Category Archives: DIY

Makes space in beekeeping (3)

The poor cryptic crossword clue in the title of course refers to an eke.

In beEKEeping, an eke is a wooden frame, the same dimensions as the hive, used to provide temporary additional volume to the hive.

They are useful and versatile pieces of equipment.


The word eke can be traced back to Middle English (eke or eake) when it meant “an addition” and was derived from the the Old English (ēaca) and the Old Norse (auki) words of the same meaning.

In Old English it usually referred to a reinforcement of troops, but in 1549 it was first used 1 to indicate an addition to the tag end of a bell-rope.

And then, a mere 308 years later it was used to describe a cylinder on which a beehive was placed to increase its capacity.

Swarm in a skep

Swarm in a skep …

‘Cylinder’ of course, because in 1857 most beehives were probably still straw skeps 2. A more extensive definition from the same period was a small addition to the bottom of a beehive, often just a few strands of straw, on which the hive was temporarily raised.

Most of us don’t use skeps any longer (other than for swarm collection) but we do use ekes.

Don’t buy it, build it

For some time I’ve reckoned that the appropriately-named dummy board represent the single item with the largest profit margin for manufacturers of beekeeping equipment.

I’m wrong. It’s the humble and unassuming, but oh so useful, eke.

At its most simple, an eke is a made of four bits of wood, screwed, nailed or glued together at the corners, square 3 and true. It doesn’t need to be made out of the best quality cedar.

In fact, it doesn’t need to be made of cedar at all. Any readily-available softwood with a couple of coats of wood-preservative slapped on top will be just fine.

Look back at the definition of an eke. Now, as in 1857, it was meant as a temporary addition to the hive. Cuprinol is just fine, best western cedar is overkill.

A cute rabbit, not rabbet, from

No … rabbet. R a b b E t.

I shall leave the precise design and details of building an eke as ‘an exercise for the reader’. You can achieve ‘square and true’ by using a simple square of plywood as a template. I’d suggest gluing and screwing the corners using a simple rabbet joint. Paint the entire thing with a couple of coats of bee-friendly wood preservative and you’ll have saved at least £20 on the prices some of the commercial suppliers charge.


Length and width are the same as the hive, depth is the important one.

You can make an eke any depth you want. You can usually buy them in only two depths.

  • Shallow (~20mm) – to provide just enough space over the brood frames when applying Apiguard treatment in the autumn. I can’t think of alternative uses that need an eke this shallow.
  • Deep (~90mm) – to convert a regular brood box for use with 14 x 12 frames 4.
Rabbit, er, rabbet joint

Rabbit, er, rabbet joint …

All my ekes are made from 20 x 44mm (thickness x depth 5) softwood. This just happened to be the wood I could easily get when I first started building them, but has turned out to be a very useful depth overall.

Build more than one. Unless you only have one hive. In which case buy another hive and then build another eke. I’ve got about two-thirds the number of ekes as I have hives and I regularly run out.

Feeding and treating

Use your wellie

Use your wellie …

The most frequent use for an eke is to provide space above the frames and below the crownboard, for example when feeding a colony fondant or applying Apiguard. It takes just seconds to lift the roof and crownboard, position the eke, add the fondant or tray of Apiguard and cover the hive again. In the days when I used to use Apiguard I’d often add the fondant at the same time 6. What could be simpler?

With care (or a lot of flattening the block by standing on it repeatedly) it’s possible to easily squeeze 6-8kg of fondant into the void provided by a 43mm eke. Since I usually feed a full 12.5kg block of fondant in one go – sliced in half and opened up like a book – I simply pop an eke under an inverted insulated crownboard to provide the ‘headroom’ needed.

Vaporising with an eke

Vaporising with an eke …

Whilst we’re on the subject of applying miticides … I also use ekes when administering vaporised oxalic acid-containing treatments to colonies in polystyrene hives. The nozzle of my Sublimox vaporiser gets hot enough to melt polystyrene. Rather than messing around trying to aim the billowing cloud of vapour through the entrance it’s much easier simply adding a wooden eke to the top of the brood box and pushing the nozzle through a 7mm hole in one side. The vapour easily permeates to every corner of the hive 7.


Travel screens are used in place of crownboards and roofs when colonies are being moved any distance. They are usually framed wire mesh of some sort. They are important as they stop colonies overheating during the stress of transporting them. You can also easily spray water onto the colony to help cool it if needed.

They are yet another thing that spends 98% of the time stacked up in a corner with all the other oddities of beekeeping – clearer boards, Miller feeders, weirdo split boards and custom-made shims for uniting mismatched hives.

Travel screen mesh and eke

Travel screen mesh and eke …

I don’t bother with travel screens, but instead use robust ‘glassfibre’ insect mesh held securely in place with – you’ve guessed it – an eke. I just lay the mesh over the open colony, add the eke and then strap everything thing up tight. This works a treat. The eke ensures that the mesh is held securely around the edges.

Abelo hives in transit ...

