Housel Positioning; a matter of perspective.
The concept of Housel Positioning first seems to have surfaced in a lecture given by Dee Lusby in 2002 at the Alabama Beekeepers Convention. Lusby, a commercial beekeeper who favours organic practices, referenced a conversation she had had with Michael Housel of Orlando, Florida, in which he mentioned that he had noticed a pattern in the positioning of comb created by feral honey bee colonies he had been monitoring. It was his contention that this was beneficial to the wellbeing of the nest or hive, and that beekeepers should mimic this arrangement in foundation-based frames.
How does one recognise this revelatory and distinctive arrangement? Well, it’s a visual thing and not easy to describe, especially if you are not intimately familiar with the internal workings of a hive! Basically, at the bottom of the comb, a repeated ‘Y’ pattern can be seen. Housel noticed that the Ys on the outer surface of the comb always faced away from the centre comb. There has been a surge of interest in ‘natural beekeeping’ in recent times, built around respect for bees, and a desire to encourage natural behaviour. Some beekeepers have reported that the adoption of Housel Positioning in foundation comb has resulted in healthier, happier bees that are less prone to stress and swarming, and produce more honey. However, many of these conclusions are somewhat subjective in nature, and also influenced by a large number of other factors, such as prevailing weather conditions, the availability of food, other beekeeping practices and the overall health of the colony. Any observations should be validated by comparison to control (‘un-Houseled’) hives maintained at the same time, in the same place, and under otherwise identical conditions; unfortunately, that has often not been the case.
Other keepers who have experimented with Housel Positioning report no obvious advantage with this technique. Furthermore, additional examinations of natural comb have concluded that the ‘Y’ pattern varies and is not consistent or predictable. There are other problems in the implementation and evaluation of this practice. For example, if the three ‘arms’ of the Y are relatively similar, and equidistant, who is to decide which way it is pointed? Natural comb also has inherent ‘slippage’, which is sufficient to alter or obscure the orientation.
Perhaps some people see what they want to see; if Housel Positioning was as beneficial as its proponents suggest, then surely it would have quickly gained universal recognition? As such, it remains an intriguing proposition, but the jury is still out, and not due back any time soon! The familiar hexagonal-shaped cells that comprise the comb are, however, one of the great marvels of nature. Always aligned at 13o from the horizontal to prevent honey from dripping out, they allow for the minimisation of surface area (and therefore the amount of wax required to create a given volume of lattice) while delivering a high degree of compressive strength. Today, manmade honeycombs have important commercial applications due to the intrinsic properties of the structure: minimisation of weight and materials, and retention of strength and rigidity. They are integral to the aerospace industry, and are also commonly used in packaging, furniture, audio equipment, and in the manufacture of sporting goods such as skis and snowboards. In 1859, Charles Darwin was moved to remark that the construction of the honey bees’ nest was ‘absolutely perfect in economising labour and wax’.