Natural Beekeeping Size Considerations

What's on this page?

Bee space

If you are beginning your investigation as to what to do to keep bees, you should really know about bee space.  It is one of the fundamental concepts upon which our standardized equipment is based.  Despite the sheer massive number of bees in a hive, they cooperate when building comb following a few pretty solid principles.  These work together to produce the honeycomb form we know so well and to give the bees the correct space around the hive.  There aren’t any staircases to nowhere in a beehive.  Well, that's maybe only literally true.  Who can know?

Upon a swarm’s arrival to a new hollow (be it a tree, gas can, suitcase or hollow wall) they cluster together and begin to adjust their body’s metabolism to produce wax.  It is produced in little scales on the underside of their abdomens.  You can find these scales some times at the bottom of the hive, especially during wax production times, during a good nectar flow.  The bees chew it up and begin to form it into honey comb.  But not any honey comb will do.  It must be properly spaced.  There must be the right amount of space for the brood to grow.  There also must be the right amount of space between two adjacent midribs of the comb for two little bee grubs to grow to full size end to end and for there to be enough space between them for the bees to feed and care for them. 

So how do they do it?

I don't know, but there are a few theories which I won't go into here.  But they do it.  They do it pretty accurately.  In the brood nest, the combs are typically 1 ¼” center to center.  They may be even less.  In honey storage areas, the distance may be a bit greater.  Honeycomb can be three inches thick on occasion, but that is not as common.  1 ½” to a little larger between centers is pretty standard and you may have heard about using 9 or even 8 frames in a ten frame super evenly spaced for honey storage.  The modern "Langstroth" hive is spaced at 1 3/8" center to center which is a compromise between brood combs and honey combs.

“Bee space” is approximately 3/8”.  That means the bees will leave open spaces in which to travel between combs or other parts of the hive.  A space in the hive smaller than 3/8" will likely be filled with propolis, and one larger will likely be filled with comb.


Small Cell Beekeeping

If you measure ten cells in a row and then divide by ten, you can figure out reasonably accurately how wide the individual cells are, minus the cell wall thickness which is small.  True feral brood comb will often measure in the range of 4.6mm to 5.2mm.  Dee Lusby and her late husband Ed of the Tucson Arizona area were pioneering beekeepers in the subject of returning to natural sized cells.  Dee’s body of work can be found in the Point of View section on Beesource.  It is important reading, I suggest you spend some time there.  She claims to have found that the average cell size of worker brood in her area was 4.83mm and has tried to emulate that size with her foundation mills for her operation.  She also claims that differences in size can be traced to elevation and temperate zones with higher elevations and cooler temperatures having smaller cells.

5.2mm cell

There is also some historical backing to her claims as well and some of it can be found on Michael Bush’s website.  Somewhere along about the late 1800’s to early 1900’s, beekeepers began to enlarge the bees by stretching foundation.  The thought process was probably ‘larger bees, more honey’, and it was okay for a long time.  But then in the mid 1980’s, the tracheal mite and then the varroa mite appeared.

According to Dee’s theories, the varroa prefers drone brood to worker because of its larger size, larger cells, and therefore more room and food to multiply.  However, now that the workers were larger, they were more tempting.  Larger cells means larger bees which means more food.  This is part of what is known as the ‘pseudo-drone’ theory.  By reducing the size of the workers back to natural size, we can effectively reduce the impetus for the mites to breed in worker cells.  This by itself helps the hive due to the fact that when workers are not being fed upon, there are more of them to maintain the hive and keep it from failing.  Drones are more or less expendable.  It’s part of their purpose.  I mean, they're useful, but not absolutely necessary, so if we can do the hive good by allowing some of them to be the victims of the mites, then we do that.  It's part of the natural workings of the hive.

                            Cell Size

Be assured, this theory is not without its detractors.  But the proof is in the practice.  I relate this evidence from Don ‘Fat/beeman’ Kuchenmeister.  What is one of the ways to trap varroa?  Use drone brood.  Mites are attracted to drone.  Even those who don’t believe that small cell has any benefit still believe that mites are attracted to drone brood, because they are, it’s a fact.  And those of us who use small cell know this because of what we see.  Our worker brood is relatively free of mites, but our drone brood is not.  Our hives have a sustainable level of mites partly because we use small cell foundation which is much closer to natural size than commercially available conventional sized foundation.