Abelo hives in transit …

Insulation and crownboards

I’m a firm believer in providing a block insulation over the crownboard, ideally all season, but certainly through the winter. I’ve built a number of reversible, insulated perspex crownboards … but I didn’t build enough

I’ve also bought, inherited or otherwise acquired several standard framed plywood or perspex crownboards. Using a 44mm deep eke and a suitably sized block of 50mm thick expanded foam you can easily cobble together a perfectly function insulated crownboard.

Another use for an eke

Another use for an eke …

And the rest …

There are all sorts of additional uses for ekes … stacking supers on, providing space under brood frames with protruding queen cells (for example, when moving a frame from one colony to another 8, doubled up to provide depth for 14 x 12 frames etc.

It’s worth keeping a couple of ekes stacked up with spare supers and broods in the apiary. They’re more useful than you’d think a simple square frame of wood should be.

Winter colony with eke, fondant and insulation

Winter colony with eke, fondant and insulation …


Landing boards

I’ve bought and used a number of Abelo poly hives this season. I’m going to review these once I see how the colonies perform overwinter. However, one of their ‘features’ is an integral landing board that forms part of the removable floor (colonies 1 and 3, facing, below).

Abelo poly National hives ...

Abelo poly National hives …

Landing boards are great. They provide a large flattish or gently sloping ramp that leads to the hive entrance. There’s something mesmerising about watching heavily-laden foragers performing an inelegant ‘tail-down’ crash-landing several inches short of the entrance, righting themselves, and marching purposefully forwards into the gloom of the hive.

During a heavy nectar flow this happens dozens of times a minute, with a strong colony making about 35,000 foraging trips per day. It’s great to rest your elbows on the hive roof, peer over the top and watch hundreds of foragers bringing the nectar back, 40 milligrams at a time.

Integral landing boards and DIY

Mine's bigger than yours

Mine’s bigger than yours

Landing boards must be popular with other beekeepers as well as they regularly feature in commercially available hives. The Abelo implementation is relatively neat, projecting perhaps 5cm from the front face of the hive.

Other variants are rather more in-your-face. The version in the image on the right is on an early variant of a Maisemore’s poly National hive (I think – please correct me if I’m wrong – Matt Harris helpfully corrected me here … they’re Paynes hives). Frankly, I think it looks pretty ghastly, but at least returning foragers could crash-land some distance away and still walk the last few hundred yards unimpeded 😉

If your hives are cedar you can easily add a flat or sloping landing board to the front of the floor. If you’re going to do this use reasonable quality wood – the exposed edge of a strip of plywood tends to delaminate pretty quickly. Alternatively, build something cheap, functional and easily replaceable from Correx.

Thorne's budget hive ...

Thorne’s budget hive …

The bee shed houses up to 6 colonies, each with a simple short ‘tunnel’ ending in a 1-2″ aperture in the vertical shed wall. I’ve built simple Correx landing boards on these and they’ve performed extremely well over the last two years. Each piece of folded Correx is a distinctive colour to aid the bees returning to the correct hive.

Landing boards ...

Landing boards …

If you take advantage of abandoned ‘For Sale’ signs you can get Correx in a wide range of contrasting colours which saves having to spray paint them before use.

Take a stand

Landing boards don’t need to be attached to the hive front or floor. Some of our early research colonies were housed in lovely cedar hives built by Pete Little of Exmoor Bees & Hives. He provided stands with integral sloping landing (‘alighting’) boards. These are great, though they extend the need for compatibility from the hive itself to the stand as well.

Stand and integral landing board

Stand and integral landing board …

Nice, but not needed

Despite the pleasure to be gained from watching bees return to the hive entrance, landing boards aren’t really necessary and they can get in the way.

Feral colonies generally don’t have the benefit (or need) of a nicely sloping landing board. They cope admirably with a simple unadorned hole through the soffit, with nothing more than the painted boards to cling to … upside down. Crevices or holes in trees, or the church tower, probably have ‘grippy’ surfaces that aid arrival, but there’s no evidence they’re selected on any criteria other than the volume and overall location of the potential new ‘home’.

I used to build my preferred floor – the kewl floor with a mouse-proof and wasp-resistant ‘L’ shaped underfloor entrance – with a shallow integral Correx or plywood landing boards.

Original design

However, over time these all got damaged in transit, or I got sick of bees wandering underneath the floor if they landed on the stand, not the landing board. I’ve recently described a modified entrance to these kewl floors, again made from Correx, that is a marked improvement.

Correx landing board ...

Correx landing board …

There’s a very short video on the page describing these modified entrances showing bees landing and entering the hive perfectly well.

Damaged in transit … or in a pile (up)

The main problem with any sort of protruding landing board is that, by definition, it protrudes.

It therefore gets in the way.

It makes strapping hives up during transport more difficult and means the hives don’t stack together quite as neatly. I only move small number of colonies about, so it’s the inconvenience, not the space, that is the issue.

Abelo hives in transit ...

Abelo hives in transit …

Similarly, during the winter or after uniting colonies in the season, spare floors and other pieces of kit need to be neatly stacked out of the way. Protruding landing boards prevents them being placed on the top of the stack (because the roof fouls the landing board) and – in certain orientations – stops stacks being pushed close together.

