Bee Hives & Bungalows

The following entry deals a little bit with beekeeping. I am a beekeeper with a couple of years experience now, which is to say that I am at last learning to let the bees explain things to me and that I have years of learning ahead of me. What has me thinking about bees is that it’s spring, everything is blooming, and all three of my colonies survived the winter without chemicals and are thriving right now. It’s a wonderful thing to see!  I’m also currently putting together some extra hive bodies, which are basically the houses that the bees live in. They are the rectangular stackable boxes you see comprising the typical Langstroth hives around this country. The colonies build their combs inside these boxes to live, raise brood and store food in on frames that can be lifted out (by the annoying beekeeper).  So what does this have to do with small houses? I’ve been thinking about a couple of seemingly very different things, they correspond, but analogously. I’m a lover of analogy and metaphor though and, as with certain photographs, the proper comparison of apparently disparate ideas can often be powerful and dynamic. Now, I won’t claim that the following is going to be powerful and dynamic but I hope at least to provide something thought provoking. 

Trouble Brewing

Me, building frames and hive boxes in spring!

Me, building frames and hive boxes in spring!

There’s been plenty of news about Colony Collapse Disorder in the beekeeping world and the world in general. There’s a lot of speculation about the causes, but if you ask me and plenty of others, it boils down to inappropriate human behavior on multiple levels (agricultural chemicals, GMO crops with built in chemicals, overuse of bees in massive monocrop pollination, diseases that the bees are still gaining resistance to…) But an interesting idea that has gained some steam is also related to house size.

The analogies: when it comes to housing, size really can mean something for both bees & humans

Over the years, beekeepers have used pre-formed sheets of foundation (generally wax or plastic based) on frames inside hives to help the bees (and ourselves) along in drawing out comb. What’s interesting is that the size of these cells has changed. The width of naturally drawn honeybee cells is about 4.9 mm.  This particular size is chosen for reasons we do not fully understand, but the size has some influence on how long an egg takes to develop into a full sized honeybee. We made the cells slightly larger. I think that the typical new cell size might be around 5.2mm. (I should reference this, but I’m too much in flow to get up and check, so bear with me.) What’s important is that the cells are slightly larger now on this manufactured, human printed foundation. In some way, they are easier for us to use, but there’s been an interesting ramification (unintended of course): there’s a particular mite infesting honey bees called Varroa Destructor. It is an aptly named pest. This mite breeds on developing larvae in the hive and can basically destroy colonies and over the last 20 years has methodically done so, making beekeeping a whole different world today than it was in the “old days.” 

Why house and cell sizes matter to honey bees 

Interestingly, a larger cell size has given the mites a slight advantage in that the timing of the mite’s reproductive cycle is benefited by allowing it slightly longer to feed on developing bee brood, which take slightly longer to reach maturity due to the larger cell size. The change may be tiny, but it’s had huge impacts, both unforeseen and not fully understood. There is some fascinating work being done right now by beekeepers who are returning to smaller sized cells called natural cell size or small cell size and finding benefits in terms of overall honeybee health.

What I wonder is,

  • Could our drift toward much larger houses have impacts that we are only just starting to understand the dimensions of?  Sure, we aren’t infested with mites as a result of the increase in the size of our homes, but are there other, insidious damages taking place?  Mites actually damage and kill developing bees and adult bees by sucking them dry, basically.
  • Could our extra large homes be doing the same?  They are energy intensive to build and maintain and housing in general is more expensive than it ever used to be. In many places, that is the case despite the housing bubble bursting.
  • We have to spend a lot of money to keep these houses going. Consider property taxes; those are calculated primarily by square footage. All of this translates to a lot of our time going toward making the money to keep them up. 

Okay, so there’s all sorts of possibilities to explore here. Evidence is inconclusive, in fact, this is only my translation of some random thoughts I’ve had while thinking about small houses (we are in the midst of designing one for building this summer!) and also assembling bee boxes in preparation for splitting my hives later this spring.  But I think there’s a vaguely analogous idea to express and explore here. I hope you will, too. And now I’d better get back to assembling some small homes!

For more about beekeeping, check out The Practical Beekeeper and  The World of Beekeeping websites. 


Read more about how I started my first honey bee colonies in The World Of Beekeeping!

When I started my first hives my bees needed to be flown into our isolated town! 

When I started my first hives my bees needed to be flown into our isolated town!