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Four simple steps to healthier bees

Common sense choices to keep your bees alive

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I've talked about a lot of different things I've changed over the years, but for the moment, let's look at just these four issues: comb; genetics; natural food; and no treatments. Let's gloss over the arguments and focus only on what we know to be facts.


I find all the arguments over cell size and whether it does or does not help your Varroa issues and all the rest a bit tiresome. Varroa is no longer an issue in my yards and yet I find that the obsession of every bee meeting I go to seems to be Varroa about half of what I end up talking about is Varroa. I went to natural cell and small cell at a time when no one believed it was possible to keep bees alive without treatments. After doing no treatments with repeatedly disastrous results before, I came to the same conclusion. But after going to small and natural cell size I was pleased to be back to keeping bees instead of managing mites. This anecdotal evidence is not enough for some, even as the same from others was not enough for me until I tried it, but unlike me they don't seem to be willing to try it. But let's consider your choices:


4.7mm Comb 4.7mm Comb Measurement

You can assume that cell size is irrelevant to everything, if you like. This seems like a doubtful assumption since we know for a fact it has everything to do with the size of bees. If scaling up the entire body of a bee to 150% of what it was naturally is not a significant change, then I don't know what you would consider significant. We've known this is a fact since Huber's observations and in addition we have reams of research by Baudoux, Pinchot, Gontarski and others as well as recent research by McMullan and Brown (The influence of small-cell brood combs on the morphometry of honeybees (Apis mellifera)--John B. McMullan and Mark J.F. Brown).

Natural Cell Size

You can assume whatever you like about what size is natural. But in the end the only way to get natural cell size, and let the bees end the debate, is to stop giving the bees foundation and let them build what they want. Since that is what bees do if you let them and since that is actually less work for you than using foundation and less expense and since that's the only way to get uncontaminated combs (see the Google video of Maryann Frasier on contamination by acaracides in new foundation) it seems like a win-win-win to me. Even allowing the assumption that cell size is irrelevant, no one is saying that natural cell size is bad for the bees and no one I know of thinks that clean wax is bad for the bees and most are very convinced at this point that clean wax is essential for truly healthy bees.

Why not let them build what they want?

Why wouldn't you let them build what they want? It seems there is a lot of fear that the bees will only build drones. I have heard this from many beekeepers. Obviously this is not true. If it were there would never have been any feral bees. If you want to know how much drone comb they will build and how many drones they will raise and how much influence you can have on it, read Clarence Collison's research on the subject (Levin, C.G. and C.H. Collison. 1991. The production and distribution of drone comb and brood in honey bee (Apis mellifera L.) colonies as affected by freedom in comb construction. BeeScience 1: 203-211.). The point is that in the end the amount of drones is controlled by the bees and leaving them that control in the first place will simplify life for them and you. The thing to do when the bees draw a frame full of drone comb, is set it to the outside edge of the box and give them another empty frame. Otherwise, if you take it out, their need for drones unfulfilled, they will draw another frame of drone and contribute to the myth that if you let them, they will draw nothing but drone comb.

Combs in frames?

Another fear seems to be that the bees will not draw the combs in the frames. They will mess up foundationless about the same rate as they mess up any other system of foundation. They will mess up plastic foundation a lot more than foundationless frames. But if they do, you just cut it loose and tie it into the frame, if it's brood, or harvest it, if it's honey.

Draw comb without foundation?

I've even heard old timers tell new beekeepers that without foundation the bees won't draw comb at all. This is so patently absurd that I don't see any need to respond to it.


The last seems to be the myth that wire is necessary in order to extract. The wire was added to foundation to keep the foundation from sagging before it was drawn (see any older ABC XYZ of Bee Culture). It was not added to allow extraction. Extraction is done on unwired foundationless frames by many people, including me. But if wire is your hang-up, add some wire to the frames, level the hive and sleep well. I prefer to just use mediums and be able to lift the boxes and have had no need at all for the wires.

Won’t they just build drone comb?

Only the first frame or two. Bees have a threshold for drones that varies depending on resources and time of year. They will go to a lot of effort to reach that threshold.