Stacked boxes

Stacked boxes …

As an aside, you probably don’t want these floors at the bottom of the stack. Firstly, you’ll inevitably need one when putting together a new hive and it’s easiest not to have to remove the entire stack to access the floor. Secondly, unless blocked off with a sheet of polythene or Correx, they’ll allow wasps and bees access to the stack … or even encourage a swarm to move in.

So … over the years landing boards on my hives have evolved or, more accurately, atrophied. They’re now only present on the outside of the bee shed, on purchased poly hives and, in a rather truncated version, at the cavernous mouth of the Thorne’s Everynucs that I favour.

No landing boards here ...

No landing boards here …

Foundationless frames update

A few weeks ago I described foundationless frames built with vertical bamboo supports. In a related post on starter strips I explained that I was going to compare homemade (dipped) wax strips with simple wooden strips or laths, the latter made from tongue depressors.

Here’s an update on the progress the bees have made with these frames so far.


This trial wasn’t properly scientific, it was poorly controlled, it was conducted over several weeks in two apiaries with bees from a variety of sources. As a scientific study it was deeply, deeply flawed. I know a bit about these things. You have been warned. Caveat emptor.

Starter strips – KISS is better

Essentially I could see no difference in the acceptance rate (effectively the rate at which bees started comb) between the three types of starter strips tested. These were homemade wax strips or wood (tongue depressors) strips glued to the top bar with adhesive and either left bare or coated with molten wax.

Some of the frames I’ve been using even had one of each of these types of starter strips in each of the three ‘panels’ (see below) on the frames.

Take your pick ...

Take your pick …

Frames like these were used in hives with packages or shook swarms and were readily accepted by the bees and rapidly drawn out (either with a good flow of nectar from the OSR, or 1:1 syrup made up from leftover fondant). By the time I went to check all three ‘segments’ were started in the hives. I didn’t monitor which was the first to be used … I’d have needed to be inspecting hourly and I have a life (and job and family).

As far as I could tell there appeared to be no preference to the type of starter strip used.

Just starting out ...

Just starting out …

Of the 20-30 frames like this used so far this season, all have remained attached during inspections, whether started on wood or wax. I’m reasonably careful handling frames, but I reckon these could cope with all but the most cack-handed beekeeper. Colonies in the bee shed have been exposed to temperatures in the mid-high 30’s (°C for overseas readers) with no adverse effects, other than the expected softening of comb at high temperatures.

Conclusion – since the outcome was indistinguishable there seems no reason not to use simple unwaxed wooden strips as starter strips in foundationless frames. The KISS principle applies here.

There are two or three additional benefits from the observation that simple wooden laths are perfectly acceptable as starter strips; 1) there’s no need to go through the interminable and messy process of making your own wax starter strips, 2) there are no foundation costs involved, 3) the frames can be recycled through a steam wax extractor without damaging them.

Bamboo … zled

Foundationless frames built with vertical 4mm bamboo skewers are easy and inexpensive to construct. I’ve used about 50 of these already this season with almost no problems. The bees usually avoid the vertical skewers until the comb is nearly completely built. Often this is well after the queen has started laying in the upper section of the frame or the bees start to store honey in the upper cells.

Foundationless triptych ...

Foundationless triptych …

It’s not until the frames are well occupied with brood or nectar that the vertical gaps on either side of the bamboo skewers are usually filled in§. Until then the comb is only attached at the underside of the top bar. This is a potential weakness … until the comb is completed there is little lateral support or stability.

Handling the frames, particularly in hot weather, requires some care. I found myself going through the same frame handling methods I was taught several years ago – turn through 90°, rotate around the top bar, turn back through 90° etc. to inspect the other side of the (now inverted) frame.

Re-reading that it still doesn’t sound quite correct, but anyone who has attended a winter training course for new beekeepers will be familiar with what I’m talking about.

Nearly completed ...

Nearly completed …

Once the gaps are filled the comb is pretty robust and can be (mis)handled with the usual amount of care used for comb built on wired foundation. In addition, you can smile smugly to yourself as the woodwork was probably built from second quality frame partsΔ, there were no foundation costs involved and the wax is clean and untainted by residues.

Worker, drone, worker … worker, worker, drone

One of the striking features of hives containing a significant amount of foundationless frames is that the bees draw significantly more drone comb than is usually found. On standard foundation the bees squeeze drone comb into the corners of the frames, often making the comb uneven and misshapen. On foundationless frames they draw lots more, but the comb is generally not as misshapen.

If you use horizontally wired foundationless frames there will be large swathes of the comb dedicated to rearing drones. This may be intermixed with worker comb.

In contrast, frames built with vertical bamboo skewers tend to be drawn in thirds … with each third being ‘dedicated’ to either (or largely) worker or drone brood.

In the ‘Foundationless triptych …’ image above the left and central panel are largely worker comb, with the right being drone. In the image below the left and right panels start as worker but soon transition to all drone comb, the central panel is worker.


Drone-worker-drone …

I see this as a very significant advantage of this type of foundationless frame. Since the demarcation between drone and worker brood is pretty clear and since there are no wires to be cut, it will be a simple task to excise the unwanted segment (whether drone or worker) as required. We do this type of manipulation all the time when harvesting brood from our research colonies and the bees rapidly rebuild the damage if there is a nectar flow. It does not seem to result in weirdly shaped brace comb appearing throughout the hive.