Small Cell Foundation and Regression

Perhaps I’ve convinced you that small cell is the way to go.  So then what?  Is it as simple as switching to small cell foundation?  It is available at many beekeeping supply companies.  Well, it’s complicated.  Bees are not particularly willing to build smaller cells simply because they’re told to.  They still have to be able to fit head down in those cells to build them and to feed brood in them.  So it may take several iterations of small cell foundation to get them down to size.  If you plan to use small cell foundation, let me give you a massive step up by recommending you start with small cell bees.  Get small cell nucs, small cell packages, or feral swarms or cutouts.  It is so much easier to get this treatment free system rolling when you start with smaller bees to begin with.  It’s also cheaper because small cell foundation costs more than the regular stuff and replacing it until the bees get regressed will cost you money.

Don't worry too much about half steps in the regression process if that's what you choose to do.  Stepping down from one size to the next to the next will not go any faster than going straight to the target.  In fact, it may take longer.  At any rate, the bees will build in large part, what they want.  We can only have so much effect.  Just keep feeding in small cell foundation in the brood nest during the strongest flows or use nucleus hives to draw comb during the same times.  A normal hive can handle one or two doses of small cell foundation in the middle of the broodnest, at least one but possibly several times.  A nice nucleus hive can take a new frame every one to two weeks.  As I've written elsewhere, a handful of nucleus hives can be a powerful force for drawing comb.  They will most likely regress faster, and once they succeed in that, can draw a large amount of comb for your operation quite rapidly.

There is one issue which I often hear about with small cell wax foundation.  Where is the wax from?  It all probability, it’s from treated hives.  There is most likely a measurable level of antibiotic or some other substance in that wax and it may affect the bees, or so I’ve been told.  I’ve been using the stuff for over 13 years at the time of this writing and I’ve not noticed any particular ill effects.  I believe this to be the case for a few reasons.  Firstly, foundation is made from the whitest cappings wax, the stuff the bees use to cap the honey.  This is fresh pure wax.  It is not that heavily tainted, especially if the beekeeper follows the label instructions.  Secondly, the bees build the cappings on the comb with fresh pure wax.  Thus whatever was in the original is far diluted.  However, if you are concerned about the chemical level, by all means, skip down to one of the options below.



If you really want to let the bees do their own thing cell size wise, foundationless is the way to go.  As with anything, there are benefits and liabilities. 

First, it will still take several iterations if you are regressing your bees down to small cell.  In fact, it may take more; I haven’t done it that way.  You may never get to the goal of a certain cell size.  Secondly, the bees will build the way you want them to less often than with foundation.  The hive needs to be perfectly level with the perpendicular axis of the frames.  The frames need to hang vertically otherwise the comb won’t meet the bottom bar after leaving the top bar.  It may even meet with the bottom bar of the frame next to it.  Also, if you’re starting with an empty box of frames, the bees may decide to build comb completely cross-ways.  It’s a mess.  Michael Bush reports no loss in the ability to extract medium frames as long as the comb is attached on all four sides.  Personally, I’m not having as much luck getting deep frames with wires drawn acceptably, one reason why I’m in the process of switching to mediums.  If you're planning on mixing foundationless into a foundation hive, expect a lot of drone comb initially.  Remember, the bees are trying to get to their golden ratio of drone to worker comb.  In fact, I often do it purposely.  Rather than spend money on drone frames or foundation, I will stick a foundationless frame in a hive at the right (or wrong depending on how you look at it) time, and will get a very nice full frame of drone comb.  I can then use these for drone producing hives.