Drones get a bad rap. They are accused of being lazy. They leave the hive every afternoon and fly until they are exhausted. Their lives are just as short because they work just as hard as the foragers. The only downside for the hive is that they don't produce honey, but they do work at perpetuating the species at great cost to themselves, even if they don't succeed and greater if they do.

This study says they also help heat brood: Thermal investigations of a honey bee colony: thermoregulation of the hive during summer and winter and heat production of members of different bee castes

This one says the colony is more productive with adequate drones and drone comb: Effects of Drone Comb on Brood and Honey Production in Honey Bee,Colonies

“...in the presence of male bees, the organism of workers works more effectively, i.e. it utilizes in a better way the components contained in food. It must be stressed that next to the high survival rate in the worker bees consuming carbohydrate food, there occurred also a better development of the pharyngeal glands where protein is particularly necessary. The presence of drones had also a positive effect on the content of total protein and crude fat in the bodies of worker bees consuming sugar candy.”* This study may change the minds of some beekeepers concerning the value of drones in a colony; their removal may not be as benign as once thought. “ Sanford, M.T. 2002, "Apimondia in South Africa," Bee Culture, Vol. 130 (seven installments: January, February, March, May, July, August, September).

How do you do foundationless?

  • With standard wedge frame, just break out the wedge and nail it sideways. You were going to break it out and nail it anyway right?
  • With grooved top bars, put popsicle sticks in the groove or a half of a paint stick or a piece of a one by ripped
  • With drawn wax, just cut the center of the comb out leaving a row of cells around the edges
  • With an old frame with no comb, just put it between two drawn brood combs
  • With a plastic foundation/frame, just cut the center of the foundation out leaving a row of cells around the edge
  • When making your own, cut a bevel on the top bar so it slopes down to a point. Also make them 1 1/4" (32mm) wide.

Less work

So how much work is foundationless? If you buy standard wedge frames and turn the wedge 90 degrees and glue and nail it back on you have a foundationless frame. That is pretty simple. You were going to break it out and nail it in anyway weren't you? What about all the plastic foundation in grooved frames you have? Pop out the plastic and glue popsicle sticks or a half of a paint stick in the groove. What about frames with wax foundation already drawn? Just cut the comb out of the middle and leave a row of cells all the way around and one or two rows at the top. What about that old moth eaten frame that has nothing in it now but webs? Just scrape off the webs etc. and put it between two drawn brood combs and let them draw it out. The only slightly tricky thing would be plastic frames with built in foundation. Then you'd need to cut the center of the foundation out. That could be done with a number of tools, but I suppose a really hot knife would cut it out pretty quickly. A jig and a router would probably do ok as well and it would be simple to leave the corners and edges in for strength and for a guide. So how does this compare with putting in wire, crimping, foundation, embedding etc.? Or using plastic? You save as much as $1 a sheet if you wanted to get small cell or close to that if you wanted to get plastic.


So, for less work and less money you can end up with clean wax, natural cell size and a natural brood nest as far as distribution of cell sizes and drones. What's the down side? If you don't wire the deeps you might end up with more collapsed comb if you have a migratory operation, because of bumpy roads combined with hot days and deep frames, but you could wire them and that would probably not be so much of a problem. You would also need to keep the boxes more level, which in a fixed operation isn't so hard; you just level the stands up, which you should have done anyway. But in a migratory operation it would take more work to level them than to just set the pallets down and not worry about them being level.


Worst case timeline is you retool at whatever pace you would have done by the other method anyway. You buy foundation and put it in all the time, right? Some rotate their comb out every five years or less. Some just replace comb as they need comb but either way if you stop using the large cell foundation and stop treating you'll eventually have natural clean comb by the only possible method to get clean comb unless someone finds a source of clean wax and makes their own foundation.

If you have a lot of large cell foundation around, you can sell it to someone local who was going to buy some anyway for the catalog price and save them the shipping. Or, if you're impatient, sell it cheap, if you're willing to take a small loss for healthier bees. You can make up the difference on all those strips that weren't working anyway that you won't have to buy.

Worst case scenario

So let's look at worst case scenario. Let's assume that cell size isn't an issue one way or the other. It's unreasonable to assume that bees will be any less healthy on natural sized comb, so at worst they will be on a cell size no better. At worst the cost is less than rotating out your contaminated combs for contaminated wax foundation. There is hardly a down side to that. The work is less than wiring wax foundation. The cost is less than wiring wax foundation. The wax will be uncontaminated (at least unless or until you contaminate it) and we know that wax contamination is contributing to lack of longevity and fertility in queens and drones. So we know the bees will be healthier and the queens will do better.