Conclusion – bamboo skewers make good supports for foundationless brood frames. Before being completely drawn the frames need to be treated a little more gently than those with horizontal (wire or monofilament) supports which are more rapidly incorporated into comb. In my view the robustness and ease of construction using bamboo skewers outweighs this transitory lack of support.

Beautifully simple and simply beautiful

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. Freshly drawn foundationless comb is really lovely stuff …

Beautiful newly drawn comb ...

Beautiful newly drawn comb …

† The KISS principle (keep it simple, stupid) dates back to the early 1960’s. It was originally a naval design term and was an expression meaning that most systems work better if they are kept simple rather than being made more complicated. Simplicity was therefore the design goal and unnecessary complexity was to be avoided.

‡ As a comparison, 1000 tongue depressors cost about £17 delivered. This is sufficient for well over 300 frames that are usable in perpetuity, or at least as long as the joints remain intact. In parallel to frames made with homemade foundation I have also used another 20-30 with commercial foundation. These worked as well, or badly, as any of the other starter strips used.

Foundationless frame ...

Foundationless frame …

§ It’s interesting (to me at least) that vertical 4mm supports are avoided whereas horizontal 1mm monofilament is readily incorporated – for example, compare the image on the right with those above. Is it the thickness or the orientation that makes them acceptable? How would the bees cope with very thin vertical supports? Alternatively, would they readily build comb ‘down’ through 4mm horizontal bamboo skewers? The latter is tricky to test as the longest skewers I’ve been able to find (35cm) are too short for a National frame. However, the ability to more willingly incorporate a thinner vertical supports can easily be tested and will be something I may well investigate next season. I suspect it’s the thickness of the ‘barrier’ rather than the orientation that’s important. Very thin wooden skewers would be flimsy (even if they were available), but there are a variety of other materials that could be tested.

Δ In my experience, other than a few poorly placed knots, second-quality frames are perfectly acceptable for building foundationless frames. One of their few failings, at least from some purchased from Thorne’s, is that the foundation channels in the side bars are sometimes off centre. Obviously, this is of no relevance when preparing foundationless frames.


The 25p crownboard

Considering their primary function is so simple, that of separating the bees from the roof, crownboards can vary from cheap and cheerful to complex and multifunctional. At one end of the spectrum is a simple sheet of thick plastic, at the other are the multiply-perforated offerings that Abelo supply with their poly hives.

Abelo poly National crownboard ...

Abelo poly National crownboard …

Cheaper than chips

Thick, clear polythene sheeting can be purchased from eBay by the metre. 1000 gauge sheet (250 microns) is probably about right. Unsurprisingly, the more you buy the cheaper per square metre it gets, and you’ll find lots of uses for it other than crownboards. Some of it is sold as damp proof membrane, or DPM. A 4m x 6m sheet costs less than £1 a square metre from which you’ll get four 50cm x 50c m ‘crownboards’. The clear poly sheeting is actually somewhat opaque, but is still preferable to the dark DPM which is so effective at deterring woodpeckers.

And if you really can’t stretch to 25p then a fertiliser or compost sack, suitably washed, can substitute.

Polythene crownboard

Polythene crownboard …

Cheapskate 😉

I use these polythene crownboards on most of my bait hives, on Kieler mini-nucs for queen mating and on any hives when I exhaust other options. They work well. You can see well enough through them to see the strength of the colony, they are easy to peel back as wax and propolis doesn’t stick much to them and – once they get too manky – you can discard them. Alternatively, freeze them overnight and then simply ‘crack’ off the propolis and wax before reuse.

Blowin’ in the wind

These lightweight crownboards tend to disappear over the apiary fence if there’s much of a breeze. Tuck them under the edge of the removed and upturned roof during inspections, or under the bee bag if you’re using lightweight Correx roofs that also have a tendency to blow away.

My advice is not to cut them too much oversize. The poly is quite thick and tends to bunch up at the corners when the roof is on. This results in it sometimes lifting when the roof is lifted. On polyhives I pin it in place with a drawing pin at the corners.

One of the benefits of being so light weight is that the poly sheet doesn’t crush bees when laid across the top of the hive. They can usually wriggle back down between the top bars of the frames reasonably easily even once the roof is on.

Jack of all trades

These poly sheets have lots of other uses. Over the last few months I’ve used them:

  • underneath supers when transporting them in the car to the apiary (I’d already run out of Correx roofs which are better still)
  • below stacked supers to stop acetic acid staining the underlying flagstones (see below) when treating stored supers for wax moth and Nosema.
  • in stacks of supers and broods to prevent wasps – or for that matter scout bees – getting access … as the season progresses and more splits and new hives need establishing the stacked ‘spares’ tend to get a bit exposed as standard roofs, crownboards and split boards are used up.
  • with a big hole cut through the middle under a 12.5kg block of fondant added in the autumn. This stops the fondant sticking to the tops of all the frames.
Acetic acid

Acetic acid

And I’m sure there are a lot more I’ve either forgotten already or yet to discover …

Manky means 1) inferior or worthless, or 2) dirty and unpleasant. Clearly, in the context I’ve used it, the second meaning that applies. However, when I used Google to look up the meaning it returned a strikingly topical definition:


Manky …

 On cedar boxes you can pin it to outer sidewall of the brood box or super, folding it over the top of the box. On windy days it tends to flap about so this isn’t always an ideal solution, but at least it doesn’t blow away.

