Nothing lasts forever and that certainly applies to wax foundation. Preventing the accumulation of old wax in your colonies is a good way to promote healthy bees. The time will likely come when you need to learn how to install beeswax foundation in wooden frames. While it may seem a bit overwhelming at first, it is really not that difficult. It is also good for beekeepers to know how to assemble and repair some of their own hive components.
Every beekeeper must learn how to move and manipulate frames. This is what sets modern beekeeping apart from traditional practices. Frames and foundation are some of the essential beekeeping supplies that you will work with throughout your years of managing hives.
Adding New Foundation to Your Bee Frames
The actual parts included will depend somewhat on the type of beehive that you choose to use in your apiary. Frames can be made of plastic or wood and come in various sizes to fit the different heights of the hive boxes.
These frames are designed to hold the sheets of honeycomb to be built by the bees. Removeable frames make it possible to remove comb for hive inspections – without destroying it.
It is most common for beekeepers to use a piece of foundation inside frames. This encourages bees to build straight comb inside the wooden structure.
Usually, the sheets of wax foundation contain small wires for support. In years past, beekeepers had to “wire their frames” – today wire already embedded is the norm.
In recent years, the use of plastic foundation has become more popular. It is available in several colors including: black, white and yellow.
Beekeepers can argue all day over which type of foundation is best, which color is best or even if you should use any foundation at all.
I’ll leave that argument to them – I personally prefer regular beeswax foundation. That is what this post is about. But, that does not mean that you can not be successful with other methods.
Why Foundation Should Be Replaced
Beeswax is a made by the wax glands of worker bees, and used to build comb. Inside the hive, sheets of wax contain thousands of individual cells. They are used by the colony for food storage and brood rearing.
This wax is an absorbent structure. It absorbs many substances inside the hive. Bee propolis, honey and pollen stored in honeycomb cells causes staining of the wax.
Fresh beeswax will be white but it becomes darker quickly. After several years, the wax honeycomb may become almost black. Some chemicals brought into the hive from the outside world will be absorbed in the wax too. This is not a good thing.
Experts disagree on optimal comb replacement schedule but every 5 years is a good rule of thumb. If you use wax foundation, this means installing new beeswax foundation in your frames.
For those using plastic foundation, you need to scrape the old wax off the plastic sheets and allow the bees to build new comb. It is quicker than dealing with sheet installation – but a nasty job.
Many beekeepers enjoy assembling their own frames for their hives, this helps ensure a good job is done! While doing foundation replacement, this is a good time to make sure the joints of your bee frames are good and tight.
New Foundation in Brood Frames
Old brood frames can hold some really gross looking honeycomb. In general, beeswax will become darker each year that it is used by the bee colony. This is especially true in the area where young are being raised.
And, as generations of brood (baby honey bees) emerge, they leave behind pupal cocoons. These cocoons reduce the size of the honeycomb cells as time goes by. This makes for a very unhealthy environment for developing bees.
Small Hive Beetles are also attracted to old brood combs that have contained pollen. The colony will repair minor holes and tears but they can’t remove contamination.
In fact, the worst issue with old comb is the tendency to absorb chemical compounds from the environment and hive management. Let’s get that gnarly comb out of there and reuse the wooden frames.
Replacing Old Wax Foundation with New
1. Remove wooden “wedge” from the top bar. It fits under the top bar and is held in place with small nails or staples.
Don’t throw it away and try not to break it – but if you do – don’t panic. You can still reuse the parts of the wedge when installing your new beeswax foundation.
Of course if your frames are new – you won’t have a wedge nailed in place. However, you may see it loosely attached to the frame. If so, use your tool to break it loose and clean off any small bits of wood left on the frame.
When the wedge is loose, you will still have a little wax left to remove from the frame. But first, use your hive tool to scrape the old comb from the wedge bar. Sometimes it comes off in a big sheet – which it really cool to see.
2. Now is a good time to clean any wax and propolis off all parts of the wooden frame. This will make replacement so much easier.
