miscellaneous musings varroa mites

The value of scientific inquiry

The following comment was attached to the post, “Monday morning myth: small-cell foundation discourages Varroa mites.”

I do think it is sad that everyone believes research monitored over such a small time frame. Beekeepers like Dee Lusby, Michael Bush etc with well over 30 years of small cell experience should be taken very seriously . . . perhaps the researchers should start studying their methods . . . It is hard to argue with success.

I think it is sad when people do not understand the scientific method. You say it is hard to argue with success, but it is not success when so few people can make it work. One of the major precepts of scientific inquiry is repeatability. That is, for a theory to be considered valid, many scientists in many places must be able to repeat the experiment and obtain the same results.

Let’s say fifty scientists repeat an experiment and only five get the same result as the initial experimenter. In that case, something is clearly wrong. Either they weren’t doing the same experiment, or the parameters being tested have no bearing on the outcome.

In the case of small-cell combs and the suppression of Varroa mites, many scientists have tried to replicate the success of people like Bush and Lusby and they have been unable to do so. Does that mean that Bush and/or Lusby are wrong? Does that mean they are lying? Of course not. I have no doubt that they accurately report their findings.

But scientific experimentation is fraught with things known as exogenous variables. These are variables that the experimenter is probably not even aware of. For example, most people have at one time or another followed a “fool-proof recipe” that bombed. Mine was a cream pie that curdled like cottage cheese. I went back through the recipe and checked every detail but couldn’t find my error.

Does that mean the author was wrong? Or that he lied? Of course not, but maybe my cream was older than his, maybe my eggs were bigger or smaller, maybe my kitchen was too cold, or my beaters too hot. Maybe the altitude of my kitchen was different, or my timer was inaccurate, or his timer was inaccurate. Maybe I interpreted his instructions in a way he didn’t mean. Any of these—and many others—could affect the outcome. Unless every condition is identical, the results may be different. Until we know which variable is the important one, the recipe can’t reliably be repeated.

Maybe Bush and Lusby (and I use these names simply because you did) have hives that are in a better location or in a particularly good microclimate. Maybe the paint they used on their hives, the feeding supplement they used, or the forage they have available made a difference. Maybe the particular way they handle their bees, or the exact strain they raised, or the length of the daylight, or the temperature of the hive made a difference. Maybe they sang to them.

The point is, until we can isolate the specific element that made the difference, other people cannot repeat the experiment and get the same results. We don’t want to trust our bees to a technique that might work, especially when we don’t know why it works in some cases and not in others.

If an aeronautical engineer with 30 years of experience designed and built a crash-proof airplane and flew it many times without crashing, should we all trust that plane or should some other engineers try to replicate the design? And if 20 engineers replicate the design and they all crash, should we still trust the first guy and all climb aboard? I don’t think so.

In our modern lives, we have peer-reviewed science, independent testing councils, and all manner of protocols to guard against assuming something is scientifically sound when, in fact, it is not. In the case of Varroa mites, we all want something as simple as small cell size to be the magic bullet, but when researcher after researcher can’t make it happen—or can only make it happen sometimes—we have to revisit the theory. Believe it or not, most researchers just want to discover the truth; they rarely have hidden agendas.

The beekeeper who can raise bees year after year with no Varroa mite problem is probably onto something. But what exactly? That is the real question. Until we find an answer—a formula—that works reliably for most beekeepers most of the time, we have to keep looking.



  • As a scientist I so appreciate your defence of the scientific method. Many debates today seem to ignore the power of clear, clean and dispassionate data.

    I have a related question: If I go to foundationless frames will they be weaker in my radial extractor? I.E. will I have more combs breaking?

    • Andrew,

      If you plan to put foundationless frames in an extractor, you should wire them. Just wire the frames as if the foundation were there. The bees will build right over it. The other thing is that it is best to wait until the comb is attached to the bottom, or bottom and sides, of the frame before extracting.

  • I think I’ll just go stick my head in the sand. I think THAT just might make them disappear! Thanks for the clarification there. This is off-topic a bit but as I was reading this and about how scientists “prove,” I couldn’t help but think about how so many have “proven” that GMOs are “safe,” or some drug is safe and ends up not. What you say makes total sense, but where do these mistakes fall? If it is “proved” then we just file it under OOPS when we realize the scientists were wrong? It’s all so very confusing to me. Ok… Where’s that sand???

    • SDB,

      You bring up a good point. Many times, at least here in the states, testing is short-changed in the name of profit. When we go back and look at many of the studies that companies or individuals have done, we can find errors in their methods or in the reporting. This is why “transparency” is so important. In addition to the entities destined to make money from a product or service, other groups should be doing their own testing. If the results are not repeatable, the product/service should be disallowed, or at least subjected to more testing. This is a huge problem because drug companies, chemical companies, and others are allowed to do their own testing on proprietary products. Later, we may find the tests were flawed or fudged. That is not science; that is the pursuit of profit.