Split boards

Since moving to Scotland my DIY activities have been restricted – by lack of time, by lack of space and by lack of any major shortages in the equipment I use. However, a couple of spare sheets of Correx became available after some non-bee projects and I decided to use them to knock up a few split boards for swarm control and requeening this season.

As an aside … I love Correx. It makes great roofs, temporary floors and landing boards.

Split boards are simple square boards with beespace both sides and – usually – a single entrance. With an entrance door (rather than a simple gap) closed they can double up as crownboards or can be used to stack supers late in the season.

They can also be built with mesh panels to allow the warmth and smell of the lower colony to spread through the hive. However, in this instance these were to be about as simple as possible so I omitted the mesh.

Opposing entrances

For additional flexibility you can provide two opposing entrances with doors. With these the split board is starting to look dangerously like a cut down Snelgrove board. The vertical split method I use involves turning the hive 180° on the seventh day. With opposing entrances on the split board (and a corresponding double-entrance floor) it’s possible to avoid any heavy lifting – simply close the front door and open the rear door on the split board and vice versa on the floor.

Split board ...

Split board …

Assembly instructions

Really? How simple could it be?

I don’t have a table saw (or space to hide store it) so asked the nice people at Haldane’s in Glenrothes to generate some 20mm x 9mm strip wood. They did this from oak (!) offcuts for about a tenth the price one of the DIY chain stores would charge for equivalent softwood. The latter would have been preferable, not least because I got some wicked splinters from the oak, but it was what they had to hand and would have otherwise gone to the wood burner.

The Correx I had was 4mm thick. I’d have preferred 6mm, but as this was ‘spare’ from another project, I had to make do. I was originally going to use two sheets arranged at 90° to each other to provide rigidity. However, the first single-sheet prototype I built was plenty rigid enough so I stuck with that design.

Corner detail ...

Corner detail …

I cut the oak strips to 44cm in length, arranged them around the periphery of the 46 x 46cm Correx sheet and nailed all but two – on opposing sides of the top face – in place. ‘Overlap’ the corners (see image right) to provide additional strength. It’s worth noting here that my nail gun was only just strong enough to penetrate ~20mm of oak. The few nails that protruded were driven home with a hammer, brute force and a lot of ignorance. With care, frame nails (gimp pins) can easily be used instead.


In preparing the wood for the last two sides I made two slanting cuts to create the ‘doors’, nailed everything down and added a simple hinge from a gimp pin. It’s worth noting that it’s much easier to place the door ‘hinge’ (pivot?) centrally, rather than at one end of the door. Firstly, there’s less chance the end of the door will foul the adjacent wood. Secondly, to open the door you just need to push one end inwards with the hive tool; there’s no need to add a handle (a screw or nail that protrudes) to open the door outwards. This means there’s nothing to protrude and catch on clothing, on adjacent stacked boxes or on the lower lip of the roof when you’re using it as a crownboard. Finally, the bees won’t care.

Doors closed ...

Doors closed …

I gave the wood a couple of coats of (ironically) One Coat Ronseal Fence Life which should protect it from the elements.

Cheapy, cheapy

The Correx was about a tenner a sheet – delivered 5+ sheets at a time – from which I could cut sufficient for 10 split boards, with useful offcuts to build nuc crownboards or landing boards from. The hardwood strip wood was about £2 per board. Therefore, aside from a few nails, the finished boards cost about £3 each. This compares very favourably with the £28-36 charged by most suppliers for a Snelgrove board. Of course, I appreciate that the latter are more complicated and offer additional confusion functionality, but these are perfectly serviceable for a vertical split and there’s a lot of pleasure to be gained by using something you’ve bodged lovingly crafted yourself 😉

By the time this appears these boards might even be in use …

There’s a good explanation of split board construction in a post by Calluna4u on the SBAi discussion forum (“the thinking beekeepers web forum”). Calluna4u has a wealth of experience as a commercial beekeeper and prepares these boards in industrial quantities. His design differs slightly as it’s for use with hives arranged four to a palette. His post contains links to suppliers for 6mm pre-cut Correx in Dundee which might be useful to Scottish-based beekeepers.

Honey warming cabinet element

Ecostat 100 kit

Ecostat 100 kit

I recently spent an enjoyable evening giving a talk to the Edinburgh and Midlothian Beekeepers Association. In questions after the talk I was asked where to buy the Ecostat heating element used in my honey warming cabinet. It’s not always listed on the website of the suggested supplier, Patrick Pinker (but is as I write this).

These incubator elements are usually purchased be people rearing chickens or gamebirds. An alternative supplier listing Ecostat kits in 50 and 100 eggs sizes is Strangford Incubators in Northern Ireland. You will almost certainly need the 100 egg size to generate enough heat to melt OSR honey properly.

