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Rationalization Theories on Small Cell Success

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"Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal."--Ben Franklin
"People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."-George Bernard Shaw

This isn't to talk about my theories of why small cell works or others who are doing it, but the theories of those who want to explain away the success of small cell beekeepers with theories that are more in line with their model of the world. There seem to be many theories from those who are not doing small cell and who want to explain the success of small cell beekeepers in some other frame of reference that makes sense to them. I will address a few of these here.


First let's agree you can believe whatever you like. But if you wish to get to the truth of the matter it would help if you would base your theories on what I and others have really done rather than what you imagine we have done.

One explanation, which is consistent with other beliefs held by these individuals is that small cell beekeepers must have Africanized Honey Bees. Since they believe that AHB build smaller cells and EHB do not, in their model of the world, that explains both the size of the cells, and the success with Varroa as well as early emergence and other issues to do with Varroa. The problem with this theory is that many of us are keeping bees in Northern climates, where we are told AHB can't survive, are selling them to others, who comment on how gentle our bees are, have them regularly inspected, without any complaints of aggressiveness or suspicions of AHB from inspectors, and indeed most of us are collecting local survivor stock when we can, which supposedly could not survive in the North if it was AHB. And I have had samples tested at the request of someone doing a study on bee genetics which says they are not. The fact is we are not raising AHB and don't want to. Whether or not Dee Lusby, or others in AHB areas end up with some AHB genes, is a different discussion, but it's irrelevant to the fact that most of us do not live in AHB areas and are not raising AHB and are not interested in raising AHB.

Survivor stock

While it's true that many small cell and natural cell beekeepers try to breed from survivors, this is simply the logical thing to do. You raise bees that can survive where you are. Many people are doing that even if they are not doing small cell and even if it's not for Varroa issues, but just wintering issues. Typically the people using this argument quote the losses that the Lusby's had while regressing as evidence that they just bred stock that could survive the Varroa. This seems plausible if the Lusbys were regressing when there were Varroa, but they did it a decade before that for tracheal mites, and if they were the only example, but I had no large losses while regressing and started with commercial stock and when I did the same thing on large cell, I lost all of them to Varroa several times over before regressing. Starting again with new commercial stock on small cell I have lost none to Varroa. Considering how many people are working so diligently to try to breed resistant stock, I think it's beyond believability that so many of us small cell beekeepers just blundered into Varroa resistant stock with so little effort. If these people really believe genetics is the cause of our success then they should be begging us to sell them breeder queens. Since they are not, I do not think even they believe this. I certainly don't believe this, although I would love to. It would greatly increase the value of my queens. Since I regressed and since my Varroa issues went away, I then did start breeding from survivor stock I could find around, because I want bees acclimatized to my environment. I have better wintering when I do this. I did not see any change in Varroa issues when doing this as Varroa problems had already disappeared.

Blind faith

This isn't so much a reason being given that it works, as much as discounting that it does work and trying to find a reason people think it works. It seems that a lot of detractors of small cell think that the whole group of small cell beekeepers are fanatically religious followers of Dee Lusby. The implication is that we are deluded into believing it is working when it is not. Anyone who comes to one of the many organic meetings where Dee Lusby, Dean Stiglitz, Ramona Hershembiemer, Sam Comfort, I and others speak would see the absurdity of this, as would anyone who participates in the organic beekeepers Yahoo group. We often have different observations and often disagree, as any honest beekeepers do. If we all spouted some standard party line, then this might be a legitimate concern, but while we agree on the basic concepts, we often disagree on details and we have all had different experiences probably caused our locations and our climate as well as just chance. While I have great respect for all of the above listed speakers and particularly for Dee, as she and her late husband Ed pioneered this work, I have never been in total agreement with her or the rest. The four things I think we all agree on are: No treatments; natural or small sized cells; local adapted stock; and avoiding artificial feed. But while Sam and I are pretty happy with simple foundationless, Dee is more focused on actual specific cell size. While Dee will feed barrels of honey to her bees, I have neither the time nor the honey for such things and will, if they are faced with not enough honey for winter stores, feed sugar. While Dean and Ramona like natural comb, their experience has been that they had to force the bees down with some Honey Super Cell first to get them regressed, while I've often had good luck with just foundationless regressing quickly. This may be related to the genetics or the cell size in the hives that are the source of my packages and their packages. It is difficult to say. The point is, there is no "party line" other than Dee's insistence that the Organic Beekeeping list doesn't get sidetracked talking about "organic treatments" when the topic of the list is keeping bees without treatments.