                            Wired Foundationless Frame

But there are quite a number of benefits as well.  Firstly, bees build their own comb much faster than they will on foundation and even more than on plastic.  Secondly, you will be better equipped to have the proper ratio of drones to workers because the hive will build whatever they want and will be able to rework it easier.  Don’t be fooled by the idea that drones are useless or are a drag on the hive.  They are not.  If the bees have to build drone comb between frames, they will do it.  You might as well let they do what they want from the outset.  Some report gentler bees on natural comb.  And a big benefit I found from visiting Mike Bush’s operation was the ease at which the frames can be cleaned out if they have been taken over by wax moths, or if you just don’t like the comb.  Just run a hive tool around the inside edges and the whole mess just falls out.

Finally, they’re economical.  From Walter Kelley, they cost the exact same as regular frames, but you don’t have to pay for wire or foundation.  I hear they’re perfect for cut comb honey as well.

Plastic Frames and the Mann Lake PF-1xx Series Frames

Another thing I discovered from visiting the Bush’s was how well plastic frames perform.  Now I know that not all brands perform well, but we’ve discovered that Mann Lake Ltd.’s PF series frames work fantastically, better than any other plastic we’ve ever used.  They have a deep cell base which means the bees rarely draw it wrong (though it is still possible).  And it’s 4.95mm which is just fine for small cell considerations.  They are maybe even easier to clean than foundationless when the wax moths have gone through them completely.  You just peel out the webs like the lint on your dryer screen.  It’s amazing.  There’s also the fact that they contain less wax than wax foundation having only been lightly sprayed with it.  Non-sprayed frames are also available.

I did a test in 2011 by buying 100 PF-105’s which are the black colored deep frames.  You can see them in some of the pictures above.  Lesson learned, the black ones get hotter in the sun, so it’s white from now on.  However, they are working well, and I’ve trimmed them to 1 1/4” with my table saw.  The white version is PF-100.  I have recently begun making the switch to mediums, PF-120.  I’ve noticed that the frames warp less than the bigger ones, not that they are unusable.  They are also a dream for extracting, you can't blow them out if you try.

Most importantly, like the foundationless, they are economical, though perhaps a little less so.  With small cell foundation, I was spending about two dollars per frame to get it into a hive.  In bulk, Mann Lake medium frames are less than that, and they’ll last who knows how long, while the wax and wire will need to be replaced several times over the life of a wooden frame.

One downside that Mr. Bush reports to me is that the bees are more likely to build drone comb between the frames.  This is partly due to the fact that they can’t build drone on the face of the frames themselves and because the top bars are relatively thin.  It’s not a problem if you can handle tearing up some drone brood from time to time, and if you’re a beekeeper, it shouldn’t bother you.  It also gives you a chance to see how many mites there are.  Another thing we've discovered with the drone comb is that the thinness of the topbar contributes to burr comb building.  The traditional wooden frame has a thick topbar which discourages bees from building in that area.  However, the plastic frame topbar is not only thin, but composed of two thin members separated by a space in which small bees can fit.  There are options for cutting the foundation portion out and placing it in a wooden frame if you are so inclined, and some beekeepers have done just that..

Narrow Frame Beekeeping

In the design of today’s beehive, a compromise was made between the brood nest and honey storage areas for the sake of continuity.  Thus, the typical Langstroth hive frame (actually Hoffman frame) is 1 3/8" thick at the end bars.  Some beekeepers, me included, like to practice what is referred to as ‘narrow frame beekeeping.’  We either build the end bars to 1 ¼” or trim purchased ones to that width.  This isn't always the case, sometimes I just need to get things assembled and into the field, so I don't do it.  When you're deciding how to do things, you might keep this in mind and hammer the nail for your frame wire in some other spot than the side of the end bar.  I figured out how to nail it further down so the frames might be trimmed in the future if desired.  It costs a couple extra inches of wire.

                            width 1 3/8"Frame
                            width 1 1/4"

There are several reasons to do this, or we wouldn’t take the time and effort. 

One of the problems with the standard size is that in the brood nest, the bees only build the comb out to the necessary depth to house the baby bees, but honey comb is drawn out to the point where adjacent combs are separated only by the bee space.  When combs are spaced at 1 3/8” on center, those two depths are not the same, and when combs are moved around in the hive, you are often left with two mismatching areas of honey comb are pressed together, killing bees, possibly the queen, and then subsequently get glued together making a mess for the next time you try to remove one of them.  So with narrower frames, hopefully we get less of a mess and more even, consitent, movable comb.  If we want to space them apart in honey supers, it's no big deal to do so.