Shop around before you purchase as there can be quite a variation in prices … £64 vs £93 (including P&P) for the two suppliers listed here  😯

Starter strips

You should expect to replace about one third of the brood frames per season to help offset the build-up of pathogens in drawn comb. The general advice is to “rotate these frames out” of the colony … meaning gradually move them to the outside of the broodnest and then remove them. Obviously you need to replace them and so need new frames every year. Alternatively you could change the frames en masse by doing a Bailey comb change or a shook swarm … again meaning you need more new frames every year. The National Bee Unit have published a document on Replacing Old Brood Comb (PDF). Remember that old, manky, black combs can be used in bait hives.

Scaling up and shelling out

If you only have one or two colonies it’s easy and inexpensive enough to assemble these frames as and when they’re needed. With significantly more colonies it makes sense to build them in winter ready for the season ahead. This is what I do. With the colony numbers I have, a few bait hives, some small scale queen rearing and nuc production I need 100-200 new frames a year.

Based on Thorne’s list prices, 10 DN5 frames and foundation will cost £28.80, 40% of which is the cost of the foundation 🙁  You can reduce these costs significantly by buying ‘second quality’ frames in bulk in the annual (or more frequent) sales. You can reduce the outlay even further by using foundationless frames and preparing your own starter strips (the ‘guides’ to help the bees build parallel comb). By my estimates, 100 second-quality DN5’s prepared with your own starter strips should cost abut 72p per frame. That’s more like it!

Dodgy foundation

Another reason to consider foundationless frames is potential problems with purchased foundation. There are reports of contaminants (specifically with stearin and palmitic acid) in some foundation that result in a very spotty brood pattern. These have primarily been in Belgium and the Netherlands. However, there’s an international trade in beeswax and you probably cannot be sure where the stuff you purchased originated. There’s an earlier thread on the BKF that also reports foundation problems in the UK.

I’ve always bought premium (though not organic) foundation from Thorne’sKBS or Maisemore’s and haven’t had any problems. Nevertheless, using foundationless frames means your drawn comb will be as contamination-free as the environment allows.

Freshly drawn comb

Freshly drawn comb …

Waxing lyrical

I’ve recently posted a description of how to make foundationless frames using bamboo BBQ skewers to provide lateral structural rigidity. The gaps between the skewers is ~11cm. This was an ideal opportunity to prepare my own starter strips as I wouldn’t need a huge vat of molten wax to make an aesthetically-pleasing full frame-length strip.

You can extract wax from cappings, from brace comb built by the bees and by recycling old frames (though you get less and less wax back as frames are used for repeated brood cycles). I use a homemade (i.e. bodged) steam wax extractor to do this. It’s a smelly and slightly sticky job that’s best done in the winter to avoid the attention of the bees (and neighbours). The wax needs to be filtered to remove the lumpy bits but certainly doesn’t need the preparation required to produce exhibition-quality candles. I’ve previously described how I process and clean recovered wax.

A simple Google search will uncover lots of videos and websites covering the production of starter strips from recovered wax. Many of these are aimed at the top bar hive community, but the process is essentially the same. I’m not going to provide a detailed account here (for reasons I’ll come to in a minute). The principle is straightforward … melt some wax in a container deep enough to make the length of starter strip you need, dip a wooden lath in several times, coating it liberally with melted wax, use a knife to separate the wax from the wooden strip … and repeat … and repeat … and repeat … ad infinitum.

Wax starter strips

Wax starter strips …

Don’t try this at home

What many of these sites don’t tell you is the following:

  • the wooden lath – a simple thin wooden strip of a suitable size onto which the wax is deposited – must be soaked in water before first dipping into the wax. It’s also helpful to dip it briefly in water between starter strips as well.
  • the wax must not be too hot. If it is, all you’ll do on the repeated dipping of the wooden lath is melt off the last layer of wax. I found that the wax needs to be at about 75°C.
  • it’s a pretty messy business. Cover everything with newspaper before you start. You generate a lot of wax scraps – from the edges of the wooden lath for example. These need to be fed back into your wax melter but a good proportion remains stuck to the knife and your fingers.
  • it’s beyond tedious. If you’re making significant numbers the repetition can get pretty boring. I made a hundred or so and was pleased to stop. Make sure you have a good radio programme to listen to …
  • the wax strips you make are quite brittle. The typical flexibility you get with sheets of foundation requires rolling the thin wax strips under pressure. Be warned, some of them may crack during subsequent handling.

Frankly, I’m not convinced it was worth doing and it’s unlikely I’ll be doing it again. I’m much more likely to trade in pre-cleaned blocks of wax for premium quality unwired thin foundation which can easily be cut into starter strips. You have been warned.

Cooling starter strips

Cooling starter strips …

Fixing wax starter strips in place

Whether you make your own or slice and dice a few sheets of embossed foundation you still need to fix these starter strips into the frame top bar. I’ve previously used standard gimp pins, holding the strip of foundation down with the wedge nailed back in position. However, experience shows that these long strips often flex and fall out over time if not quickly used by the bees. This is most obvious in bait hives where – if not occupied by a swarm – you’ll often find the foundation strip has worked loose and is now hanging down.

Homemade starter strips may be too brittle to nail in place and are likely to be thinner than embossed foundation strips, so fit less well anyway. Instead, the easiest way to fix any of these wax strips is to place them into the slot in the frame and ‘paint’ a little molten wax down either side of them. This makes a secure joint with the wood.

Wax starter strips ...

Wax starter strips …

Lots of lolly

Tongue depressor strips

Tongue depressor strips

Of course, it’s widely reported that bees don’t need a wax starter strip at all and/or that bees can engineer a much more secure connection between wax and the top bar. So, why bother doing this bit for them? Michael Bush has some excellent information on foundationless frames and is a strong supporter of an unwaxed bevelled top bar or a simple wood strip. The former is more than I could be bothered to produce, but a simple wooden strip is straightforward. Michael Bush suggests that the starter strip needs to protrude about a ¼ of an inch. Tongue depressors (don’t ask) are ideal for this and you can buy them in bulk from eBay if needed. I used a pair of tinsnips to cut them to length and fixed them in place with a few dabs of woodworking adhesive.

Wooden starter strips

Wooden starter strips …

Due to the ‘vertical’ bamboo skewers in these frames this is more fiddly than simply fixing a strip of foundation in place. However, if they are as robust as I expect, this is a job that will only need doing once. After use, if the comb is manky and black, it should be a simple matter to melt it out in the steam extractor and reuse the frames.

Experimental evidence

One of the pleasures of off-season dabbling is that you can invest a little time in planning for the year ahead and trying a range of new things to see what works best.

I’m already convinced of the benefits of foundationless frames. For reasons explained previously I’ve prepared some foundationless frames with vertical bamboo skewers this year, rather than horizontally ‘wired’ monofilament. As explained here, I’ve also prepared frames with different types of starter strips.

All of this takes extra work. However, I can justify it in terms of further money-saving, better performance or simply because of the rewarding feeling you get doing something yourself (in order of increasing importance to me).

Nevertheless, if I’m doing extra work, I want to gain the maximum benefit from the time invested. For example, I want to know which type of starter strip works best for me and my bees. I’ve therefore prepared a dozen mixed starter strip frames. One third bare wood, one third wax-coated wood and one third wax starter strips. During the season I’ll pop a few of these into expanding colonies and see which they prefer.

Take your pick ...

Take your pick …

Bevelled … at a cost

Bevelled top bar

Bevelled top bar

Michael Bush likes simple bevelled top bars. Foundationless frames with a bevelled (‘V’-shaped) top bar are sold by Thorne’s. These have no additional monofilament, wire or bamboo supports. I’m not sure how long these have been available and haven’t heard any reports of beekeepers using them. They’re not inexpensive … £19.44 flat or £34 assembled for 10. Newly drawn, unsupported brood comb, particularly when it’s not fully attached to the side bars, is both a thing of beauty and rather delicate. Particularly on a hot day. These frames would certainly need careful handling. I’d be concerned that these might appeal to a relatively recent beekeeper who is attracted by the thought of a top bar hive. An experienced beekeeper would appreciate the fragility of unsupported new comb (and would likely make their own frames anyway). In contrast, a beginner might find themselves with a bootfull of irritated bees.

 But also see the recent comments from Calum on the prices of ready made frames … something around €1 if bought in sufficient numbers.

 Thin, unwired, premium-quality foundation from Thorne’s is just over £8 for 10 sheets at the time of writing. That’s enough for about 100 frames using a ~20mm starter strip.




I have been using increasing numbers of foundationless frames for the last couple of years. Rather than using a full sheet of embossed, wired foundation I let the bees draw the comb they need. I simply provide them with a frame containing some built-in support to provide lateral stability, together with a small strip (~1cm) of foundation to give them a clue where to start. They work very well. The newly drawn comb is beautiful and the bees draw drone and worker cells as needed. It can also save quite a bit of money.

Mono, wire … wood?

Harvesting brood

Harvesting brood

It is possible to use foundationless frames without any additional comb support. However, before it’s completely drawn and securely attached to the side bars it can be a little delicate. I therefore always provide some cross-bracing that can be incorporated into the newly drawn comb to give lateral support.

For the supports I’ve previously been using monofilament fishing line with a breaking strain of 30-50lb threaded through three pairs of holes drilled through the side bars. Although monofilament is inexpensive and easy to obtain, it’s a bit awkward and slow to ‘wire’ the frames and it doesn’t resist the heat of the steam wax extractor. Bees can also sometime nibble through the 30lb stuff whereas the 50lb – although thick enough to withstand the bee nibbling – is less easy to work with. Furthermore, for my day job we regularly harvest 2-3″ square sections of larvae- or pupae-containing brood comb (see the image above). We do this with a sharp serrated knife. This often severs the monofilament and can leave the frame poorly supported. For these reasons I wanted to prepare foundationless frames with more robust supports for the season(s) ahead.