In this case I'm talking about people. Personally, I have never been able to figure out the resistance to small cell or natural comb. While the large cell beekeepers are obsessed with Varroa, I get to just keep bees. While the large cell beekeepers are still searching for a solution to Varroa, I get to work on my queen rearing and finding easier ways to do less work. It might make sense if it was actually more work to do natural comb or small cell, but since letting the bees build comb is easier than using foundation, and small cell is no more work than using large cell foundation and since those of us doing that are not having Varroa issues, I would think there would be a lot more interest in doing the same. The battle cry of the detractors, of course, is either that there is no study to prove it works, or that there are studies that show that it doesn't. All of this is, of course, irrelevant to me since I'm still not having Varroa issues anymore. I've been hearing such things about everything from Vitamin C and zinc helping with colds to small cell reducing mite counts all my life. In the end it's not about mite counts, although mine have dropped to almost none over time, it's about survival. No one seems to want to count living hives instead of mites, but it's a much easier thing to count. If you put one beeyard on small cell and leave another on large cell, then it seems like the "last man standing" would be an easy way to decide. If one yard dies out and the other does well, that would seem a much better way to decide than counting mites.

Small Cell Studies

"All the boring and soul-destroying work of counting mites on sticky boards, killing brood with liquid nitrogen, watching bees groom each other, and measuring brood hormone levels—all done in thousands of replications—will someday be seen as a colossal waste of time when we finally learn to let the Varroa mites do these things for us...
"I have never yet counted even a single sample of mites from any of my bees. I consider counting mites as a way of evaluating Varroa resistance to be fraught with all sorts of shortcomings and difficulties. It's very time consuming and hence the size of the apiary, the number of colonies tested, the gene pool, and the income available all start to shrink. It's also very easy for the results to be skewed by mites migrating from other colonies or bee yards. "—Kirk Webster
"You don't grok the desert by counting the grains of sand."--Robert Heinlein, A Stranger in a Strange Land

There are a few positive small cell studies, but also several that show higher mite counts on small cell and people always ask why or use this to discount small cell. I don’t know for sure why, as it is inconsistent with my experience, but let’s look at that. Let's assume a short term study (which all of them have been) during the drone rearing time of the year (which all of them have been) and make the assumption for the moment that Dee Lusby's "pseudodrone" theory is true, meaning that with large cell the Varroa often mistake large cell workers for drone cells and therefore infest them more. The Varroa in the large cell hives during that time would be less successful because they are in the wrong cells. The Varroa, during that time would be more successful on the small cell because they are in the drone cells. But later in the year this may shift dramatically when, first of all the small cell workers have not taken damage from the Varroa and second of all the drone rearing drops off and the mites have nowhere to go.

I think it's important in any test to let the mites get bad enough for the bees to respond to them. That's been my experience. If you want to know how your body will handle influenza and you measure that by the first few days of the infection you will misunderstand the complete process. And yet none of the experiments let the mites reach any critical point.

"...when 150 queens were introduced into nucs with brood untreated for 18 months. This brood had a normal outward appearance when the nucs were made up, but four weeks later about half of them were starting to decline with PMS-type symptoms. But after another three weeks, almost all of these colonies appeared normal and healthy again."—Kirk Webster

It's also important that they be in a real world environment, and not some artificially created one. The reality of how a mechanism in nature works is infinitely complex. Kirk Webster said this about breeding but it applies to any experiment:

"Bees that combine genuine hardiness, mite-resistance and productivity can only be maintained in the long run by having many hundreds of colonies constantly exposed to mites—and all the other known and unknown stresses in the real world, commercial beekeeping environment. This is the only way the bees can be tested for all the characteristics they need in order to thrive. And this testing and selection must continue year after year—to keep building up their resilience, and help the bees adapt to a changing world."—Kirk Webster

In the end, as I heard Dann Purvis say, "it's not about mite counts. It's about survival". No one seems interested in measuring that. What I do know is that after a couple of years the mite counts dropped to almost nothing on small cell. But that did not take place in the first three months...

I will try to update this from time to time as the links get broken. Please let me know if they are not working. Here are some studies you may find interesting:

Discussions on studies:

Michael Bush

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Copyright 2009 by Michael Bush

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