What to do with the old wax? You may be tempted to try harvesting usable wax from this old comb. This could be accomplished by using a solar melter or melting the comb in a pot with added water to clean the beeswax.
Be advised that it will REALLY smell bad during the processing phase. Personally, I don’t think old comb is worth the effort.
It is a very messy job and sometimes the wax harvested is dark and unattractive. But you may want to experience it – at least once. LOL
3. It is important to pay special attention to the bottom bar of your frame. If you have a “split bottom bar”, it is easy to clean away any debris with your hive tool.
If your beehive has a “grooved bottom bar” that is solid with a small groove, cleaning will require a bit more effort.
Use a hook or screwdriver to clean out the groove well. Failure to clean the bottom bar may cause your new beeswax foundation to not fit properly.
4. When I install beeswax foundation, I flip my frame upside down. Why?
Today most wax sheets of foundation are reinforced with embedded wires. Small wire hooks are at the top of the sheet. The wedge bar is used to fasten the hooks to the top bar.
Be sure that the wire hooks are laying firmly against the top bar. Then, you can attach the wedge bar to the underside of the top bar with a staple gun or small nails. The wire hooks will be “wedged” in between the 2 pieces of wood.
5. Now, we want to gently push the bottom of the sheet into the bottom bar. This can be a bit frustrating so take your time and don’t give up.
I use my hive tool to push the little wires into the bottom bar slot. If it breaks a bit – no worries – just so the sheet hangs straight in the frame.
You may have a bottom bar that is grooved, split or two separate pieces. Grooved bottom bars are traditionally used with plastic foundation because it pops in. But you still need to clean away any old wax.
The goal is to install the beeswax foundation so that it hangs straight. The top is secured using the hooks and wedge bar.
The bottom of the foundation is held in place by the split bottom bar – or it fits down into a groove.
Due to the differences in manufacturing, you will occasionally get sheets of wax foundation that is just a bit too long to fit well inside your frame.
No problem, use a box cutter or scissors to nip off just enough of the wax and wire for the foundation to fit properly.
If the sheets of foundation do not hang straight, you may have crooked comb in the hive. If after several attempts you are still having trouble with the sheet wanting to curve.
Use bobby pins, small nails, or commercially available support pins in the side bars. Installing beeswax foundation is time consuming. However, it is not an activity that has to be repeated every year.
Take your time, enjoy the process, you are working for your bees to give them the best possible chance of survival. Having new wax foundation in the hive promotes better hive health and makes the job of caring for them easier for you too.
Steps to Install New Beeswax Foundation
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- 1 Hammer
- 1 small nails
- 1 Hive Tool – J hook (or equivalent)
- 1 piece beeswax foundation (sized for frame)
- 1 piece wooden bee frame
- Remove WedgeThese instructions are for wedge top frames. The basic procedure is the same regardless but adjust if needed.Assuming you are replacing foundation in an old frame. Remove the wedge to loosen the existing comb. Your hive tool or a screwdriver will work.By taking your time and loosening the bar a little at a time all the way across, you can remove it from the frame without breaking it!
- Scraping Wooden PartsUse your hive tool to scrape away any bits of wax or propolis on your frame – including the wedge. We want to re-use it if possible. Cleaning the frame makes reassembly much easier.Pay special attention to the bottom bar. Whether you have a split bottom bar or a grooved slot – clean the wax out of either.
- Installing a New Sheet of FoundationOne of the easiest methods is to flip the frame upside down and let gravity aid you in the process. Add a sheet of beeswax foundation, (upside down as well) so that the bent hooks are cradled against the bottom of the top bar.
- Now, it is time to add your wedge back to the frame. The hooks should be between the wedge and the top bar. Hold it firmly in place and attach with small nails – or the easiest way is with a strong stapler. I usually put 3 nails/staples – one on either end and one in the middle. We want it to be secure – but I may want to remove it again someday too.
- With the foundation firmly attached to the top of the frame, it is time to fit it into the bottom bar. This takes a bit of patience. Use your hive tool to gently work the wires down in the bottom bar split or groove. The foundation must hang straight.