  • I really appreciated your comments. It’s about time somebody stands up to some of those preachers in the bee industry who preaches doctrines without any scientific basis. Multiple studies from many different universities including the university of Florida and the University of Georgia have shown no real advantages in using small cell foundations to control Varroa mites. I guess faith will continue to prevail over facts in the bee industry. Bye

  • Hi Rusty,

    My understanding is that there has been limited research using questionable methods regarding the effectiveness of small cell beekeeping.

    I respect your knowledge and am an avid follower of your site. Are there studies that you feel are sound scientifically that have not shown small cell to be effective against varroa and other pests/diseases?

    I heard Jennifer Berry speak last year – and know her study is sighted a lot. When she spoke, she didn’t seem to hold too strongly to the results of her study when asked in more detail about the limits of her research in small cell success.

    Randy Oliver has a nice summary of his limited research and his thoughts on other’s research:
    (as he says, this is a study of one type of small cell plastic comb, rather than a study of the success of small cell beekeeping – i’m not a fan of plastic in the hive, so have not used them myself)

    As with human health, honey bee health is supported with a ‘whole’ approach, not a magic bullet – and Dee Lusby would be the first to agree. Treatment free methods include: small cell, no treatments, no gmo soy/ artificial feeding of pollen patties, no feeding of high fructose corn syrup or refined sugar, good genetics, foundationless frames, and housel positioning of combs.

    Randy’s study included very possibly poor genetics (given the odds of package bees having good genetics- but perhaps he got them from the best CA genetics? still, commercial bees that were mixed up, not related really works against a healthy start), a number of treatments, and feeding of artificial pollen patties and syrup.

    I’m surprised that he would have much of any varroa problem the first year of establishing a hive to even be able to study. It’s not the first year hive that struggles with shb, varroa, and other issues typically.

    I’ve followed Dee and Michael for years now, and am bringing in their methods to my own beekeeping. The small cell concepts make sense to me – and I’m continuing to explore them in my own apiaries. So far, so good.

    When there is so much out there that is bad for bees and ‘scientifically supported’ – such as chemicals – I’m open to exploring options that seem to work with the bees, rather than against them.

    While I appreciate lots about the scientific method, it will always have the limits of the researchers, funders, short sightedness, and so many known and unknown factors outside of the researcher’s knowledge and control.

    Thanks for the space to offer a different perspective. Thank you for all of your tireless work to educate beekeepers


    • Carrie,

      Thanks for writing. The one point I strongly disagree with is this: “I’m surprised that he would have much of any varroa problem the first year of establishing a hive to even be able to study. It’s not the first year hive that struggles with shb, varroa, and other issues typically.”

      I’ve talked to many beekeepers during my recent trips who say that packages are arriving so overwhelmed with varroa and/or small hive beetle that they have to be treated immediately. Some have added package treatment to their regular spring protocols. Some have returned packages to the vendor because of parasites, and many have reported packages that already contain deformed wings. I would never assume a package was parasite free, in fact, I would assume the opposite. Also, this year I’ve heard numerous reports of packages containing dead queens. Things are getting worse, not better.

      Yes, there have been studies that followed the Berry study that used different methods to achieve the same results. I will try to locate them and post links when I get a chance.

      You should, indeed, work with small cell if you believe it is warranted. I never discourage experimentation. Let us know how you do.

      • I have to disagree, as well. Almost 30 years ago, I had Langstroth hives filled with feral bees; I captured them and suffered their attacks every time I added supers, but I did not have the nerve to attempt to ‘manage’ the hives and kept them up only for the sake of the bees and the local gardens and fruit trees. Fast forward: My son built me a lovely top bar hive last year, from which our first package absconded (a local shyster sold us a wild, unknown queen and the couple hundred workers she swarmed with after they couldn’t make enough comb to support her). This year, we bought a new package of bees from a reputable seller (who acquires their bees from one of the many apiaries in Georgia, as do most East Coast bee resellers) and, lo and behold, when we installed the bees in the pristine hive, we also installed a healthy handful of SHB – something I never had to worry about with the feral bees years before. In other words, my package shipped with queen, workers, the odd drone (here and there), AND – surprise, surprise! – SHB in abundant numbers.

