Honey Super Cell

I have typically kept bees according to mostly typical standards. I usually have 2 deep brood boxes (the big white boxes that most people think of as a beehive). I use a screened bottom board all year round for integrated pest management (IPM…i.e. I use it for mite control) and ventilation.  My hives all sit on cement blocks to raise them off the ground  and I have a typical lid on top of the hive to keep rain and snow out.  Until 2 year ago, I used 10 wax frames (the frames are where the bees make honeycomb to raise more bees and store honey) per box as is typical of most beekeepers.  

At the end of the season 2 years ago, my honey supers became infested with wax moths.  Wax moths are little brown moths that are attracted to honeycomb.  They lay eggs in the wax and their larvae eat through the wax and make a serious mess as they fill the honeycomb with poop and their silky cocoons.  Esentially, a wax moth infestation ruins any wax in which they come in contact.  In a typical strong hive, the bees maintain cleanliness and run the moths off.  My problem was with my honey supers (shallower white boxes where honey is stored by the bees for me to harvest) which I had just harvested.  After the honey flow, beekeepers remove the honey supers and have to store them until the next honey season.  

To prevent wax moths from infesting honey supers, most beekeepers have only a few choices.  Honey supers can be stored in a sunlight exposed shed (wax moths won’t typically lay eggs in the sun…but any dark spot in a super and they will lay).  Beekeepers can add paradichlorobenzene (PDB moth balls…not napthelene moth balls) on each honey super and seal them in storage so the PDB can fumagate the wax.  Finally, beekeepers can freeze each frame to kill any eggs and then store them in plastic bags inside the house (a shed is not typically tight enough and wax moths will eat through plastic bags).  I used to apply PDB moth balls but 2 years ago, the wax moths infested the supers as soon as the fumigant was depleted.  All of my honey supers were ruined and I could not see repeating the cycle again.  In addition to that, I decided that I was not content with using a chemical to treat my honey supers any longer.

About that same time, I began to read about honey super cell (HSC), a new product that was being discussed online quite a bit.  Honey super cell is fully drawn honey comb, made entirely of virgin food grade polypropylene.  The first benefit of HSC is that the bees do not have to expend additional effort to replace all of the wax that they had drawn out on the ruined honey supers.  When introducing new frames, as I would need to do, bees are typically given flat pieces of wax with a honeycomb pattern embossed in the wax.  They have to expend honey and time to build the honeycomb on top of the wax foundation.  Since this honey comb is fully drawn out, they do not have to generate more wax to make these frames usable.  Secondly, plastic is not attractive to wax moths so I will never have to worry about wax moths again.  Finally, the real benefit that the manufacturers of HSC tout is that it is small cell honey comb.  Whereas a typical bit of honeycomb in use in a commercial hive has a cell size of 5.4mm, HSC has a honeycomb cell inner diameter of 4.8-4.9mm.  So why in the world would you care about that?  It turns out that the larger size honeycomb cells are not necessarily natural and in fact, may actually help varroa mites breed in a hive.  Small cell comb is capped more quickly which interrupts the varroa breeding cycle.  Small cell comb provides less room for the varroa to breed (wahoo…bug sex!), and small cell comb apparently makes for a healthier colony in general (see reference above).

The drawback of HSC is that it is fairly expensive, though, the fact that I will not have to replace it and it may provide healthier bees will offset that cost if it bears fruit.  I am gradually converting my colonies to HSC in the brood nest.  My plan is to proceed slowly for financial reasons as well as to make sure that this won’t hurt my colonies.  This is the first spring after converting some hives to HSC last summer.  I am pleased to say that my absolute strongest colony is one raised on HSC!  I will convert more colonies this summer and monitor the progress.  More pertinent to the season however, is that I have converted all of my honey supers to HSC.  Frames in the brood nest (the big white boxes) are typically about 9.125 inches high.  Frames in honey supers are typically 6.25 inches high (smaller because honey is heavy and lifting a full honey super off is 40-50 pounds.  Larger would be even heavier).  I have found that HSC cuts very nicely down to honey super size on a table saw.  The best part is, I can take the sections I cut down and glue them together to make additional frames (more on that in another post).  The point is, I can easily convert to HSC thougout my operation and will generate very little waste.

Ok, this is a long post.  Please let me know what you think or if you have questions!  I will report back on bee progress soon!

24 thoughts on “Honey Super Cell

  1. That’s funny. You’re going forward, we’re going backward. We decided that we want to get a second hive next spring or later this summer and we’re going to put them in a Warre Top Bar Hive, then we don’t even have to have foundation, the bees do it all. Of course it takes longer, but it’s just like they do it in the wild when they don’t have people around. We’re excited to see how it goes. We’re going to keep our current hive so we can compare the two.

    Chiot’s Run’s last blog post..Parade of Tulips

  2. What I THINK is that I thought about you last night while watching The Office! Dwight was talking about bees! And I laughed out loud when he said “let’s fill Michaels office with bees”. Probably not what you were looking for, sorry.