There is another aspect of narrow frame beekeeping which is a benefit to small cell beekeeping.  Smaller distances between combs match geometrically with smaller cell sizes in which logic dictates that a narrower bee is also a shorter bee.

Finally, a ten frame box holds 11 narrow frames.  If each frame is trimmed by 1/8”, 10/8 equals 1 ¼” which means 11 narrow frames fit exactly in the place of 10 standard frames.  With larger sized boxes that hold more frames, the difference is even more dramatic.

                            Frames in a Ten Frame Box

Using the same frames spaced further apart, 9 to a box in the honey supers allows the comb to be drawn out further and to be more easily harvested.

Good Practice

As with any subject, we must grow and learn and change.  If we can’t, then we must learn to learn.  As new things come along or old things are rediscovered, we must innovate and adjust.  One of the best decisions I ever made was to keep only one size of hive box and it is my position that all beekeepers should do the same as a standard practice.  When I started I tried as many things as I could to mirror Dee Lusby’s methods, but I’ve never lived in Arizona and so some things had to change. As an aside, if you're just starting out, as many reading this will be, do find somebody to copy, be it Dee, or me or Michael Bush or Kirk Webster.  But remember, things will not always work out identically.  You must innovate others' methods to match your needs.

The main aspects I’ve followed from Dee Lusby have been using all deeps, and using small cell wax foundation.  After seeing Michael Bush’s operation, I’ve decided to adjust.  I’ve decided not to convert to eight frame equipment like Mike has, but I have decided to switch to using all mediums and a mixture of plastic small cell, small cell foundation, and foundationless frames. 

The reasons for this are several.  Mediums are lighter and due to the fact that they are shorter, one may adjust the size of a hive more precisely.  Another curious aspect is that queens seem more willing to cross over the gap between frames with medium frames than with deep ones.  Trouble getting bees to move up into a new box is common, but since medium frames are shorter, the queen is not content to stay on one tier of frames as the natural shape of a brood nest is more spherical.

The reasons why I’m switching to plastic frames and foundationless are as shown above.  Much of it is really about the amount of work that is eliminated.  Some beekeepers claim that our method is more work, but I have not found that to be the case.  The way Mike does beekeeping is so much less work than the standard method.  There’s no treating, and there isn’t even any need to open the boxes when splitting hives.  Medium frames allow one to split hives without checking if there’s young brood in the individual boxes because there always will be the correct aged brood in two or more boxes.

One downside is the cost.  There's no cost benefit in going to smaller equipment because you need more of it.  Michael Bush says that the cost of back surgery will more than make up for it though.  I defer to him on that item.  I'm still young.

So what would be the most efficient way to do this?  I’ve decided that it would be by selling deep nucs.  If I sell a nuc containing five frames for a hundred dollars, it will fund the purchase of 50 new medium frames.  When enough frames are gone, boxes can simply be trimmed with a table saw to make them into mediums.  Here is the first box to go under the blade.  The bottom edge had rotted, so it was the perfect candidate.

                              Trimmed to Medium

 Ultimately I decided to keep two sizes of frames, but not to mix them on the hives.  That way I can continue to sell deep nucs which are the market standard and make honey (and a few nucs) with mediums.

What Next?

Now I realize that the above ideas have names, and if you really think about it, if these are the way it should be, they shouldn’t have names.  These should be called normal and the other stuff should be called wide frame and large cell and whatnot.   And hopefully one day they will be simply the way it’s done.  But for now, we’ll have to continue trimming frames or having them built custom, and buying stuff labeled ‘small cell.’

Ultimately, none of this would be an issue if the bees were left to their own devices as they are in the wild.  But we need to keep bees in this way in order to harvest honey.  The law requires hives movable frames.  It’s my position that the best plan of action is to try as much as possible to work with the bees natural instincts and methods.  And it doesn’t take a Master’s Degree in Apiculture.  There are just a few things that need not be ignored to make a big difference.