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Magazine Article
For... Bee Improvement. Published... April 2001

Foundation Cellsize...

There has been much heated debate in recent months about foundation and the size and type of the pattern of cell base impressions.

Many are fed up with it and find it boring or irrelevant. I have been part of this debate myself and would like to explain my reasons.

When foundation first came into use it was made to the same cellsize as the bees produced for themselves (4.9 mm - 5.1 mm). Around 1900 there was much debate centred around cocoon build up and as a result the foundation cellsize was increased. Several other minor accidental increases happened gradually until around 1930.

The cellsize discussions started again and in 1931 a further deliberate increase was made (Some doubt has recently been cast on the validity of the results that this increase was based on). Around 1960 some manufacturers of foundation introduced a larger celled foundation intended for honey storage (The larger cells are easier to extract from) a few beekeepers, including Beo Cooper adopted this larger foundation for brood use. The year is now 2001 and during the last 100 years or so we have gone from 5.0 mm to 5.45 mm or 5.7 mm. The increases have happened so gradually that the bees have been able to follow suit and increase their size accordingly. But the fact that they have done so does not mean that they are fitter for their purpose.

I started looking at cellsize and comb spacing several years ago as a means of filtering out Italian genes for a breeding program. In the process of sorting this out I came across the information about the increases over the last century and decided that it would make sense to try to replicate the conditions of 1890 and see for myself, what the differences would be. There are others interested in this work from a completely different angle... That of varroa control... In Arizona, the Lusbys, the main champions of this technique, are currently running 600 colonies without any other medication or "alternative" treatment (for 13 years). Smaller similar trials have started in Sweden, but as yet only 18 months has elapsed for them although they are reporting lower infestation levels than they would expect.

My attitude is one of restoring the "status quo" of 1890. If by so doing there is some benefit in disease control, that would be an added bonus. But before any of this can be accepted or dismissed we must do the testing. To do the testing we need foundation in smaller sizings. The existing manufacturers of foundation have been reluctant to look at the problem, but late in 2000... Dadant agreed to make a new mill to produce the 4.9 mm foundation for all of these trials, but owing to an error similar to that which has caused previous enlargements this new 4.9 mm is nearer to 5.0 mm and some samples have been measured at 5.08 mm. Those who are producing their own 4.9 mm foundation are doing so from mills with rollers that are 4.8 mm so that the natural stretching produces a finished product of 4.9 mm. The Dadant foundation can be used to regress the bees, but we still need 4.9 mm for our final trials. I ask that you look in your attic for old roller mills and see what size they are.

Partly as a result of this, but mainly to remove confusion I have canvassed many foundation manufacturers all over the world. The text of this I repeat below.

I am concerned that we have a "traditional" method of describing the dimensions of cells in beeswax foundation, that gives different results depending on which version of the method is used.

My plea is for adoption of a common standard that is based on measurement rather than a cells per area basis.

I believe that some of the problems associated with the enlargement of size of cell, have in the past been accidental, whereas some of the increases have been deliberate.

I am not concerned to apportion blame for these actions, but to establish commonality and understanding for the future.

I propose that the foundation manufactured in future should carry a measurement that indicates cell pitch. This being the measure of ten cells and ten cell walls divided by ten, to provide a cell average and that each of the three contiguous cell directions should be measured and again averaged. The overall average of these thirty cells and thirty cell walls should be stated to two decimal places of a millimeter. (ie, 5.45, 5.20, 4.98, 4.90)

Where no cell walls are present then the pitch of the cells will give the same figure. likewise if one manufacturers cell walls are different from another the numbers remain accurate comparisons.

I further propose that existing foundation types shall be measured and labeled this way so that comparisons can be made.

In order to differentiate measured metric sizes from those that have been calculated I propose that the figures be enclosed in an equilateral triangle with the top edge horizontal. This would indicate the directions of the three, ten cell measurements, and indicate that it was an actual measurement. If this is too complex for catalogue entries then the letters CP could be used... (ie, CP5.45, CP5.20, CP4.98, CP4.90)

This is a simple standard which would cost little to adopt as only product labels and catalogue entries would need changing. The benefits to the beekeeping community (both manufacturer and consumers) would more than outweigh those minor costs.

The original markings could be retained so that beekeepers unable or unwilling to adopt a new system would not be disadvantaged.

I have only had positive feedback from two manufacturers so far and two more have said that it is a good idea, but they will wait and see if anyone else takes it up.

I will write future articles about the tests and the results as and when they happen. I will also publish the details of work that I have done (and am still doing) measuring a piece of comb from a Top Bar Hive belonging to Chris Slade.

I can be contacted via Email: dave.cushman@lineone.net

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Written... April 2001
Reformatted... 21 March 2002