Foundation or Foundationless Beekeeping?

A Key Choice for the Beekeeper

When first starting out, the beginning beekeeper is faced with numerous choices to make about beekeeping equipment. Those decisions are made with little or no experience as a guide. One of the more important decisions is whether to use foundation.

Frames vs. Foundation

First, let’s get the terminology straight. All beehives feature frames, from which bees will draw (create) comb. In Top Bar and Warre hives, these are simple bars that sit along the top of the box. In these hives, these frames are typically referred to as “top bars”, rather than frames.

In the case of the Langstroth, the frame is a rectangular shape. Most frames used in Langstroth hives feature foundation, a flat layer fitting into the rectangular shape of the frame. Generally, the familiar hexagonal shape of cells is imprinted on this foundation.

Bees create wax cells (comb) on this foundation, so the use of foundation defines the plane on which the is comb created, as well as the size of the cells. This is an important aspect of the use of foundation, as discussed below.

This video shows how to properly handle your beehive frames

Frames with Foundation

Langstroth frames come in different sizes depending on the size of the box in which it is used. Langstroth boxes are either deep, medium, or shallow and the relevant frame sizes (heights) for the frames are:

  • Deep: 9 1/8 “
  • Medium: 6 1/4″
  • Shallow: 5 3/8″

The next choice for the beekeeper is either plastic or wooden frames.

Wood frames are typically made from pine and many beekeepers lean this way because it’s a natural product.

Plastic frames are lightweight and won’t rot, though they can warp in high temperatures. They come as a single molded piece, including the foundation.

The foundation is a plastic or wax layer, with a molded hexagonal pattern, pressed into place in the middle of the frame. The foundation provides a surface on which the bees can begin building comb and it keeps their comb straight, thus avoiding the mess of cross comb (a topic we will discuss in a later lesson).

When plastic foundation is used it is usually coated with wax to encourage the bees to build cells (more on that later).

Some beekeepers like to build their own frames and place beeswax foundation in them, for a more natural approach that avoids the use of plastic.

Going Foundationless

A very important decision for the beekeeper is whether to use foundationless frames. One reason for going this route is to allow the bees to build comb with the size of cells they want and need. An increasing number of beekeepers are moving in the direction of “natural beekeeping”. A frame without foundation allows the bees to naturally build what they need.

Frames and cell size
Honeybees build different sized cells for different purposes, so going foundationless allows the bees to build whatever size cells they need at the time.

The Payoff and the Cost

As with most aspects of beekeeping, arguments can be made for either foundation or foundationless, so let’s delve a little deeper.

Frames with Foundation

One-piece plastic frames and wooden frames with plastic foundations generally come with a coating of beeswax. It is important to note that the wax used to coat the foundation comes from large-scale commercial beekeeping operations. Research has shown this wax to contain varying levels of pesticides used by commercial beekeepers to treat mites, in addition to pesticides associated with the crops the bees have been pollinating.

Some bee supply companies offer foundation that is not coated with wax.

As we have seen, another concern is that the pre-formed hexagonal cell pattern limits bees to one cell size. For example, drone cells are larger than the cells intended for worker bees, and cells built for honey storage can be yet another size.

Arguments have been made that bees will build a smaller cell size in which to raise brood when not confined to a pre-determined size. Therefore “small cell” foundation is available and for purchase. It is claimed that “small cell” helps control mites, but this has not been proven beyond doubt. There are conflicting studies regarding the effectiveness of small cell foundation, thus leaving beekeepers to draw their own conclusions.

There are some situations related to mite control, where it is actually preferable to encourage drone cells. For this situation, drone frames are available.

Foundationless Frames

Foundationless frames allow bees to build comb any way they like. Bees have the freedom to build the size cells they need and are not exposed to the chemicals commonly associated with wax-coated foundations.

But with this “bee freedom” comes challenges for the beekeeper, in the form of cross comb.

Man-made foundation guides the bees to build straight comb, down the length of the frame. Without it the bees often move between frames, making it difficult to remove a frame for inspection without causing damage to the natural foundation.

Avoiding cross comb can be a challenge for a newbie
Beginning beekeepers establishing new colonies in foundationless hives, often find they need to visit the hive approximately every three days to correct cross comb before it becomes a major issue.

This can be a daunting task for someone just starting out and there are risks associated with it. Many a new beekeeper has experienced the crushing event of huge chunks of naturally-made comb coming crashing down from the frame when it is removed from the hive. There is nothing more disheartening, especially when one considers how hard the bees have worked to create that comb.

