Un-regressed Bees

The Idea

Colonies in various states of un-regression.

What happens when small cell, mite tolerant colonies are re-established or un-regressed on clean, large cell size comb?

Except for mite tolerance, no difference existed in behavior, health or honey production between my large or small cell bees when both were on clean wax.

But there was a significant difference between bees on clean wax and my treated, large cell bees. Many positive aspects attributed to small cell can actually be attributed to a lack of pesticide contamination.

What happens when un-regressed colonies are placed in a top bar hive?

They do what all bees do when given the chance. They draw out a broodnest with the same structure and cell size distribution that any natural bee nest has. Mite tolerance increases. All colonies survive. But a few colonies show some mite damage.

What happens when un-regressed colonies are put back into small cell hives?

They are mite tolerant and can survive without treatment.

The Details

Setup

Much has been written about regression. That’s the process of getting bees, reared on large cell size comb, established on small cell size comb. My small cell bees were:

  • healthier
  • over wintered better
  • built up faster in the spring
  • and could tolerate mites

But regressing bees is an onerous process. When following the Lusby method, most hives succumb to varroa before becoming established on small cell.

After regressing my own bees, I thought another approach might be more efficient. But by then, all my hives were on small cell. So, I needed to un-regress a few hives. In 2002, I made the switch. Small cell hives were transitioned to clean, large cell hives:

  • a box of clean large cell comb was put between two brood small cell brood boxes
  • taking half a season, all small cell comb was rotated up and out

The resulting hives consisted of three deep boxes of clean, large cell comb. These hives formed the basis for some interesting observations.

One large cell hive was put in my backyard. All the rest were kept in the same bee yard a dozen miles away with my other small cell hives..

Results

Small Versus Large Cell Bees Size

It became obvious that bee size wasn’t directly dependent on the cell size. Bee sizes, in both large and small cell hives, changed with the seasons. And it was impossible to determine which hives contained large or small cell comb by looking at the bee size alone. So, I took a few photos and did a little measuring. The results of this experiment don’t exactly follow what is written about bee size versus cell size in the regression literature. Season has more to do with bee size than does the cell size they were reared in.

Over Wintering

All hives were in great condition for over wintering. I couldn’t discern a visible difference between the two groups. They:

  • had large clusters, centered in the middle box
  • occupied about eight frames with the cluster in the lower box
  • all survived in great shape

Since getting these bees on clean wax, I haven’t suffered a single over wintering loss. They have come through the winter strong and healthy. No:

  • dinks
  • or deadouts

Spring Buildup

Small cell bees build up fast in the spring. This difference was surprising when compared to my treated, large cell hives. But these un-regressed large cell hives built up as fast as the small cell hives. I suspect that pesticide contaminated in the wax of my treated large cell hives was the culprit for poor spring buildup and not cell size.

These bees were so strong they required splitting to control swarming. I had a bee surplus. Rather than a surplus of empty equipment.

Disease

Since getting a variety of bees on clean wax, I haven’t had disease problems after that first regression season. No foulbrood, chalkbrood, etc., has appeared in either group. Looks like clean comb and healthy bees can resist most common bee diseases.

Honey Production

Although honey production varied between hives, no noticeable difference was seen between the different cell size groups.

Extreme drought has plagued my locale for a decade. Surviving vegetation is under great stress and will probably perish without some climate change.

Yet, my hives produced more than twice the average amount recorded for this area. The excellent health, over wintering, and fast spring buildup probably offsets the drought’s effects.

Before the bees were on clean wax, my production was slightly better than average.

Comb Orientation

My small cell hive frames were marked and oriented using Housel positioning. After regressing, when my few surviving small cell hives were weak, I thought Housel positioning kept the small clusters centered. Re-centering smaller clusters was a common spring procedure with treated bees.

No attempts were made to orient the comb in my un-regressed large cell hives, as the natural comb in my top bar hives didn’t show such orientation.

The clusters were large and healthy in these test hives. I couldn’t discern a difference in centering, swarming, temperament, or anything else based upon comb orientation.

Mite Tolerance

Typical wing deformities caused by mite vectored viruses.