Best case scenario

This is the worst case scenario on all of the speculation on cell size and natural comb. I think if you're here reading this you probably know the best case scenario, which is that it will solve your Varroa problems.

No Treatments

I don't know what all the rest of you have experienced, but with no treatments (on large cell size) I lost all my bees whenever I wouldn't treat for a couple of years. But finally I lost them even after treating with Apistan. It was obvious that the mites had built resistance. I've heard of big outfits losing their entire operation while treating with Apistan or CheckMite. So we have reached the point where whether you treat or not, they all die anyway quite often. I think the problem here comes down to us not wanting to "do nothing". We want to attack the problem and so we do whatever the experts tell us because we are desperate. But what they are telling us is failing anyway. Once I lost them all after I treated them, I could no longer see any reason to treat them. Treating only perpetuates the problem. It breeds bees that can't survive whatever you are treating for, contaminates the comb and upsets the whole balance of the hive.

Ecology of the hive

There is no way to maintain the complex ecology of a natural beehive while dumping in poisons and antibiotics. The beehive is a web of micro and macro life. There are more than 750 kinds of benign or beneficial mites, as many or more kinds of insects, 8,000 or more benign or beneficial microorganisms that have been identified so far, some of which we know the bees cannot live without and some of which we suspect keep other pathogens in balance. Here is the research that established that and much more: https://beeuntoothers.com/gilliam-archive/ Every treatment we dump in a hive, from essential oils that interfere with the bees smell (which is how everything in the dark of the hive is communicated) and kill microorganisms (beneficial and otherwise); to organic acids which kill microorganisms as well as many insects and benign mites to acaracides (which are always just things that kill arthropods which include insects and mites but kill mites at a slightly higher rate); to antibiotics which kill the microflora most of which is either beneficial or benign but useful in maintaining the balance and crowding out pathogens; even to sugar syrup which has a pH that is detrimental to the success of many of the beneficial organisms and advantageous to many of the pathogens (EHB, AFB, Chalkbrood, Nosema etc.) unlike the pH of honey that is much lower and detrimental to the pathogens and hospitable to many known beneficial organisms. I think we've reached the point that it's silly to act like we've been doing any good when the bees are collapsing in spite of, if not because of all of this.

Sense of Smell

Smell is obviously essential to the communication and the balance in the colony. Honey bees have 165 odorant-receptor genes. This is twice what Drosophila (fruit flies) and Anopheles (mosquitos) have.

Most of the communication in the hive is taking place by smell and we are interfering with it on many levels with essential oils and organic acids.

Most chemicals and especially essential oils greatly interfere with smell either by damage (organic acids) or overpowering smells (organic acids and essential oils). Smell is how the bees know there is a queen. Smell is how the bees know when brood needs to be fed or pollen that needs to be gathered to feed that brood. Pheromones are used to regulate the balance of the hive in many ways. Smell is part of how bees communicate the location of nectar sources. They share some of the nectar so the forages will know what to look for.

Downside of not treating

So what is the downside of not treating? Worst case is they die. They seem to be doing that regularly enough already aren't they? I don't see that I'm contributing to that by giving them the chance to reestablish a naturally sustainable system. I'm just not destroying that system arbitrarily to get rid of one thing with no regard to the balance of the system. Of the people I know who are not treating for anything even on large cell, their losses are less than those who are treating. On small cell or natural cell they are even less. But even if you don't buy the cell size debate, not treating is working as well as treating is. I go to bee meetings all over the country and hear people who, like me, lost their bees when they were treating religiously and then decided to just stop. Their new bees are now doing better than when they were treating them. I feel bad when I see a dead hive, but I also say "good riddance" to the genetics that couldn't make it.

If you think you'll have too many losses (my guess is you already do have too many losses) and you can't take those losses, what would it take to make splits and overwinter nucs to make up those losses every spring with your own locally adapted stock? A bunch of walk away splits made in the middle of July (after cashing in on the main flow) will usually winter, at least around here, and not put a dent in your honey crop. You can also split the mediocre hives earlier since they weren't doing much anyway and not really affect your honey crop You can also do cut down splits on the strong hives right before the main flow and get good splits, well fed queens, more honey and more hives.

