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Cell Size Regression in Honey Bee Colonies

When and if we have convinced ourselves that we realistically need to downsize the cells to give the bees a better chance... We have to perform a process that is almost the equivalent of "putting a quart into a pint pot".

Fortunately several natural features are on our side. Most of our British bees are on comb derived from 5.45 mm foundation... But if they are given 25 mm or 20 mm starter strips of 4.9 mm foundation... Then they will build comb that is about 5.2 mm. This is a very convenient "halfway" stage. Starter strips that are even so short as to only leave about 3 mm of wax exposed below the topbar have been found to be even more effective than the 25 mm originally recommended. [added January 2005]

Once the bees have been through about 2 brood cycles on this 5.2 mm "interstage" cellsize then the bees can be shaken off onto full sheets of 4.9 mm foundation (or a Taranov Swarm can be taken). These latest frames will in most cases be properly drawn at 4.9 mm. The time required to complete the two phases is thus about four months. Some stubborn cases require a further shake down to achieve good comb (I guess about 5% of colonies).

It is worthwhile feeding the colonies that are doing the wax drawing as it will shorten the time taken and the carbohydrate does not go to waste as it becomes the hydrocarbon component of the resulting beeswax (a valuable resource in any case). The beekeeper's workload is increased as many frames have to be stripped, cleaned and re-waxed (some more that once in the same season). I hope the extra effort is worth it, but it does seem a chore at the time! Most recommend 25 mm wide starter strips in normal brood frames (I usually use 20 mm simply because I have a jig for cutting them). The starter gives the beekeeper a chance to see what size the bees will draw brood cells naturally. As a result of trying really short starter strips and finding them beneficial I will be modifying my jig to cut 9 mm strips as my frames have locking strips that are 6 mm deep.

Bees normally draw wax when they need new combs most (for honey storage). Beekeepers need to be encouraged to draw wax when the bees will draw strictly brood cells in early spring. Then draw more combs immediately following swarming, or going into winter by slow syrup feeding. Once the bees are regressed, full sheets of foundation can be fed in as much as normal brood rearing will allow, until the number of bees peaks and the comb drawing urge is changed, with the bees now disposed to draw larger honey storage or drone cells. Once this point is reached, 4.9 mm foundation will only be drawn accurately if placed between two frames of sealed brood just inside the broodnest.

Most beekeepers seem to think that it is just a matter of putting the small foundation on your hive and away you go...

However I do not know of a method of doing this in one stage unless your bees are ensconced on 5.2 mm cells already and they are happy with it. BUT, I am looking at a method which may achieve this... I say "may" as it is only theoretical at the moment.

Knowing that beekeepers always try to "shortcut" any method that takes more than 2 visits to the hive...
I propose the following:-

Instead of the full sized frames with starter strips used to initiate the process...
some special frames are made with extra horizontal, grooved bars at one third height and two thirds height...
3 starter strips are fitted (one to each horizontal bar)... (As per diagram below)...
three of these special frames are placed in the centre of the "swarm" with full sheets of 4.9 mm foundation flanking on both sides.

drawing of special regression frame

The logic behind this arrangement is that... at the time that the swarm or shaken bees are hived the bees will cluster on the three central, special frames (the clustering is likely to take place here so that the cluster itself remains completely in contact via the open spaces).
This cluster will be centred on the three topmost starter strips and the bees will rapidly draw these to provide laying space for their queen. Because of the "open"ness of the central three frames, the progress of comb drawing should proceed downwards whereupon the bees encounter the middle set of strips and thus go through a second stage of regression.

The third set of strips is included as the progress through the top two sets of starter strips may be quicker than optimum and extra 'retraining' opportunity may also help with the more "stubborn" colonies.

Whilst the second and third strips are being drawn, work will also take place on the inside faces of the innermost flanking full sheets which may not be drawn to full depth initially as the bees will use the periphery for pollen and honey storage.

At some future time when other work is being carried out the three special combs are placed where any brood can hatch, but out of reach of the queen (above a crown board or inner cover) and subsequently, when empty, the special combs are removed, cleaned and fitted with new strips for use on the next swarm or shakedown.

For the description of the method I have worked on the basis of three special frames per swarm... It may be that four or five are more appropriate... (The testing will find this out.) I can add [January 2005] that three or four frames are OK for the Apis mellifera mellifera (Amm) type bees that I keep myself, but I suspect that five or even six may be required for bees that contain Apis mellifera ligustica genes.

The proposal outlined above has the potential to achieve the transition simply, but I must stress that it has only been field tested by myself about half a dozen times.

There is another "progressive" method which involves making three frame nucs (using existing frames) flanking them by two pairs of frames with "Pierco" 5.2 mm plastic foundation and then filling the rest of the box with full frames of 4.9 mm foundation.
As the nuc expands it progressively resizes itself... But the original central nuc frames have to be removed first and then the plastic ones... Finally achieving all combs with full sheets of 4.9 mm foundation. A similar system to this has been tried in UK, by Chris Slade, but so far only on one colony.