When this happens, it can also potentially kill or harm the queen.

Another issue to consider with foundationless frames is the number of drones the colony creates. Experienced beekeepers will know how to deal with this, but it can create another obstacle for beginners.

Foundationless frames are readily available or, as discussed below, you can make your own.

The experiences of one of PerfectBee’s senior contributors are illuminating. Despite warnings to his students, almost every student in his classes taking the foundationless approach ends up with serious cross comb issues. Some of them simply abandoned the hive because it was unworkable. That is a sad situation but one the new beekeeper should consider.

The Best of Both Worlds

So what’s a beekeeper to do?

Foundationless frames can lead to a mess in the new hive. The beginner does not have the experience to deal with this. Foundation coated with wax potentially contains chemicals to which you do not want to expose your bees.

One solution is to remove some of the frames and alternate foundation with foundationless frames in the deep box where the bees will first be established. The frames with foundation will keep your newly installed package of bees building straight new comb, thus avoiding the issue of cross comb, while at the same time reducing the amount of foundation used in the hive.

This approach is not possible when installing a nuc (nucleus hive). Doing so would mean splitting up the brood nest with empty frames, which would likely result in the loss of much of the brood.

Which Frames?

If you elect to go with foundation, there are a number of options available to you. These vary in terms of the material, use of beeswax covering, the size of the cell, and much more.

Additional Measures to Take

When replacing a frame that has foundation with a foundationless frame, it will help the bees get started if a wooden guide is placed in the groove at the top of the frame, where the foundation had been. Craft stores and hobby shops sell popsicle sticks the size of tongue depressors and these can be glued into the slot across the top of the frame to create a starter strip. You can also cut starter strips from the foundation that was taken from the frame.

If you have access to wax that you know comes from a clean source, possibly from a mentor or friend, you can gently melt it and coat the starter strips with clean wax using a brush. It is also possible to purchase frames that have this guide built-in.

The same approach can be taken with the frames containing foundation. Some beekeepers melt wax and brush it over the surface of the commercial foundation. While not perfect, this does place a layer of clean wax over the top of the foundation, instead of building on the commercial wax used to coat the foundation.

Considerations for the New Beekeeper

This may all sound very important to the new beekeeper. And it is. But with arguments on both sides of the foundation vs. foundationless debate, what is a new beekeeper to do?

First, if you are using a Top Bar or Warre hive the decision is effectively made – you are going foundationless! This is the nature of these hive designs. One factor, as compared to Langstroth, is that the foundation is smaller in size, thus reducing the chances of it falling off when pulled from a hive.

The Langstroth is generally used with foundation, but need not be. The size of the foundation – especially in a deep box – is considerable and the fragility of newly drawn comb, along with the pull of gravity, means that there is a danger of that foundation breaking up as it is pulled from the hive for an inspection.

PerfectBee encourages beekeepers to consider foundationless beekeeping at some point. It has many advantages, not least of which is that it is simply a more natural way for bees to live. However, the new beekeeper has many, many things to learn and, in the first year, the focus should be on understanding what happens in the hive. “Foundation collapse” with fragile comb can be one of the most disheartening events.

For this reason, PerfectBee recommends that new Langstroth beekeepers at least start with foundation, with a view to considering foundationless a little later. However, this is by no means a necessity so, like everything in beekeeping, choices abound. Many new beekeepers have also started successfully with foundationless frames.

Final Thoughts and Just a Bit of Philosophy

Beekeepers are a most enjoyable bunch of people, populated with a handful of cranky old drones to keep it real.

Beekeepers also tend to be a very independent lot and at one time or another, each believes they have found the Golden Egg that will solve all their beekeeping ills. Unfortunately, this independent nature often works against the beginner.

Beginners often read material concerning the pros and cons of foundation and conclude that foundationless is the only way to go. This kind of thinking often goes hand-in-hand with the thought that a certain type of hive will resolve most of the potential beekeeping pitfalls as well.

Many new beekeepers “buy into” a certain philosophy or style of beekeeping based on a great article or an aggressively-stated opinion, before they have the experience allowing them to make their own educated decision. Then they spend their first few years defending that decision at the exclusion of learning from all resources available to them.

Bee smarter than that!

Use your independent nature to remain a little aloof from those selling one doctrine or another. Use your first few years to learn from as many resources as you can. Later, when you can add your own experiences to the things you’ve read about and been taught, you will have the know-how to decide which style of beekeeping is best for you.