Upside of not treating

What is the upside of not treating? You don't have to buy the treatments. You don't have to drive to the yard and put the treatments in and drive to the yard to take them out. You don't have to contaminate your wax. You don't upset the natural balance by killing off micro and macro organisms that you weren't targeting but who are killed by the treatments anyway. That would seem like upside enough, but you also give the ecosystem of the bee hive a chance to find some natural balance again.

But the most obvious up side is that until you quit treating you can't breed for survival against whatever your issues are. As long as you treat you prop up weak genetics and you can't tell what weaknesses they have. As long as you treat you keep breeding weak bees and super mites. The sooner you stop, the sooner you start breeding mites adapted to their host and bees who can survive with them.

Circle Of Attendants

Breeding locally adapted queens from the best survivors

Here's another thing that I don't see a downside to. If you breed from your survivors you'll get bees that are surviving where you are against what they face there. They will mate with the local ferals who are also surviving. The propaganda that you can't raise queens that are as good or better than commercially available queens is just that - propaganda. The same with the need to requeen early in the Spring. Early queens are often not well mated and often not well fed. Assuming you don't treat, you don't requeen regularly and you use your most successful survivors, your queens are more likely to be better because of the following:

  • They are locally adapted.
  • They are bred from survivors.
  • You can raise them at optimum times to have plenty of nutrition and plenty of drones.
  • They are probably never caged and go from laying in the mating nuc to the hive they are put in with no break. This develops better ovarioles and that makes better pheromones. This results in them be more long lived, laying better patterns, swarming less and being accepted better.
  • You save a lot of work. If you keep queens longer and mate from those that succeed at superseding at appropriate times you have bees that can requeen themselves. This will save you a lot of labor in finding queens and introducing queens as the bees will take care of this.
  • Even on the hives you requeen, you can save labor by requeening with cells and not bothering to find the old queen. The new queen will typically be accepted and you didn't have to spend the day looking for the old one.
  • You save a lot of money. Open mated production queens go for from $35 to $100 and breeders go for much more.
  • You can easily keep spares in nucs and have queens whenever you need them.

What about AHB?

Those in AHB areas seem concerned about this approach. I'm not in such an area, but it seems to me that ancestry isn't my concern. Temperament is. Productivity is. Survival is. If you only keep the gentle ones and requeen the hot ones I think it will work fine. Those I know doing this in AHB areas have come to that conclusion.

Drawn Foundationless Frame

Natural Food

It's quite simply less work to use natural food. If I don't feed pollen substitute in the spring then I don't have to make patties etc. If I don't feed syrup, I don't have to buy sugar, I don't have to make syrup, I don't have to drive to the yards and I don't have to feed it. If I leave them honey to winter on, there is less honey for me to pull, haul home, extract, haul back empty to get cleaned up and then pull off to store, make syrup, drive to the yards to feed it etc. This is less work all the way around. Even if you don't believe that honey is more nutritious to bees (although I have to wonder why you want to produce honey if you think there is no difference between honey and sugar). It is definitely less work to leave it. Even if you believe that the difference in pH is irrelevant (which I seriously doubt), it's less work than making syrup and feeding syrup. Even if you are obsessed with the difference in price ($0.40 per pound for sugar vs. some variable price from say $0.90 to $2.00 pound for honey) by the time you extract the honey, buy the sugar, make the syrup, haul it to the yards, feed it, go back and pull the feeders etc. do you honestly think you came out that far ahead? It's not just a $0.60 a pound difference by the time you factor all of that in, unless your labor is of no value. So let's assume that the difference in the health of the bees is only marginal between honey and sugar and ignore that Nosema multiplies better at the pH of sugar than honey and so does Chalkbrood and EFB and AFB. We'll ignore all of that and just assume it's marginal. If there is any difference it could tip the scale from a colony surviving and one dying and packages are up around $125 delivered here.