While regressing my small cell bees, they behaved remarkably. They could detect and remove mite infested pupa. And damage varroa mites by biting them. Whole patches of brood were cleansed this way, primarily during the spring and fall. After regressing that first season, all small cell colonies tolerated varroa mites without treatments.

When the broodnest consists of small cell comb, different bee races maintained an average natural mite fall of 1 to 3 mites/week. I haven’t detected any significant seasonal mite buildup in my small cell hives.

But the varroa mite situation, in my un-regressed hives, was a different story:

  • no mite cleansing or mite biting was visible in the mite tray debris
  • mite damage to the bees was visible by mid-summer
  • one hive showed PMS symptoms at the first season’s end. It required mite treatment to survive
  • by the middle of the second season, all large cell un-regressed hives, including the one in my backyard, required mite treatments to survive
  • oxalic acid was used

Cell size is everything for varroa mite tolerance. The same bees which were mite tolerant when on small cell comb, had no mite tolerance when they were un-regressed on large cell comb.

I haven’t had problems with tracheal mites since 1999. So, I don’t have any observations concerning them.

Un-regressed Bees In A Top Bar Hive

After this test, some un-regressed colonies were put into top bar hives, much like I had done years before, with my small cell bees. These bees built a broodnest structure that had the same orientation and cell size distribution as all the other natural comb I’ve measured.

Mite tolerances increased. A few hives were damaged by mites. But all survived without treatment.

Un-regressed Bees Back Into Small Cell Hives

The remaining unregressed colonies werwe put back into small cell comb hives. They were re-un-regressed. 🙂

The typical mite overload didn’t occur as non-contaminating treatments were used. And small cell combs were already available. They have prospered without treatments or any visible mite damage since then.

Where’s The Beef

This was one of the most interesting and easy tests I’ve done. And it didn’t require much data collection. The parameters: survive or die.

The results were obvious:

  • all large cell hives needed treatment to survive. They would have died without it
  • mite tolerance increased in the natural comb top bar hives. Some mite damage was visible but all survived
  • all small cell hives thrived without treatments

Some think all relevant evidence must be based entirely on data and statistics. There’s little of that in this test. Much of what beekeepers routinely do, isn’t based on data or statistics. Have you ever seen the data and statistics for using a smoker? 🙂

-bW

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3 responses to “Un-regressed Bees”

  1. bill castro says:

    I again have found that small cell foundation is used best for all brood supers and I go foundationless in the honey supers. I agree that clean wax is a beekeepers besy defense to keeping the bees healthy and prodictive. Foundation should be rotated out of the hives and culled on a periodically, I do this every year. I look for small cell foundation that has been overlaid with excessive drone comb, damaged comb, and comb that has had queen cells made on it. This will help you continue to provide clean fresh foundation running through the colonies. I wouldn’t recommend anyone just go through the hive and replace all the foundations as this will be detrimental to the colony. If we replace 3 or 4 frames of foundation a year, you will find that the colony will maintain a healthy productive life span. I personally melt the older foundation down and make candles after straining it or make campfire starter.

  2. Robert H Wiemann says:

    Dear Sir,
    I am a bee keeper for Clarks honey. Bee damage this year has been the worst I have ever seen. I Dont Believe all the test they do to disclaim small cell. I caught some wild bees on small cell . They are on 4.9 plastic , After three years I still have 3 colonies. Why dont I believe thier studies, because it takes a while at least for me to find colonies that will display the necessary behavior. At first I lost my wild colonies on 4.9. I would Like to go small cell but I am not sure what the best method is.

    • -bW says:

      Hi Robert

      My initial small cell experience was phenomenal. It was my first step toward natural beekeeping. Cell size was important. But most of the health benefits resulted from a pesticide free broodnest.

      I’m not sure what time frame, type or size operation you want to convert. If you want, let me know some more details. And I’ll share my thoughts.

      Just be judicious. Small cell isn’t a cure for everything. It allowed me to keep my broodnests clean and treatment free. But, a decade later, I still lost all my small cell hives to CCD even when they were essentially varroa free.

      I’ve got a few more thoughts here:

      http://bwrangler.litarium.com/transitioning-to-natural-beekeeping/

      -bW

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