    Capri Kel’s last blog post..Crazy 8’s

  3. YD – that was my main interest too!

    Chiot’s Run – I am interested in seeing how you make out with natural cell. What first got me irritated enough to make this switch was the wax moths which remain a problem with natural cell. Still, the mite reducing capability of natural cell is interesting. Top bar hives provide an interesting way of collecting honey as most (but not all) do not use honey supers. In that case, of course, you won’t suffer from wax moths either. I don’t know that I like the idea of making the bees rebuild honeycomb after every harvest (I don’t want to give up any honey that they need to build it), but your wax will always be clean and clear which is nice. Anyhow, please do post on your experience!

    ETW – don’t worry! I am sure to post much more on bees as the season progresses! If only my wife could be so enthusiastic!

    Capri Kel – Well, not exactly what I was thinking about, but it actually gives me a pretty good idea for a guy I work with…

  4. Ooooo, good info! This is on my long term plan list. Hopefully it will be easier to convince the DH to do the bee thing. It took me a while to convince him to do the chicken thing. LOL

    Mim’s last blog post..Sheldon In All His Glory

  5. Warren, we’re following your progress with interest since we want to keep bees someday. I’d read about the smaller cells being more naturally-occuring and aiding in circumventing some of the hive problems that can occur. The thing we’re wondering is if top bar hive combs cells also naturally are built smaller, or does it depend on the type of honeybee building it? We’re not sure what to start with, and living in Florida we’re pretty positive we’ll have to head off the parasites from the get-go. A lot of beekeepers here likely go the chemical route…we’re trying to look at options ahead of time since we’d like to stay away from those.
    Anyway, it’s fun learning from you guys and seeing what works for you!

    Robbyn’s last blog post..Fun Socks from Old Clothing

  6. Kim – I hope he likes the info! I found some more neat info on HSC so I will share that soon!

    Robbyn – natural cell which is what you’ll have with top bar hives is typically smaller, but also bigger. The bees make cells the size that they need. That’s a really good thing of course. TB hives are not mite free, but are typically healthy and better off than many commercial hives. Sometimes chemicals are probably necessary to keep a hive alive, but I surely prefer to do what I can to avoid it for as long as possible!

  7. hello warren, I am from Europe, Romania, and my mail adresss is rsmarcel68@yahoo.es, and I have studied very much the 4,8 mm/4,9 mm cell and I want to addapt my bees as it was in the beginning of times. My problem is that in Europe there are no manufactorers that can build this kind of smaller cells. My request, please, is to provide me some American adresses of shops from where I can buy frames with small cells of 4,8 mm/4,9 mm already built (the queen must only lay the eggs there). I need some completely frames so that the bees must not built the cell from wax for the queen. The cell must be entirely from plastic so that the queen lay the eggs in the cell. I want to do like you. will you help me, please?
    I wait for your answer,
    best regards, Marcel

  8. Thanks for your description of the plastic small cell comb. I am frustrated by wax moths in my stored supers. However, how do you harvest the honey from these frames? My understanding is that the stored honey in a super isn’t ready for harvesting until the bees have determined it has reached the correct specific gravity/water content at which point they cap the cells. Assuming the bees cap HSC comb too, what method do you use to uncap the comb instead of a hot knife? thanks

  9. Jeff- great questions…the bees do cap based on when the honey is ready. They know when the water etc are at the correct levels. Just like typical wax honeycomb, they cap the HSC when it is ready. The tend not to build it out any so a capping knife doesn’t work too well. We have simply switched to using a capping scratcher. It’s basically a fork with a bunch of fine tines. You drag it across the cappings and it breaks them just fine. It might seem like this would be slower but it works out because we make less of a mess and have no wax moth issues. I hope that all makes sense…

  10. I stumbled onto your sight while researching HSC…wasn’t sure what it was…you gave a great, detailed description. I’ll be following your site.

  11. I have 1 Langs and 1 TBH. The Langs is an old hive given to me. I took all the foundation out and fixed them with strips of wood like TB. I have been reading about HSC and will be intereted to see how you make out with it.

  12. How will you change all the frames from the hives that are currently in use to the HSC. I have a hive with one frame with foundation that has brood. How would I get that one out of the hive. I assume the Queen will keep laying on it.

  13. Carol-
    I just slowly start replacing one or two frames at a time when I am in there. I usually shoot for frames that are light on brood or eggs. Of course, when I start new hives or make splits, I always start with HSC.

  14. Does the HSC come coated in beeswax or do you have to coat it or do you put it in uncoated and the bees coat it or do the bees just use it without coating it and then cap it?

  15. Hey Al – thanks for the question…It is bare plastic when I get new pieces. I used to dump a little honey on the frames to get the bees used to it but now I just stick the frames in the hive and go for it. They take to it pretty well. I suspect they put a little wax or propolis coating of some sort in the cells but it is super thin if they do. When I swap HSC into a hive in place of wax, I do at least half of the frames. At first, they are slow to take the plastic unless you give them no choice. After a few days, it seems like it doesn’t matter at all to them. All of my bees are on HSC now and are doing very well. I hope that helps

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