Here is a study that shows that bees live longer on honey than sugar syrup: Impact Of Different Feed On Intestine Health Of Honey Bees - Goran Mirjanic

Table 1. Average life span of bees (days) in three years of study
Feed type   life span of bees days
            1st yr 2nd yr 3rd yr x
Honey       26.55  29.46  25.15  27.05
Sugar Syrup 20.52  26.32  18.90  21.91

You'll see that sugar syrup shortens their lives by 20%.

Looking more into pH.

Sugar syrup has a much higher pH (6.0) than Honey (3.2 to 4.5) (Sugar is more alkali, honey more acidic). This affects the reproductive capability of virtually every brood disease in bees plus Nosema.

Chalkbrood as example

"Lower pH values (equivalent to those found in honey, pollen, and brood food) drastically reduced enlargement and germ-tube production. Ascosphaera apis appears to be a pathogen highly specialized for life in honeybee larvae." --Author. Dept. Biological Sci., Plymouth Polytechnic, Drake Circus, Plymouth PL4 8AA, Devon, UK. Library code: Bb. Language: En. Apicultural Abstracts from IBRA: 4101024

Similar information is available concerning other bee diseases. Try a search for pH and AFB or EFB or Nosema and you’ll find similar results on their reproductive capability related to the pH or honey and sugar syrup

Differences in pH affect other beneficial and benign organisms in the hive. The other 8,000 microorganisms that are also in the hive are affected by changes in pH. Using sugar syrup also disrupts the ecological balance of the hive by disrupting the pH of the food in the hive and the food in the bees’ gut.

Other differences in nectar

Besides pH there are other constituents in nectar that make nectar and subsequently honey, a complicated place for microbes to live and affects which microbes can live in that environment. In "Microbiology of sugar-rich environment: Diversity, ecology and system constraints" by Bart Lievens, John E. Hallsworth, Maria I. Pozo, Zouhaier Ben Belgacem, Andrew Stevenson, Kris A. Willems and Hans Jacquemyn, they say:

"Saturated sugar beet juice and floral nectar are used as case studies to explore the differences between the microbial ecologies of low and higher-water activity habitats, respectively. Whereas nectar is a paradigm of an open, dynamic and biodiverse habitat, thick juice is a relatively stable, species-poor habitat. A number of high-sugar habitats contain chaotropic solutes (e.g. ethyl acetate, phenols, ethanol, fructose, and glycerol) and hydrophobic stressors (e.g. ethyl octanoate, hexane, octanol, and isoamyl acetate), all of which can induce chaotropicity-mediated stresses that inhibit or prevent multiplication of microbes. Additionally, temperature, pH, nutrition, microbial dispersion, and habitat history can determine or constrain the microbiology of high-sugar habitats. Findings are discussed in relation to a number of unanswered scientific questions." Microbiology of sugar-rich environments Diversity ecology and system constraints


If you don't use pollen substitute you can still leave pollen in the hives and if you really want you can set aside a hive or two or more (depending on the size of your operation) and trap a few pounds of pollen to put in an open feeder in the spring. Just freeze it in the meantime. I put it on a screened bottom board on top of a solid bottom board with an empty box on top with a lid. The screen keeps the bottom dry and the hive keeps it from getting rained on.

Pollen trapping

The cost of trapping is mostly the trap. If you do it in a yard close to or on the way home it's easy enough to empty the traps every night. And now you don't have to buy pollen patties and you have superior nutrition.

If you doubt the difference, look for research on bee nutrition that compares substitutes to pollen. Bees raised on substitutes are short lived and weak.


So what do you have to lose? You can get better genetics for your bees by breeding your own; cleaner comb by using foundationless and no treatments; longer lived bees from clean wax and feeding real pollen; and less work by leaving honey that you won't have to harvest and feed syrup back; and the worst case is that to get all this you'll work less and the best case is that it will all have a markedly positive effect on the health of your bees. Worst case, if you implement this a little at a time, you lose some bees, which you're already doing. Best case you lose less.

Profit formula

Let's try a different profit formula. How much time, gas, work, and money do you spend on syrup, feeding, putting in patties, putting in treatments, taking out treatments, harvesting that last little bit of honey that you then have to make up with syrup, putting in foundation etc.? How much money and time would you save if you stopped doing all of that? How many more hives could you handle and how much more honey would they make?

Michael Bush

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Copyright 2008 by Michael Bush

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