Foundation Options in Frames

Ideal Frame with wire and foundation

Many people ask me if I use foundation... yes, but I probably don't use foundation just as much. On the whole, bees prefer to build their own foundation. We only use foundation because of the invention of the honey extractor.  I use a few versions of frames and foundation, and whenever possible deliberately choose foundationless to help bees enjoy a natural and healthy environment.

I have two aims - allow the bees to replace comb every 3 or 4 years, particularly in Langstroth boxes. It enables them to maintain good health and raises the quality of brood, honey and wax. Also, I hope soon to only use foundation made by my bees rather than comb brought in from other beekeepers. We have no control over where this wax has come from, what chemicals are present and what spores or pests may be trapped in the wax.

Split pins holding the foundation.

The first option - a standard frame, wired with stainless steel and commercial foundation embedded on the wire. This arrangement is useful if you use a honey extractor, however foundationless frames of this size can be used in an extractor after two years using a slow speed (one year old comb is too soft).

Recent research is showing that stainless steel is not liked by bees and increases the iron content in larvae. It is not uncommon to see a row of empty cells along the wire line.

Ideal frame using a starter strip of thin wood

So a good alternative if you wish to use foundation is to use split pins instead. They work in a similar fashion to a hairclip. They can be easily removed and the entire honey comb harvested. While an improvement, it still uses manufactured foundation. This comb is still fairly strong and inspecting the frames in different positions is relatively safe.

Using no foundation means the bees may choose a creative way of drawing comb. To avoid this, the use of a starter strip may be helpful. This could be a little wax strip put into the groove with a heat gun, or a thin strip of wood.  To help the bees attach the comb, I rough up the top rail with a saw or rasp. Another means of achieving relatively straight comb without starter strips is to use a bare comb, roughed at the top and placed them between drawn frames. This by itself provides a good guide.

I often use this method when first converting a foundation Langstroth to foundationless. It is remarkable how well the bees adapt. They are highly productive during nectar flows and are able to draw many frames. In our short season, I allow the bees to build as much comb as they wish provided they have the nectar. If the season is poor or coming to a close, it is time to allow them to fill every piece of comb with pollen and nectar before winter.

Wax starter strip on Warre frame using a wet strip of wood as a guide

With no foundation, care must be taken to always keep the comb in an upright position. Any turning of the comb to a horizontal position will mean the comb drops off.

Warre and Top Bar hives use only a top bar for bees to drawer natural comb. Notice the rough marks on the bars to help with attachment. Use of a starter strip helps to keep comb straight. Top bars particularly can be very crooked and may need correcting during the first few weeks. Once they have a few combs straight, they generally do much better.

A more recent development with top bar frames, is using wooden starter strips or triangle. To further stabalise the comb, some people are using thin dowel pieces inserted in the top bar. Included below is an example of a set of top bar frames being used at Swampy Hollow Farm.

Top Bars made at Swampy Hollow Farm

Going foundationless is a healthy and lovely alternative. It is a much more natural process for the bees. It may take the bees more resources to build comb from stratch but they will be quieter, happier and healthier. As a beekeeper, it lowers your costs, takes less work and provides a cleaner, tastier honey.

Happy Beeking!