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 are 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.

Frames with Foundation

Langstroith 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.Inspecting a frame

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 avoiding 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.

Foundationless frames

Frames and cell size
Honeybees build different size 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 foundation 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 foundation.

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 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 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 is 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 the 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 a beeswax covering, size of the cell and much more.

Additional Measures to Take

When replacing  a frame with 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 of 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.

19 thoughts on “Foundation or Foundationless Beekeeping?”

    1. Good question Harry. A couple things come to mind. First is, would the bees even accept it? Sometimes bees can be quite picky about the surface they accept for comb building. I guess the only way to know is to try it. But second, it does not seem like screen door material would be tough enough and far too flexible. For a lot of reasons, what is needed is something quite rigid. Foundation is not expensive and though just my opinion, my gut instinct tells me that using door screen would result in quite a mess. That said, if you try it let us know how it goes.
      Thanks for the question.
      Ron

  1. Jacob, Excellent questions! I teach classes and watch newbies wrestle with this question every year. The way they approach this issue tells me a lot about how they will keep bees. Some are going to rush to go foundationless, others will take a more patient approach. Its usually the patient ones that turn out to be the best beekeepers. So here we go.

    Based on experience I would suggest that you start with foundation. I know that’s not what you want to hear, but a beginner has a lot of things to learn and deal with. The last thing they need is a hive full of cross comb. I have seen beginners ABANDON a hive completely because it became such a mess, could not be worked and they just didn’t want to kill bees trying to fix the problem.

    The way to go foundationless in a Langstroth is to start with foundation so the comb gets drawn straight. Then come back the second season, remove every other frame and replace it with a foundationless frame. Do it as soon as you can get into the hive in the spring as there will be fewer bees and only a little brood to deal with. The drawn comb will work as a guide and the foundationless frames will be drawn straight in most cases. Mark the remaining frames with foundation and remove them the following year if you do not want any frames with foundation in the hive.

    This all takes patience, something a good beekeeper needs to have anyway. Keep in mind that the frames with foundation that are removed from the hive are a gold mine of drawn comb. There is nothing more valuable than drawn comb when beginning a new colony after capturing a swarm or when making a split. Its also excellent to have around for baiting your swarm trap.

    Finally, to answer your original question, your idea of slats is definitely headed in the right direction. They would work as a guide and probably help prevent cross comb. Basically you are providing some foundation, just not a full frame of it. But, I believe the slats will present the potential to make honey extraction difficult. So just keep in mind how the frame will be used in the future. If its only going to be a brood frame and never have honey removed from it then no problem.

    Something you might consider is cutting a piece of foundation into strips and mounting a strip to each side of the frame. I’ve seen strips about an inch wide set into the side bars of the frame and when used in concert with a starter strip across the top bar they proved to be fairly successful.

    Every beekeeper develops their own style and I wish you the best with your new colonies. Don’t be afraid to inspect your new hives relatively often the first year. It will be educational for you while helping you to catch cross comb issues before they become to far advanced. The more experience you gain, the sooner you can reach the point of being less intrusive in your hives.

  2. Jacob Ratcliff

    Hi, I am just starting to learn about bee keeping and plan on starting a hive this spring. Currently I am beginning to build a Langstroth style beehive. I would like to go with foundationless frames. I have a question about the frames. Could you put slats in the frames going vertically? I am guessing that would strengthen new comb and provide a “guide” of sorts for the bees to follow. What is your opinion?

  3. JR, the answer to your question is yes, foundation does come imprinted with the cell shapes and I am not aware of any foundation that is not imprinted. You raise an interesting point about giving them a blank sheet to work with. However, based upon my own observations I do not think it would work in the way we might prefer. I have seen bees remove the wax from foundation they do not like and strip it right down to the thin piece of clear plastic that serves as the base of the foundation. They do this when they don’t like the foundation that’s given to them. Then they proceed to build what they want above the foundation. By above I mean they don’t use the foundation and leave a space between it and the comb they build while supporting it with some bridging structures. Just my opinion but it makes one heck of a mess for the beekeeper and at least for me I would prefer to go the foundationless route before using foundation that is not imprinted. Again, that’s all based upon my own experience. Your experience might be different.

  4. are foundations always pre-imprinted with cell shapes? and if not and they are just plain or only partially imprinted wouldn’t the bees have more choice as to brood or drone size cell making with a plain sheet foundation?

  5. Ed, good question. What we are really faced with here is a slight terminology issue. What you would actually be constructing is known as a Long Hive. And I believe we are going to see a lot of folks move in this direction in the near future. A Langstroth frame will not work in the typical top bar hive because the Top Bar is built in the shape of a “V”. The Lang frame is square and will not fit inside the hive. A Long Hive is an adaptation of the Top Bar to accommodate a Lang frame. Its a wonderful combination of the Top Bar and Langstroth techniques. Basically you will have a top bar hive that uses Langstroth frames. Many people like this approach because it reduces the problem of cross comb while still using the Top Bar approach. I think you will be very happy with a Long Hive. I have mentored numerous people who use them and they all enjoy them very much.

