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The Cell Size of honey bee comb foundation
Possible influence and effects on bees and bee diseases

Work done by Beo. Cooper many years ago proved that larger cell base foundation would produce larger bees. (I have never fully understood his original reasoning for wanting larger bees. I personally expect such enlarged bees to be less efficient fliers.)

My point here stems from documents written by Dee Lusby... That can be read on Barry Birkey's site:- www.beesource.com. Under the heading 'cell size, comb and ramifications'. (There are a number of documents, save them to disk as they are quite lengthy.)

Would a smaller cell size be beneficial to the strain of bees that Terry Theaker started and BIBBA have been trying to propagate? (There are also some other documents on the Beekeeping magazine articles page.)

Measure the cells in your comb (especially any wild or non foundation based comb).

Then divide by 10 to get the individual cell size.

The foundation that I used to use (Kemble Bee Supplies) has a cell size of 5.45 mm.

The cellsize produced by my leaf press is 5.40 mm.

Barrie's measure

I did notice that my bees tended to be of a more calm disposition when I changed over to my home made foundation. I do not know if that is as a result of the foundation cell size, quality of wax or luck or just better management or even some other, un-thought of, reason. I had never considered the possibility that most commercially produced foundation was in fact 10% or 12% too big. If I had realised that then I would have looked into the ramifications of it much earlier.

I am building a number of press that will produce 4.9 mm and other sizes of cells. I originally thought of this as a method of differentiating against Italian bees and the many mongrels that contain proportions of Italian blood. I am intent on equipping all my mating nucs with the 4.9 mm sized foundation, but it will take some time for this transition to be completed.

Drone sizing for use with 4.9 mm worker cell foundation works out to 6.125 mm (including 1 wall thickness) to achieve this I intend to stretch some 5.45 mm by 10% (first in one direction then the other) warming on a plastic coated hotplate. The stretched foundation will the be used to form a mould for various projects.

The above paragraph was written before the 5.9 mm press came to light, I now intend to try this instead as I am told that the bees raised drones in it if they had not had some degree of previous enlargement. Furthermore, I now have samples of 6 mm cellsize foundation.

During my reading I have come across the following statements:-

3:4:5 is the ratio of queencell : drone cell : worker cell (no tolerance stated)

3 different measurements are stated in different texts:- one inch, 15/16 ths of an inch and 25 mm.

Individual cells are neither regular or accurate and vary as much as plus or minus 10%, (hence why we measure 10 cells and take an average).

The following table collates this (all figures metricated for consistency):-

QueenDrone Worker
MinAve MaxMinAve MaxMinAve Max
7.628.479.315.726.356.994.575.08 5.59
7.147.948.735.365.956.554.294.765.24
7.508.339.175.636.256.884.505.005.50

Whichever of the original dimensions is "correct" they show that the ranges of worker cell size have a much larger excursion towards the lower cell sizes than the upper ones when compared to our 5.45 mm "modern" foundation cellsize.

This indicates to me that our foundation has been increased from the "original" norm.

The figures were taken from books dating from earlier than 1900 (as that was the period that I was looking at) no references were written down as at the time I was not aware that the current debate would occur (I was researching a different subject). (from memory I would expect these figures refer to the British Native Bee.)

Another point that occurs from the above table is that if the tolerance is reduced to plus or minus 8% instead of 10% then modern cell sizing goes completely outside the original possible ranges.

Yet one further point was that early queencell forming sticks (for wax dipping) were 5/16" diameter and that the "modern" 9 mm (3/8") diameter is only referred to in texts from about 1940.

None of the above amounts to "proof", but they suggest to me that our bees and their cells have been artificially increased in size over the last century or so, and that the proposal for regression to 4.9 mm would sit much nearer the centre of the ranges quoted in the table above.

I have also found a couple of significant references in Samuel Simmins' Book "A Modern Bee Farm".

In 1888 he writes... In chapter 13, Comb Foundation... The foundation is gauged to the size of worker cells (five to the inch).

In 1894 he writes about a method of extruding wax queencell cups... He takes a wooden block with a 3/8" (9.525 mm) hole in it, he places discs of wax foundation in the bottom of the hole and presses a forming stick "slightly larger than that of a drone cell" firmly into the hole and the wax is extruded upwards to form a cup. Thus the outside diameter of his cups is no more than 9.5 mm and the inside diameter would be in the region 7 mm-8 mm.