What Chris did...
Was to hive a swarm in a national box with the frames the warm way. He put a couple of old drawn combs at the entrance, followed by two 5.2 mm Pierco then, as they became available, frames fitted with home made 4.9  foundation. Thus the bees, as they moved progressively along the box, downsized themselves.

At first the 4.9 mm was used for storage until the brood nest expanded. He has not removed and measured the 4.9 mm frames yet, but visually, he reports, they seem to have drawn it accurately.

Surplus frames drawn in 4.9 mm colonies can be used to form nucs using a couple of drawn 4.9 mm combs and filling the remaining spaces with full sheets of 4.9 mm foundation and just shaking the bees from existing 4.9 mm or 5.2 mm sized colonies. Queens bred from previously regressed stock make an ideal compliment for such nucs.

How does regression work?
I hear beekeepers ask this question time and again. I must say that it has taken me some time for the various aspects to gel together.
I have read much material produced by Dee Lusby and researched in several hundred textbooks to come to my present conclusions.

There is considerable variance in individual cellsize which is often masked by taking an average of 10 cells. Bee size within a single colony varies over a wider range than cellsize (the cells are more uniform due to each cell being worked on by many different individual bees).

The 4.9 mm cellsize is still within the range of even our most bloated modern bees. Bees have some sort of template for cell building that is likely to be linked to the size of some of their body parts... Maybe the length of a leg joint or the angle to which the legs must be spread to span a cell wall to wall (I do not profess to know exactly how they do it).

The range of bee sizes that are within a colonies comb building force allows the smaller bees to work on the initial stages of drawing the 4.9 mm foundation (because their body parts fit). The transition cells may be a manifestation of the larger faction's attempt to carry out this work. The intermediate comb contains many individual cells that are accurately 4.9 mm thus the next generation of bees bred in these particular cells have a greater ability to draw 4.9 mm cells. Other cells in this transition comb are larger than 4.9 mm, but not as large as the comb from which the original bees were bred so the workers from these cells are more able to tackle 4.9 mm at the next comb drawing opportunity. After this process has been repeated twice all the bees in the population are capable of drawing 4.9 mm foundation accurately.

This process is further enhanced by harnessing the bees natural urge to build worker cells rather than honey storage cells. I am of the opinion that the 5.7 mm foundation that can be obtained in the UK was originally produced for honey storage purposes, but as it has been bred in by many generations of bee this has contributed to the enlarging of those races of bee that have a wider range of possible expansion (AMM... Beo Cooper).

The following text is not actually about the regression process, but deals with a method of obtaining drawn out small celled comb.


On December 28th 2004, Ray B. who lives in Central Minnesota published in Message 8640 of the Norlands List the following explanation of how he obtains his small celled combs

"I should maybe mention that when I talk about doing shake downs, I am not doing it with the thought of regressing the bees. I shake down already regressed bees that draw good comb with the intention of getting more drawn comb. Also, I don't do a real shake down anymore.

I start with a good strong hive of regressed bees and find the queen and move her with the frame she is on along with the one next to it. So she is right where she was after she is in the new box on the old hive stand. Then I fill the box with foundation and feed if it's needed.

When I feed I like to feed using two boardman feeders. One on each side all the way to the side. If needed, I will reduce the entrance some and leave the opening in the center so any robber bee would have to enter right in the middle and go all the way to the side to rob from the feeder. I like to use two feeders in the entrance because it feedsinto both sides of the box at the same time and it brings in the feed at the bottom the way they would bring in nectar. I don't think they tend to think of storing it then like they do with a top feeder.

Now the queen is on two drawn frames with brood and they are going to start drawing the foundation. The two frames on either side of the two drawn combs I always leave alone. The next ones out when they get to the point that the cells are all drawn out part way I take it out of the hive and slide the rest towards the center and put in a new foundation on the outside on both sides. The frames taken out I store for later use. About every two days you can do that, and when the queen starts to lay in the frame of foundation that was never taken out, then I start to leave the one next to that one also. But still keep taking out the started ones beyond that. When they finally get to the point of using most of the box for brood, I then add a box and move the queen up into it on the frame I find her on and then fill the box with the started frames that I had taken away up to this time.

I had noticed that the top box is harder to get them to draw out small, because they are starting to think of putting up stores by then. But when you add the started ones they just continue on and finish it with the start they had, which was drawn when they had brood on the mind and is small cell. I then leave them alone to prepare for winter. Sometimes there are a few frames extra to help out some other hive with.

I should add that after I initially take the queen and put her with the two frames she was on into the empty box and fill it with foundation I then finish as a normal shake down."

Ray B.