Foundationless Beekeeping

Pinterest Hidden Image

Foundationless beekeeping might appear to be a modern trend but it is actually nothing new. Early beehives lacked foundation sheets to guide bees in comb building. Today, it is standard practice to insert beeswax or plastic foundation into hive frames. This is gives bees a good start and helps ensure straight comb. However, proponents of foundationless frames argue that this method allows bees to build comb in a more natural way. In this article, I will share my insights on using frames without foundation in your beehives.

Natural comb from a hive without foundation inserts.

As a Master Beekeeper, I always try to remain open to different beekeeping philosophies. There are many ways to “do the right thing”. Your choice of beehive foundation is just that – your choice. All of the different methods will work.

What is Foundationless Beekeeping?

Foundationless beekeeping is an apicultural practice where beekeepers allow bees to construct their comb naturally, without the use of pre-formed wax or plastic foundation sheets.

In a foundationless hive, beekeeper may use standard sized wooden frames – lacking the wax or plastic inserts we are most familiar with.

In some cases, a simple starter strip is inserted along the bottom of the top bar of each frame. This encourages the worker bees to build comb at that spot.

These starter strips can be made from different materials: small strips of wax foundation, wooden strips (paint can stirrers) or even popsicle sticks.

Benefits of Foundationless Frames

There are certain benefits to avoiding the use of foundation in beehive frames and letting the bees go au natural.

Honey bees on natural beeswax comb.

Natural Comb Construction

In the wild, comb is built to fit the specific needs of the colony. Each sheet of honeycomb contains a mixture of cell sizes for workers, drones, and honey storage.

Regular foundation comes with pre-formed indentions that help guide the size of the space-saving hexagon wax cells that will be built. Of course, bees can and do build a variety of cells sizes – but without the constraints of embossed foundation sheets they have more flexibility.

Improved Bee Health

Proponents of foundationless beekeeping believe it promotes better colony health. The bees build the cell sizes that they want without the stress of trying to fit within a pattern.

Natural comb normally has smaller cell sizes than pre-made foundation. Could this be an aid in the fight against varroa mites and other stressors? Perhaps, but the evidence is not conclusive.

Cost-Effectiveness

The associated costs or expenses involved in beekeeping can not be overlooked. Buying foundation is not a cheap endeavor.

When using frames without foundation, the whole process of buying and installing wax foundation (or plastic) is avoided.

Even if you use a small starter strip of foundation, the cost is still much less than having to purchase whole sheets for each frame.

Chart listing the primary challenges of foundationless methods.

The Challenges

As a beekeeper myself, I have found that beekeeping methods always involve pros and cons. The practice of foundationless beekeeping is no different. The beekeeper who decides to forgo foundation will face some challenges.

Comb Stability Issues

One of the primary risks in foundationless frames is comb stability. New honeycomb is soft (especially in hot weather). Also, when the cells are filled with honey or brood – the comb may have difficulty in supporting the weight.

Of course, this is a bigger issue when you are performing hive inspections. Bees build comb down from the top-with no foundation-it is not attached to the bottom bar.

I commonly turn frames over during hive inspections. We don’t want the comb to fall out! It can and it has before.

Increased Risk of Cross-Comb

Cross combing is when bees build comb across several frames (at least 2) instead of keeping the wax confined to the perimeter of the frames.

This causes a big mess and may result in comb having to be removed and the bees must build it again.

To prevent cross-comb, the beekeeper must monitor the colony closely during the initial phase of comb construction – removing any comb that is being constructed across the frames.

Possibility of Lower Honey Production

Due to the energy needed to produce extra wax, foundationless beekeepers might experience a reduced level of honey production.

Provided foundation does give the bees a head start. However, there are many variables involved in how much honey a hive makes in a season. This would be only one consideration.

Time and Money

It is easy to understand that not having to buy foundation is a money saver. However, it is not unusual for foundationless bee hives to require more attention.

They need more frequent monitoring to ensure proper comb building. Also, during inspections – the beekeeper must move more slowly and carefully with a thought to the possible fragile comb.

Getting Started with Foundationless Beekeeping

You do not need any special equipment to give foundationless frames a try. Most beekeepers use standard empty hive frames. And, the materials needed for starter strips: wood strips, wax strips etc.

Top Bar Hives do not use traditional rectangular frames. They use wooden top bars. But, you can do foundationless beekeeping in a standard Langstroth hive if you wish.

Four steps to prepare wooden frames for foundationless beekeeping using a starter strip of beeswax.

Preparing the Frames

Preparing the frames (or bars) is as simple as inserting the wooden strips or foundation strips into the underside of the top bar.

Above – you can see that I re-used an old wooden frame with a wedge. I cut a small strip of beeswax off a sheet of foundation (without wires). Attached the strip using the wedge piece and the frame is ready to go. You could add a little melted beeswax to hold it in more securely.

Transitioning Existing Hives

If your hives already have foundation, you can gradually transition them to foundationless.

  • Start by replacing a few frames in the hive with foundationless frames. This allows to bees to begin adapting to building natural comb.
  • Regularly monitor comb construction to be sure the bees are building straight comb within the frames.
  • Offer Supports – your starter strips are a good beginning. Some beekeepers use cross wires placed horizontally across the frame to add more support.
  • Phase Out Foundation Frames-Gradually replace more frames with foundationless ones over time, ensuring the bees have adjusted well at each stage.

Best Practices for Success

On the Level: Keeping your beehive perfectly level is crucial in foundationless beekeeping. Bees build comb based on gravity, so an unlevel hive can lead to more crooked or cross-comb.

Inspect Regularly: Frequent inspections are necessary to correct any early signs of trouble. Handle frames gently to avoid breaking the delicate natural comb.

Use Older Comb as Guides:  If you have some straight comb that is already drawn out – use it as a guide. Place the new empty frames between two of these to help encourage proper comb construction within the frame.

Which Method is Right for You?

My personal perspective – I certainly see the appeal of beekeeping without the use of foundation. However, I do not practice it in my apiary. Why?

Honestly, I am rather clumsy – especially in a bee suit in the Summer in the south. I need frames of comb that are sturdy as I flip them over during inspections (as I wipe the sweat from my face.)

Also, the extra maintenance required is not worth the effort in my situation. But, this does not mean that you would not enjoy the benefits of foundationless frames. If it is something that you feel passionate about – give it a try.

Finally

Foundationless beekeeping is a passion for many beekeepers who yearn to give their hives a more natural beekeeping approach. You may choose to embrace this approach or continue to use the convenience of foundation. Either way will work well with proper attention and management.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *