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Housel Positioning

Theory on the positioning of the "Y" at the base of cells in wild colonies

If you look at a sheet of foundation, or freshly drawn comb the bees have built themselves without the aid of foundation, you will see three straight lines in the base of the cells that form "Y"s. This is where the three flat areas at the base of cells join and are sometimes called the "Mercedes-Benz sign". If you look at both sides of the comb or foundation, you will see a different orientation, with the vertical leg on the top of the cell on one side of the comb, at the bottom on the other side.

Hounsel Positioning is an observation of how bees position the "Y"s in wild combs. This behaviour of honey bees is said to have been discovered by Michael Housel, a beekeeper from Orlando, Florida. The basis of the observation is that when bees build their first comb, they apparently build it with the "Y" inverted on both sides of the comb, i.e. with the vertical line to the top of the cells. All other combs on each side are built "mirrored" from the centre, with the "Y" in the upright position, i.e. the vertical to the bottom of the cell, on the outside faces away from the centre, the "Y" inverted on the face towards the centre. With some beekeepers, there is a strongly held view that by using foundation and observing Hounsel Positioning, we are working with the bees and there are benefits in doing so. That may be correct, but we won't know until we try it.

I have an open mind and I am always willing to consider something new or different, especially if it's something I can research myself. I usually challenge what I'm told and I do so with Housel Positioning, where I give a few thoughts below. I have searched for original material from Michael Housel, as I would have expected to see an article in one of the American bee magazines, but I haven't been able to find anything. Much of what is online seems to have started with a talk to the Alabama Beekeepers Association in September 2002 by commercial beekeeper Dee A. Lusby, an account of which can be accessed from the pdf top left. She states she had discussion with Michael Housel a few weeks before. This one document seems to be the main source of what information is available. Interestingly, the discussion with Michael Housel concerned ".......positioning of wild feral combs built by honeybees he had been monitoring and observing in his local area hanging on limbs of trees.", though many are assuming the same behaviour is displayed in a cavity or manged colony, but that may not be the case.

I have removed several hundred free-living colonies and I have never noticed the orientation, though, in fairness, I have never looked. There are several things that immediately come to mind. When bees build wild comb, they rarely build it with the points to the top, the orientation can vary, even on the same comb. After a few generations of brood, the "Y" at the base of the cell can't be seen, so if Housel Positioning is correct when the comb is built, then presumably it has little or no subsequent effect. If the initial comb is the same both sides, then I don't understand how the bees can build it.

I think it is easy to test the theory and I'm rather surprised that someone hasn't done this, or perhaps they have and I haven't found it. If you keep a swarm in a skep overnight, they often build a piece of comb about the size of a human hand by the morning. This is presumably the central comb that should, according to Housel Positioning, be the same both sides and can be easily checked. A simple test in a hive to see if the combs are "mirrored", is to put a frame of brood in the centre of a brood box, with frames containing starter strips either side and see what happens.

I don't see that observing Housel Positioning or doing a few experiments will do any harm, so I encourage beekeepers to find out for themselves. I'm sure there will be other things that can be observed and learnt.

Roger Patterson.

Page updated 22/01/2023