ABJ, November, 1996 – Page 758-760
Since you were kind enough to publish my letter to the editor in your July 1996 issue of your magazine on small natural cell size foundation for mite control, my husband and I have received numerous letters and phone calls seeking more information. Some of the letters have come all the way from Europe. Consequently, I feel I should write again as other readers may also be interested in some of it’s history and what field experience we have gained these past 10 years plus in working with small natural cell diameter foundation without the use of chemicals.
To begin with, my husband and I consider ourselves “Naturalist Beekeepers”. To us this means keeping bees in accordance, as much as possible, on a natural system of breeding and management without the use of drugs, chemicals in the field, and therefore hopefully in tune with the laws of God and Nature. We do not believe in insemination and its inbreeding practices. We take our honey crop with a brush, frame by frame, the old way, without Bee-Go. Yet, we are considered commercial beekeepers trying to run about 1,000 hives. We believe that every time you work a hive you should examine the brood nest and that hives should be worked approximately every 6-8 weeks in rotation throughout the beekeeping year, which to us is a twelve-month program.
We have had our share of honey bee losses due to mites over the past 10 plus years, with some apiaries in elevations over 4400 feet experiencing up to 80% losses more than one year in a row. We know what it is to requeen three times a year, Spring, late Summer, and Fall and still not outrun the mites because queens played-out all too soon! We know what it is to lose half of all our stock in one winter and say enough is enough, there must be a better way. In the Mid-1980s we made a decision to go back to naturalist beekeeping and never look back. Chemicals are too expensive and in the end who can afford to replace combs every three to four years to outrun contamination problems that might end in product recall and/or poison the brood nest area because the propolis in the brood cells has become contaminated, thus killing and harming the brood besides contaminating the wax.
What we did was tighten our belts and dig in for the long-haul and decide to see if Nature’s way, therefore God’s way, was the solution and make the journey back into a natural system of beekeeping, keeping as much modern technology as possible so we wouldn’t break our backs. We never dreamed that so much cause and effect had been overlooked that had the combined potential of creating this huge mite mess.
Since it is a known fact that both honey bees and mites have been on this Earth many millions of years together and survived quite nicely, the question then is – WHAT HAS GONE WRONG? We decided in reading to try to go back to the beginning and check for cause and effect. This is what we have been telling the beekeepers who have written and called us, as we try to tell them where to find the information they need so they too can make their own management changes that fit their own needs and style of beekeeping.
Everything we have learned so far seems to revolve around of all things, our comb foundation sizes and the size of our honey bees since the invention of artificial wax foundations in 1857 by a Mr. J. Mehring of Frankinthal, Germany. The early wax sheets made in England and Germany back then were simple and had no sidewalls, just simply indentations. A person by the name of Wagner twenty years later made improvements adding sidewalls, making the sheets much more like natural comb. Up until 1875 all foundation was made with a pair of plates. Then a Mr. A. Washburn made a machine that would roll out a continuous sheet of embossed wax for foundation making. Following this a Mr. Chas. Olm of Fond du Lac, Wisc., invented an automatic machine which cut with a set of knives the embossed surfaces of the roller mills, as Mr. Washburn’s were hand stamped and labor intensive. This brought foundation mills affordable for widespread industry use.
We have found out through reading, that mills have been made in many sizes over the years, all the way up to 3 1/2 cells to the inch. This is where our industry has gotten into so much trouble. Cell sizes, their size and how to measure them. Most beekeepers universally agree that five cells to the inch is worker size and four cells to the inch is drone size in the feral population, but the domestic size our bees today have ended up on is quite different and has wrought havoc, causing much disease and parasitic mite attacks as artificial combs have gotten bigger. The stress upon our honey bees caused by being out-of-balance with natural flora has opened Pandora’s box to foulbrood diseases, chalk, and viral infections. The stress upon our honey bees caused by being too big by way of artificial mutation through use of oversized combs, has resulted in parasitic mite infestations as our now pseudo-drones (workerbees) are perceived as a new food source by Varroa and Tracheal mites. With all this damage being done, we find no one teaching the history of use of artificial comb foundation sizes in the United States, so our new upcoming beekeepers can make rational decisions concerning proper usage by size. Just like our woodenware, our various sizes were originally designed with meaning, now forgotten.