        Two weeks ago the workers started bringing out partially consumed bodies of baby bees, in all stages of development, and, since it was a new install (May 18, this year) we were trying to keep the inspections to a minimum to avoid disrupting their work. After three days of watching the exodus of corpses, I decided we had to do better: the Sonny-Mel SHB traps I used as a preventative measure had failed utterly, so it was time to get down to business. Since my bees had only produced half the comb other beekeepers said their hives were making, I believe the SHBs were causing them to have to appoint more workers to managing the beetles than making comb – not good. We fully inspected the hive, pulling each bar and crushing, slapping and smushing all the beetles that literally came flying out when we opened the bars. I was stunned at how many had magically appeared, and my beloved hygienic hive residents were working overtime to control the SHBs.

        The inspection proved only somewhat instructional: there was virtually zero drone comb, but the beautiful capped worker combs were well tended and clean, and it seems all beetles and larvae had been being ejected from the hive at the same rate as the bees the adults consumed! The beetles had been living on capped larvae in the hive, but I couldn’t find any on the comb so I knew the APUs were doing their jobs. I had some oddball cross comb near the entrance which proved to be the place where the beetles were trying to gain a foothold, but they lost any hidden advantage when I removed it to the freezer! Take THAT, you slimy little beetle creeps!

        To finish the job, I added FatBeeMan SHB traps to the hive (both on the bottom screen and above the bars), layered 1/4″ of diatomaceous earth on the ground around the hive, then added a 3″ layer of cypress mulch to protect the bees from the DE and to help keep the moist dirt unpupatable (is that even a word?) for the SHB. Within 48 hours of these tasks, the workers stopped bringing out the dead or eaten carcasses of their sisters, and they settled in and started building comb with a renewed vigor. As a bonus, we did not see a single mite anywhere in the hive or on the bees, but I still haven’t seen my queen, either – she must be a track star!!

        Bottom line? New hives CAN have issues with SHB, varroa mites, etc. I was lucky enough to have much more experienced beeks to give me advice, and (after panicking for a couple days) I realized that just because my package install was new didn’t mean my hive would be immune to the problems an established hive might have (like I thought it would).

        Love the wasp pics, too!! We have them in abundance here in SC, along with MANY other stinging, flying and crawling pollinators. Have you noticed that the wild things are less aggressive than in years past? I’ve always hated having to combat them, but they have all seemed to become so docile in the last 2-3 years that I was even able to hold a giant brown hornet in my hand a couple days ago, and the wasps don’t bother to bite, sting or chase, either. I just can’t figure out if it’s caused by a decrease in their numbers or the crazy, rainy weather we’ve had, but I’m curious to know if you’ve observed the same odd, almost gentle behavior of the wild pollinators as we have.

        Thanks so much for all the info you have on your site! Your blog, feedback and comments have proved very helpful, and I love that you espouse beekeeping in any form of hive (or natural setting), too!!

        Hope you have a great week and wonderful adventures this week!!


        • Carlyn,

          Interesting commentary on SHB. What a mess(!) but it seems your perseverance paid off.

          I have not had many wasps in the past two years, but this year I’m seeing a definite increase which has me worried about my hives come fall. As you observe, they haven’t been very aggressive to humans that I can see, but I haven’t given them much thought except to notice their presence.

      • Rusty,

        Thanks for sharing about the problems with shb, varroa, and packages. I haven’t heard that so much in my area (we are 1.5 hours from Walter T. Kelley – and most beekeepers who order packages here order from them). I’m glad to be aware of this and will be listening for this problem locally.


      • It would seem to me you recognition of packaged bees not being in good health would lend to the claim of inferior bees to experiment with.

        Thanks for your site as it is most helpful.

  • I am glad you are back. I was hoping you had not stopped this column and that you were on vacation. Good article.

  • I think if we really have the bees best interests in mind, we’ll allow them to choose their own cell size. I’ve noticed the bees in my top bar are much bigger than the bees in my Langstroth w/ prefab frames. By telling the bees how big they can build their cells are we limiting their size and health? I know the top bar bees I have may be larger because of the drones or queen they’ve come from, but still….

    • Julie,

      My top-bar bees are always more vigorous and more prolific than my Langstroth bees. The only real difference is that the top-bar bees have built everything according to their own specs. They require much less management but provide me with extra bees and queens whenever I need them. So absolutely, I agree.

  • Why not let the bees set their own cell size on Langstroth frames? If you allow them to build to their own specs, will it make a difference (in size/vigor/prolificence) what type of substructure is provided (top bar v/ Lanstroth)? It also avoids problems with possibly contaminated foundation.

  • Good post Rusty, and a good comment thread as well. The Varroa mite is forcing us to reappraise traditional beekeeping methods and that calm, clear, dispassionate examination that is the heart of properly done scientific inquiry is critical to success. I am glad you cited Randy Oliver and his http://www.scientificbeekeeping.com as I have found his writings (in spite of his recent association with Monsanto) very informative and helpful.