  6. Since I can build a top bar hive any size I like, why can’t I use foundation frames from a Langstroth hive?

  7. Nice work JD. Sounds like you have done a fine job of avoiding the cross comb mess that can come with going foundationless and clearly you have figured out a workable approach.

    Now to answer your question, a couple things come to mind. Depending on how tilted a hive might be, I believe there is a chance for cross comb even with drawn comb as a guide. Bees build to gravity and a hive that is tilted to far would have the bees drawing comb outside of the frame and into the space between frames. At least it seems there would be that possibility.

    Something that may be even more important though is what might happen to the new comb during transportation. New comb is soft and pliable and the loading and unloading may be enough jostling to break the comb off of the frame if it is not anchored on at least three sides. Especially in hot weather when the comb gets so soft.

    For me, to be on the safe side of things I would likely use foundation if I was going to be transporting my hives for pollination purposed, but that’s just my opinion. Everyone has their own ideas and if you feel good about it then why not give it a try.

  8. This is my first year of beekeeping. I decided to go foundationless, and, though I don’t have anything to compare it to, it seems like the easiest thing ever. I made sure the hives were level and the bees did the rest. However, I did start with a nuc, so the bees had straight comb to use as a guide at first. Every time I added a box, I moved a drawn comb into that box to keep them straight. For comb guides in the frame, I just broke off the wedge on the top bar, turned it sideways and nailed it. Worked like a charm.

    I do have a question though. I intend to move my hives around for pollination purposes. At some point it will be impractical to make sure ever hive is perfectly level. What are my options? Will using drawn comb as guides still work if the hive isn’t level, or will I need to look into foundation?

  9. I will most likely be using frames with foundations when I start my first hive simply because I think there are too many things to learn at the start. But the idea of alternating between frames with and without foundations sounds like an interesting option to use in the deep hive and I may try that to see how it works.

  10. John,

    There are many things that can cause the loss of a colony in the fall. Number one on the list is mites. Did you conduct any mite counts on these hives so you know the level of mite infestation? Did you take any action to treat for mites?

    You mention robbing. Is there still honey in the hives? If so its far more likely that mites killed the colonies instead of them being robbed. Fall is the typical time a hive goes down when mites over take them.

    What did you observe that leads you to think robbing was the cause? Did you observe yellow jackets attacking any of the hives? Did you see other bees swarming around the hive? If so, you should close down the entrance to stop the robbing and make it easier for the colony to protect itself. If the robbing is out of control about the only way you can stop it is to close up the hive and cover it with a wet sheet. Keep it wet to keep the hive cool and keep it closed for 2 to 3 days so the robbers give up and look for other food sources.

    If you did not observe any robbing activity you can look for a pile of wax cappings laying near the front of the hive entrance. Also check the comb for torn and ragged edges which is also a sign of robbing. If you find these you still would not know if the robbing was the cause or if the robbing occurred after the hive was empty. Since you apparently did not observe the robbing its possible that mites killed the colonies and then they were robbed.

    Its also possible the colonies were poisoned. Look for bees in and around the hive with their tongues sticking out.

    There are many possible causes for the loss of a colony and without additional information all I can do is lay out a few possibilities for you to consider. Best of luck this next season.

  11. this will be my second go at being a bee keeper.
    early this fall for unknown reason other all my bees died.

    my opinion neighboring bees killed them by robbing them.

  12. Dennis, that’s a good question and I will admit I have not tried adding wires across my foundationless frames, but based on my experiences here are some things that come to mind.

    I do not believe the wires would be enough to keep the bees from building cross comb. Even when a large guide is added, extending up to an inch or more from the top bar and down into the space of the frame, I have found the bees will still build cross comb. Certainly you could give it a try but my experience tells me it will not be enough to prevent cross comb.

    An excellent alternative is to alternate frames with foundation with foundationless frames. The frames with foundation will keep the bees (in most cases) building straight comb. Then over time you can remove the frames with foundation and replace them with foundationless frames. At that point the foundationless frames that have had comb drawn on them will work as a guide, just like the frames with foundation did. Before too long you will have a hive that is all foundationless and you will have accomplished it while avoiding the mess of cross comb.

    A couple more thoughts about the wires – If you try the wires just to see how it works, don’t be surprised to see lines through your comb where the queen will not lay eggs and raise brood. Nothing wrong with it really but if you see those type of lines you will know what it is.

    Next, adding the wires will make the comb stronger which will serve to make inspections easier so its not as easy to turn the frame the wrong way and end up with the comb breaking off. I also know of people who have added wire to strengthen the comb enough so they can put the frame in an extractor. The wire provides enough support so the comb is not damaged or broken.

    And one last thought. Before adding the wire, think about how you would use the frame in the future. For example, if the frame is to be used as a brood frame the wires would be less of an issue than if the frame will be used to collect honey from, especially if you were going to cut comb honey from it. The point is to think ahead just a bit so the wire does not cause you more issues than it solves.

    Best wishes for your beekeeping ventures in the new year!

  13. I have a question , If I were to go frameless would there be any advantage in using cross wires to help bees keep their wax foundation straighter

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