Let’s get something straight right now, no one person or company is to blame either in the United states or elsewhere in our world for artificially increasing honey bees so big as to cause disease and parasitic mite problems to overtake our bees by placing them in a situation out-of-tune with the laws of God and Nature. Nothing was hidden and everything was written and published out in the open. The only thing that has happened, is that through the passing of each successive generation over the past 100 years or so, information was not passed on from father to son and/or teacher to pupil in our institutions of higher learning. Ours is a world looking always for bigger and better, faster and cheaper, simpler and not labor intensive, and circumstances have finally caught up with us and we now have to sort past-written information out, so we can correct and go forward.
We have forgotten as an industry how to measure the comb foundations our industry was built upon. We have forgotten as an industry how to do the simple field management inspections that keep bees healthy, instead relying upon quick fix patties. We have forgotten as an industry how to basically breed bees, many now preferring to buy quick requeening/restocking solutions, not considering how they fit into one’s own regional individual environments. When we as an industry forgot the basics and stopped teaching it, we got into trouble. We cannot rely upon quick fix gimmicks to solve our problems, for they have created them. The information is there to solve our disease and parasitic mite problems and its about time it was gone over again, for the new generation of beekeepers to review and use, to make constructive decisions with, so they can manage their bees against today’s diseases and parasitic mites. My husband and I really don’t believe it’s all really that hard. The basic principles are simple. It’s really believing in a natural biologically controlled system to correct the situation – that’s hard, for to believe in and put your trust in Nature, you must also believe in Nature’s system and therefore God. The only catch is, going back to naturalist beekeeping involved work – hard field work and tightening the belt for a few years to come through the tunnel to survive.
Basic Principles to Review for Management Changes
1. 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 differently.
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 foundations, 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. When beekeepers measure comb foundations 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.
Combs are measured in what is called a “Square Decimeter”, but a square decimeter can be measured one of two ways. It 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 HONEY BEES SHOULD BE USING, BUT IN ACTUALITY IT IS NOT.
By trying to approximate the old U.S. Standard of 856 and the old World 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.
2. Beekeepers should be actively culling their drone combs in their hives.
It has been previously demonstrated that Varroa mites prefer drone brood to worker brood for reproduction in the feral population of honey bees. Generally, about 40% pf drone cells are infested, while for workers, the average is close to 10%. (For Tracheal mites the feral average is also about 10% for workers for infestation levels). It has been demonstrated that the larvae food is the stimulant in the bigger cells for attracting Varroa infestation. For many years it was taught to cull drone combs as much as possible, but since the advent of Varroa, this practice has been reversed to the detriment of our hives. Beekeepers should go back to the old way of thinking, as there will always be plenty of drones reared in corners of the frames or in cells that become enlarged by accident. It should always be remembered that the drones do no work physically in the hive, but they do act as the best attractant to pull disease and parasites to themselves so workers can survive throughout the active season. Then, when the honey is in and new queens mated, their jobs done, they are cast out to cleanse the hive of its disease and parasite problems. On a natural system, the few phoretic mites that remain are quickly filtered out through the brood nest by the workers chewing out and/or removing mites from infected larvae cells. This happens during each transition period between summer and winter bees, short or long-lived bees, happening twice each year here in the Arizona desert Southwest. By us culling drone brood frames which are excessive (more than 10%) we therefore limit our infestation and reduce it down using the 40% vs 10% infestation level difference to our own hive management advantage.
Further, by changing out oversized artificial combs in our brood nests (some on the market are as much as 40% oversized) we reduce the attraction for Varroa to enter pseudo-drone cells (worker cells artificially enlarged with more larvae food for mites) and reproduce at higher than natural 10% infestation levels also.
