Bee Cell Size

We love it when our customers ask awesome, thoughtful questions! Here is a Question from Dave in Pocatello, ID. He said,

“I am looking for a package of bees to start my first hive.  I’m really interested in treatment-free and am planning to use top-bar hives.  I just read the explanation on your feral queen project.  I do like the sound of bees drawing their own comb, and have read about small cell being the way to go.  I just have one question.  Is bee size determined by the laying queen’s genetics or by the size of the cell in which the brood is raised?  Doesn’t the worker bee that builds the cell determine the cell size? A larger bee equals a larger cell size, and if that’s true, wouldn’t obtaining large cell workers from California defeat the goal of raising a small cell colony?  The queen’s genetics would have no effect on brood size.

Sincerely, Newbie Beekeeper”

Answer:
First, top bar hives can be a good choice, but are not the most beginner-friendly hives. It can be tricky to stay on top of expansion and they require a more attentive beekeeper to keeps combs parallel. We recommend starting with a foundationless Langstroth and then changing to top bar as you gain experience.
The size of the bee is determined BOTH by the queen’s genetics and cell size. When bees were first enlarged, their genetics were not changed, only the cell size was different. If bees are left on their own to build comb without foundation, they will revert to a smaller cell size. What that means is, if we put large cell bees on foundationless, they will build smaller than the standard 5.4mm cell.
The package of bees are only 3 weeks, or 1 generation, away from smaller workers. The workers in the package will make comb and expand out their brood nest to about 4 deep frames. As soon as the first round of feral-cross bees begins to emerge, you should place an empty frame in the middle of the brood chamber and the feral stock will begin the chore of drawing comb. We anticipate this comb to be small cell, or at least close to 4.9mm, which affects varroa mites.
Regressing bees is difficult to do. By offering a small-cell feral-cross queen, the process of regressing bees should be made easier and more successful.
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