In another part of the same work, he mentions using drone cells for queen rearing purposes.

In another text that I remember, drone cells were used and the mouths of the cells were "belled" out by the use of a stick, but no size was quoted for the "stick".

There is a collection of cell size information on Allen Dick's Webpage. Here is a distillation of the results of present day sizings.

Measured results:- from around the world

10 cells across in three areas... 5.2 cm to 5.3 cm. 10 cells = 53.5 mm
Old German Textbook... Ferdinand Gerstung... Der Bien und seine Zucht ((( The correct German wording should be something like "Die Biene und ihre Zucht". Comment from... Marianne Arnold ))) 7th edition 1924. Page 136, The worker cell measures from wall to wall 5 mm and from tip to tip 6 mm. Drone cells... From wall to wall 6 mm and from tip to tip 7 mm.

Belgium 5.2, 5.0, 5.3 per 10 cells Drones 6.4, 6.6.
New Zealand foundation... 5.35, Drone... 6.7.
Swedish foundation... 5.4, 5.7.
Danish foundation mould... 5.3 mm.
Swedish wild comb... 5.03.
German Textbook: Büdel and Herold: Biene und Bienenzucht quotes 5.37.
Yugoslavia foundation... 5.3. Swedish Plastic foundation... 5.1
Swedish wax foundation... 5.5.
Danish foundation... 5.4 cm. (10 cells assumed)
Steele & Brodie foundation... 5.55. Thorne... 5.65, 5.7, 5.75. Kemble Bee Supplies... 5.45.
Kemlea...5.45. Dadant (old)...5.3. Dadant Plasticell... 5.35. Pierco foundation... 5.25. Pierco one piece frames... 5.2.
Scottish wild comb... 5.4, 5.25, 5.3, 5.55. Netherlands... top bar hive... 5.3 mm.
New Zealand foundation... Ceracell... 5.55. Un-identified old roller mill... 5.275.
Fiji... top bar comb... 5.325.
Brian Cramp's press that was used during the 1960s enlargement trials = 5.90 mm
Old Brazilian roller mill (about 5.2 mm) exact details will follow when I have used it.

The above part of this page deals with the enlargement of comb over the period since foundation became widely used. No exact date can be established for the adoption of foundation... It was invented in Austria, in 1857 by Johannes Mehring, but it was not accepted either quickly or widely. I guess that a date of 1880 is reasonable for such adoption by a significant number of individual beekeepers.

There is much conjecture that this gradual enlargement of comb cell size has resulted in the bees being in some way less healthy or less able to combat mites. This view is strongly held by Dee Lusby... Who cites the success of her own beekeeping operation in Arizona, where no treatments of chemical derivation are used at all.

I am not personally convinced that her success is due entirely to the use of small cells or any of the other unusual things that she does in her management of bees, however I consider there is much that is not properly understood about the use of small cells and the genetics of the Arizona bees used by Dee Lusby.

I have been actively campaigning for more research to be brought to bear on this matter, but the entire "establishment" of beekeeping research and university departments, all over the world, seem to have made up their minds that it is not worthy of study. I find this 'certainty' of knowledge somewhat unnerving.

As far as susceptibility to disease or mites is concerned, I can see that 'over sized' bees would be at a disadvantage in some respects:-

a,    Acarine or Tracheal mites... A large bee will have larger tracheal openings that will admit a larger range of sizes of mite to cause infestation.
b,     The bee size is proportional to cellsize, but the relationship is not linear in that smaller bees are a tighter fit in their cells than any larger cellsize sisters. This may be relevant to the ability of a varroa mite to survive and breed in a smaller cell.
c,     The enlarged bee has only the same number of cells making up it's body and so each cell is actually larger than it would have naturally been. I wonder about the fitness of purpose of such enlarged cells.
d,     There are various issues regarding the linear, area and volume relationships of various body parts. These issues are dealt with on a page titled The Aerodynamics Bee Flight.

The cellsize issue has been debated several times on various discussion groups, but all that tends to happen is the individuals polarize into 'for' and 'against' groups, resulting in no progress or increased knowledge.