3. Beekeepers should be actively out-breeding their colonies and not practice inbreeding which lowers hive productivity and life.
It is a known fact that the life span of honey bees becomes shorter and bee colonies develop less as inbreeding degree is increased. It has been noted that F4 out-bred queens can produce 300% more brood then F4 inbred queens. Bees were not meant to be artificially inseminated using inbreeding methods when in the wild under the laws of God and Nature they naturally outbreed.
4. Beekeepers should not actively feed artificial pollen substitutes nor sugar for feed for long periods of time for they lower hive productivity and life.
Most often artificial food substitutes fed to honey bees are to be used for short-term duration of 6-8 weeks. Feeding honey bees on sugar in the Fall has a negative effect on the physiological processes in their preparing for wintering. Bees by having to process sugar syrup all Winter and into the Spring cause the hypopharyngeal glands fat body and ovaries to deteriorate and this can result in low brood rearing in the spring when fast build-up is needed to out-run mites. Colonies fed on honey and real pollen result in larger emerging bees and more vigorous bees.
5. Beekeepers should not be practicing 100% pre-medication preventative care of their honey bees. It’s like treating a person with chemotherapy before he has cancer and wondering what is making him sick.
If beekeepers medicate only what is sick in their hives, on a regular 6-8 week full hive inspection program their colonies would be better off. Why, because they would be catching most problems in the beginning, rather than when finding them out of control, with just early Spring or late Fall inspections. We do not buy artificial drugs to treat our colonies anymore. Instead we rely upon 2000 plus years of Bible history and use “Propolis” the old “Balm of Gilead” to heal and medicate our hives. We have found it quite successful in treating bacterial, fungal, and viral diseases. Furthermore, it is the only universal antibiotic manufactured within our own beehives that is used by man and we see no reason why the bees, therefore, should not be medicated with it themselves when necessary, on a case-by-case basis only.
My husband and I have told beekeepers calling and writing, that if man should ever seek to change honey bees 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 honey bee 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 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 honey bee 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 without being forced back. Diseases and parasitic mites are forcing us back now into balance with native regional floras. My husband and I believe beekeepers should pay heed or they’ll go out of business. Time is short now for our industry as our inbreeding mistakes catch up with us. Time is short now for our industry as our chemical treatment mistakes catch up with us. Time is short now for our industry as our oversized artificial combs catch up with us. 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, it is not hard, but it does take field management time and a belief in Nature and biological controls. We have checked comb sizes all over this country. Very few manufacturers have natural sizes available, for you have to be an old company with deep roots in industry to have it available. Dadant has small natural foundation, five (5) cells to the inch. They call it 900 series (use the Square measurement method) rather than the 800 Rhombus it really is (use the Rhombus measurement method). Beekeepers reading this should really call them up and bug them hard to get them to advertise it to the industry again out in the open. My husband and I fully believe that our industry will have to change back their brood combs to natural feral size or die. Many who can’t change back will go out of business for lack of time and resources at this late date, but small natural comb should be made readily available to the industry for those who wish to try a biological natural solution and are willing to work. The bottom is a 2/3 bee loss to adjust their colonies which is a 3-4 year acclimatizing process (like going through alcohol withdrawal). But, those who can graft and make bees from survivors can work with a base of 35-40%. Beekeepers cannot work with 90% blowouts and no plan of survival, with the only recourse. buy more bees and throw in more chemicals and blowout again. Where’s the plan and the end of this insanity.
It’s about time we as an industry got in tune with history again and Nature’s system. Call Dadant and bug them to advertise small natural comb again and dust off their old mills. Remember their 900 is 800 and the heck with trade secrets of what it really is. We need small natural comb foundation sold again and advertised on a regular basis.
Dee A. Lusby
Arizona Rangeland Honey
3832 East Golf Links Road
Tucson, Arizona 85713