a square decimeter for number of cells using square measurement.

Dia. 2 - Counting a square decimeter for number of cells using square measurement.

No measurements should be made of drone comb, comb filled with nectar or honey, or comb towards the edges of the brood nest, as these cells tend to be larger. (See diagrams 1 and 3). I know of no beekeepers who measure the size of the cells in the field by measuring parallel wall to parallel wall and then straight down the frame. (See diagram 2). This measurement is normally used for counting the number of cells in a square decimeter along with the rhombus method. (See diagram 3). Counting the number of cells by each method, you would find that with the rhombus count you would have 800 cells total. This is because to arrive at the square decimeter total, you must use the cell count from both sides of the frame. In counting the number of cells by the square measurement method (Diagram 2), you would find that you would have 920 cells total.

Dia. 3 - Counting a square decimeter for number of cells using rhombus measurement.

Dia. 3 - Counting a square decimeter for number of cells using rhombus measurement.

Again this is because to arrive at the square decimeter total, you must use the cell count from both sides of the frame and factor in the half cells. You gain three extra rows of cells to count, because you measure point to point in one direction.

This is important to understand – The cell count from using the square measurement method for a square decimeter is only good in the laboratory, not in the field. The cell count from using the rhombus measurement method for a square decimeter has direct correlation to the field, as the size of the cell between the parallel walls of the cell regulates the size of the honey bee worker, and then by ratio the corresponding sizes of the drones and lastly the queen.

If you as beekeepers want your honeybees on natural 800 size foundation relative to the field in which they fly, you must learn to measure your cells for the field. Five cells (5) to the inch is 20 cells in four inches and equals 800 cells by rhombus measurement method for a square decimeter. Interestingly, 19 cells in four inches times 19 cells by the rhombus method, equals 361 cells on one side of the frame and multiplied by 2 for a square decimeter total, equals 722. This would tend to indicate a 700 series with 22 cells left over, which when divided by (2) equals (11). So you would have a 700 series with 11 extra cells on each side of the comb. Anyone keeping bees knows the significance of 7/11 comb foundation?

Concerning chewing out varroa: We have had several beekeepers want to know how and what to look for, to see if their worker bees are chewing out and/or removing varroa mites from infested larvae cells. This is what we have told them to look for. Here in Arizona, you will see this chewing out of varroa mites on the downside of the honey flow. It will start slowly as the queens stop raising drones, pick-up speed as the drones are expelled from the hive, then taper-off just prior to brood nest cleansing time. By the time the brood nest is re-situated and cleaned by the workers, with the pulling out of old larvae cocoons and reshellacked, you will find varroa mites down to a non-detectable level in most cases; and under control by the workers. In Arizona, we see it happening approximately twice a year with the primary chewing out season in the Fall. Other times you will see it occurring in spurts and will be right after requeening, when the hive workers are throwing out drones and getting ready to roll again. You will see it mostly around the edge of the brood nest of sealed worker cells, although it can occur as a buck-shot brood pattern in weaker hives or in a strong hive where large numbers of mites are transferring from drone to workers.

Look for uncapped worker brood with the pupae exposed and in many cases cannibalized. If there was only one varroa and it was located on the head between the eyes, many times the pupae will be unharmed, as the worker bees have only to remove the mite to rectify the situation. If the varroa is on the back of the head between the thorax, the worker bees will eat the head off to get to the varroa. If the varroa and/or another is on the thorax, they will eat down to that also. If the Varroa and/or more are located on the abdomen, lodged with the tergits, the bees will continue eating down. You will notice that when the worker bees are doing this and working only with removing varroa mites from healthy bees, the pupae will be a healthy white color, which shows that the worker bees are not removing diseased or infected larvae/pupae. When the varroa is removed from the top of the head and the pupae left unharmed, you will usually notice that the pupae are at a stage of purple darkening eyes. The bees seem to chew out the varroa when other chores of the hive are not pressing i.e. honey gathering and major brood rearing. Until then, the varroa mainly infest drone larvae and pupae. Thus the drones, although they do no work physically in the hive, do act as the best attractant by body mass and therefore a better basil food target, to pull disease and parasites to themselves, so workers can survive throughout the active season by raising vital brood and gathering stores or honey and pollen. Then as the season winds down the drones are thrown out, the worker brood acts as a living liver in the hive purging the overpopulation of varroa mites to bring it into a balanced parasitic mite host relationship similar to Apis cerana in Southeast Asia. Each new brood rearing season, the cycle starts again. Check of sealed worker brood, not uncapped by workers, have revealed non-infested pupae by varroa. When you see this, you know that your bees are doing what they should to handle the problem. Caution: Do not confuse this phenomena with starving bees that need pollen and or honey or both. These hives were not starving and had plenty of stores in them. Beekeepers must learn to see with their eyes and understand the difference. If you look close, you will see which types of queens and characteristics to recognize, to know by body color and conformity. that your bees can handle mites.

Concerning converting to small naturally sized brood combs: First rule of thumb here is to FOLLOW THE BEES NOT POPULARITY THEMES OF HOW YOU SHOULD DO IT! There are fast ways to convert brood combs and bees if you want to and can hustle (work). If you cannot find small natural foundation for your area, you can use swarm-catching hinged frames and using cutouts, take advantage of the free comb available in Nature. Then, to get more foundation, take empty frames and wire vertically with (7) to (8) vertical wires and crimp the wires. Place this between two frames of good layed up worker brood and you will find out the bees will draw wax fine. However, do not place between drone combs or badly spotted droned worker comb. This is also a good way to get stock living in Nature that more readily adapts to handling the varroa problem. After a while you will learn to spot feral queens by body and characteristics that can handle the problem. Learn again to open your eyes and look while not getting panic fever and run for the fast gimmick treatment in the bottle.

Remember above all, learn to follow the bees, in the end all will have to live with what Nature says will live and size down to natural bees through the three to four tiered retrogression periods it takes, in queening. You will find only old stick frames and/or crimp-wired frames will work to allow bees to drawn-out their own naturally sized combs that suit them, or you will have to put in smaller 800 size or 850 sized brood comb, preferably wax based without plastic, so the bees can modify it to their local regional needs. In the end, all else will in the long term not work.

Dee A. Lusby
Arizona Rangeland Honey
3832 East Golf Links Road
Tucson, AZ 85713