These are some important things I would point out to anyone who is gearing up with new equipment. Some of these things will be harder than others to change to once you have hives up and running. So if you have not started beekeeping yet, give them some careful consideration before you start buying equipment. You may save yourself a lot of work later on.
Even if small cell has not been proven to help with mites, there is no doubt that 5.4 mm foundation is larger than the bees would naturally draw themselves. If you let the bees draw their own combs they will get down around 4.9 mm (this can take a few cycles). The up-sizing must have some effect, even if we do not know what that effect is!
Since you can now buy small cell foundation, the only concern I can think you may have is, will the bees you buy be able to draw out the small cell foundation. From personal experience I have had package bees draw out 4.9 mm plastic frames with no problems. 4.9 mm foundation should also work just as well.
If you start out with small cell foundation or small cell plastic frames then later you can switch to foundationless and your bees will draw small cell on their own. You just have to wait until the young bees that draw comb are the same bees that were raised in the small cell foundation or small cell plastic frames. Since a brood cycle takes 21 days about four or five weeks should be long enough.
If you start with large cell and switch to foundationless your bees will draw something inbetween large cell and small cell. You would then need to take those frames away from the bees and make them draw out foundationless again to get down to small cell. This may take several cycles and lots of work to get down to 4.9 mm.
There is a lot of information out on the web on small cell. Some of the best is on Michael Bush’s website at: www.bushfarms.com/beesnaturalcell.htm
Foundation or foundationless:
There have been studies done that show the number of chemicals that accumulate in beeswax. It is surprising how many and how much is in the wax. This is also true of the foundation you buy. As a treatment free beekeeper I do not want to use foundation as I feel it has too much contamination already. So I use foundationless frames and let the bees draw out what they want. Before I started I read that it is hard to get the bees to draw frames straight without some kind of guide. So I compromised and used 50% foundatiionless frames and 50% plastic small cell frames that have been sprayed with wax (MannLake PF-120s). You can now get the PF-120s without wax and add your own clean wax.
If you start with foundation you can rotate those frames out after you go foundationless, but the chemicals may not have stayed put and may be in your foundationless combs now. In my opinion once the chemicals are in the hive they do not come out, not very quickly anyway. So the sooner you can get to foundationless and the less contaminated wax you must use to get there, the better off you are.
By the way: You must level your hives if you go foundationless. Also don’t try to mix foundationless frames and plastic frames by alternating them in the same hive box. The bees will draw the foundationless out extra wide and ignore the plastic frames!
The standard 1 & 3/8 frames are wider than what the bees would use on their own. Given the choice, bees will draw out the brood nest with combs spaced 1 &1/4 inch center to center. This is probably more important if you go with small cell. Since the small cell bees are smaller it takes even more of them to fill the space between combs. This increase in frame width also increases the space between combs since the bees will draw the comb in the brood nest out to the same thickness no matter how far apart the frames are. Again, like the increased cell size, there must be some effect on the bees, but I have not heard much talk about it.
Walter T Kelly sells narrow frame equipment. www.kelleybees.com/index.html
If you start with standard width frames you can rotate them out later as you replace them with narrow frames. You can use your old wide frames in the honey supers, but if they had brood in them this can affect the flavour of the honey.
Here is a link to Michael Bush’s page on narrow frames: http://www.bushfarms.com/beesframewidth.htm
8 frame or 10 frame:
8 frames are lighter. That’s my only reason. The weight difference between an 8 frame box of honey and a 10 frame one may be more that you think! (43 pounds vs 55 pounds) I have heard some say the size and shape of an 8 frame hive is closer to a hive in a hollow tree and may help the bees in colder winters.
If you start with 10 frame equipment you can always switch to 8 frame by just moving frames into new 8 frame boxes. But you will have all those 10 frame boxes left over and nothing to do with them. (They make great bait hives for trapping swarms though!)
All medium boxes:
Mediums are lighter than deeps. 8 frame mediums are 15 pounds lighter than 8 frame deeps and 10 frame mediums are 17 pounds lighter than 10 frame deeps. But weight is only part of the reason I use them. It is so much more convenient to have all of your frames the same size. When winter comes and you need to make sure the brood nest has honey frames on the outside you can just take frames from the honey supers and move them there. If your brood nest is deep frames, you need to find deep frames of honey for this. If you did not plan ahead and use some deep boxes for honey supers then you won’t have deep honey frames to use when winter rolls around.
If you need to give a hive a frame of brood, maybe for them to raise an emergency queen from, medium frames of brood translate to less of a setback for the hive you take it from.
The other thing I think is an advantage is the winter cluster has more opportunity to cross frames if the hive is in 3 mediums than if it is in 2 deeps. Three mediums are almost the same size as two deeps, just an inch or so bigger.
If you start with deeps you can always switch from deeps to mediums later, you just end up with deep boxes AND deep frames you no longer need. (Again they make great bait hives for trapping swarms!)