  • Michael Bush loves the honey bee like no other man or woman I know on Earth. I suspect that a beekeeper like M. Bush could make a honey crop at the North Pole. It is only a valid experiment if the experimenter has an equal number of large and small cell hives and then over many (not just several) years he can demonstrate better production as well as a higher survival rate in hives with one cell type over hives with the other cell types.

  • Rusty,
    I stumbled across your site a few months ago, and subscribed to your blog postings. I appreciate your writing, your clear, if sometimes opinionated positions, and your understanding and elucidating of the scientific method. Also, your links are great: I now read about Sunday Spiders and Wednesday Wasps (http://bugeric.blogspot.com)! Now, back to my gluten meal (it restores my energy!)

  • Originally all Langstroth hives had foundationless frames. Then sometime about 1880 foundation was added and the extractor was born. Foundation and extractor use greatly increased honey production. thus foundation and extractor use has been the norm in Langstroth hives for over 125 years.

    The “whole or health food movement” is now questioning the benefits of dozens of agricultural advances over the last century or two. I would not be surprised if I found an article tomorrow claiming that planting cabbages in straight rows or weeding them with a metal farm implement like a hoe is bad for the cabbages if not in fact dangerous to your health. Those bees in your hives belong to you. If you wish to hive them in an old microwave oven by all means do so.

    But I do believe that the current push for foundationless and/or top bar beekeeping is an effort to return humans to our more primitive and less well fed past. I don’t think that Michael Bush is currently pushing small cell beekeeping as an end all solution to varroa mites.

    Remember that it is difficult to do any type of true scientific research on honeybees and get data that is useable by the scientific method. I have yet to see, hear, or read of any scientific research on natural, small cell or big cell bees that proved that these types of bees faired better in the long run than bees reared on foundation. Most of the time it didn’t matter what size cells the bees were reared in. Like I said in the second paragraph, your bees are your bees, so do with your bees as you see fit. At the least it is my firm belief that if a way to prevent or limit varroa is ever discovered it will be found by a layman beekeeper tinkering in his garage.

    • Jim,

      Good comment. Commercial beekeepers and hobbyists keep bees for different reasons. I, for one, keep bees because I want a good supply of comb honey. Since I don’t sell it, humans are not being deprived one way or the other by my less than stellar yields, and I personally am anything but underfed.

      That said, I am trained as an agronomist, yet I too question many agricultural practices. Many of the changes envisioned by the “whole or health food movement”, as you call it, would not significantly change crop yields, although they might ding the purses of some of the chemical and pharmaceutical companies. These are purses that need to be dinged. They would have you believe that more earth-friendly practices would starve the world, but that’s just not true. We are letting big business sell us a bill of goods that we just don’t need.

      Your last sentence is the word, though. I totally, without a doubt, agree with you there.

      • There again the operative words here are the “Scientific Method.” When we humans abandon the scientific method and follow our blind logic, we all too often get involved in burning witches and warlocks at the stake on intuitive whims, like it has always been this way and by Jove if I have to kill you to make it happen it will always remain this way.


        So sure were the people in 1,600AD Rome of the truth in their so called scientific beliefs that before they lit the pile of branches on which Bruno stood, they took a needle and thread and sewed poor Giordano’s tongue to the inside of his cheeks so that he could not speak of his modern beliefs while waiting for the fire to consume him.

  • Rusty, I wrote you about a month ago about my debris box hive bottom. I had two in service since October. I removed one to examine the contents. I was shocked to find no dead bees and nearly no noticeable hive debris. Lots of wood propolized. Interesting was finding a large ball of new bees down in the wood debris. I searched the box for hive beetles as that is my primary concern. I found one larvae. Of which I have found under other hives.

    My other hive is still in operation. Interestingly there is a ant colony streaming in and out of the bottom. Upon several inspections the ants were not bothering the bees or the hive. As I was pulling drone brood to search for mites I had dropped several drone pupae on the hive bottom outside. The ants quickly consumed the larvae. So I found some mites in on a drone and set it down for the bees. They grabbed the mites like pizza pies and trotted merrily off. I am wondering if the ants could have a symbiotic relationship with the bees?

    Any thoughts.

    • Jay,

      This is getting more interesting. You said your debris boxes were deeps with bottoms, and filled with wood chips, rotting wood, etc. Right? How full are the boxes? Also, it sounds like there is nothing between the debris box and the brood box, is that right? No screen?

      In your comment you say, “So I found some mites in on a drone and set it down for the bees.” Do you mean you set them out for the ants?

      Do you know what kind of ants they are? How big are they? This is fascinating.

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