One option would be to use stainless steel wire. This would certainly be heat resistant. It’s widely available and relatively inexpensive. However, to get sufficient tension it might necessitate fixing eyelets to the side bars to stop the wire cutting into them. Whilst I was considering this there was a post on the SBAi forum suggesting the use of bamboo BBQ skewers. This may well have been suggested elsewhere – there are few original ideas in beekeeping – but it was a new idea to me.


BBQ skewers are available from an eBay in just about any length and amount you could want. One thousand 25cm skewers (the size needed for a standard National brood frame) cost less than a tenner delivered. You can buy 50 or 100 at a time to see if this method works for you (at a higher price per skewer, inevitably).

Predrilled top bars

Predrilled top bars

When preparing the frames I remove the ‘wedge’ and drill two equally-spaced holes through the middle of the top bar. Use a drill bit thinner than the bamboo skewer; I used one of 2.5mm. Assemble the entire frame including both bottom bars. If you’ve not experienced the epiphany of using a nail gun before I recommend borrowing one and discovering how easy it makes putting frames together. Put a small dab of woodworking adhesive (on the inside with regard to the frame) in each of the two holes in the top bar, slip the pointed end of the skewer through the gap in the bottom bars and push it firmly into the glued hole.

Straight and square

If there’s any curve to the bamboo skewer make sure its along the plane of the frame, not bowing out to one side or the other, by rotating the skewer in the hole. Or use a different skewer … they cost less than a penny each. Make sure the skewers are approximately square to the top bar and add another dab of glue either side of where they protrudes through the bottom bars.

Allow the glue to set and then cut off the unwanted pieces of bamboo. I used a Stanley knife for the top bar to get it nice and flush (so I could easily scrape it with a frame tool) and a pair of side cutting pliers for the bottom of the frame.

BBQ skewers

BBQ skewers …

The resulting frame is then ready for the foundation. I’ll cover this in a separate post as I’ve been making my own starter strips.

Bamboo foundationless frames

Bamboo foundationless frames

As an aside, the frame in the photograph titled ‘Harvesting brood’ is foundationless. It’s a perfect example of why lateral support is required to make these frames robust enough to handle easily. The bees have drawn the frame out completely but have only secured it to the side bars in a few spots. The comb isn’t attached to the bottom bars at all.

 A quick interwebs search turned up a post by Matt Davey on Beesource that lead me to his brief description of using bamboo skewers for foundationless frames. In addition, Kitta – the original poster on the SBAi forum – also kindly directed me to the Heretics Guide to Beekeeping, which is also worth a look. As I said before, if something is a good idea in beekeeping (or a bad idea), someone will have had it before 😉


Entrances and exits

Over the course of the first full season using the bee shed the access to the hives – for the bees, not the beekeeper – has been simplified and improved. The current versions appear to work well and provide the necessary security and ease of use – for the beekeeper, not the bees  😉

General principles

The bee shed houses nucs and full colonies. The space available allows a maximum of two nucs and four full colonies arranged down one side of the shed. There’s additional space for 3-4 more nucs on the opposite side of the shed that is not currently used. In retrospect I should have purchased a shed twice as long (24′ not 12′) for flexibility, storage and to have more space to work in.

Sometimes the full colonies need to be replaced by nucs so the entrances have to be compatible. In all cases the bees access the colony, or leave the shed depending upon the direction they’re travelling, from an unmodified hive through a hole in the wall. Therefore there needs to be a bee-tight interface between the wall of the shed and the front of the hive (or nuc). Without this there’s a chance the shed will fill with disorientated bees.

What I’ve learned this season is that compatibility and flexibility are at least as important as security. It’s possible to build reasonably effective and secure interfaces without having everything tightly interlocking, screwed down or immovable. A combination of the weight of the hive, coupled with careful inspections, are sufficient to keep the colony in place.

In an ideal world …

Clearers on ...

Clearers on …

… the simplest way to provide access would be to push the face of the hive flush against the shed wall through which a hole had been cut at the right height from the ground. This would work perfectly, be bee tight, not require any hive modifications and be fully interchangeable. However, as the season progresses supers are added and these would also have to be placed flush with the shed wall. The first problem is that, without serious modification, the shed windows get in the way (see the image on the right). They almost always have an inner sill of some sort. The second problem is that having the hive tight against the wall reduces the space for frame or hive tool manipulation and makes returning supers more difficult. Finally, pushing the brood box and supers flush against the wall would prevent the use of a hive roof.

Of course, since the colonies are in a shed the roof is not required for weatherproofing … but it’s essential to provide a safe place to stand the smoker as it cools down. All other surfaces are wood or Correx and I don’t want to burn the shed down.

Everynuc entrance

Open wide …

The required interchangeability with nucleus colonies raises two additional issues. Firstly the poly nucs I use (Everynucs) have an integral 2cm ‘landing board’ in front of the cavernous entrance slot. Pushing them ‘flush’ to the shed wall leaves a big gap. Secondly, the height of this entrance slot is not identical to the hive floors I use. I could build alternative floors or buy other nucs, but instead came up with a solution that saved me doing either (and since I have more invested in nuc boxes than the shed itself this made economic sense as well) and solved the problems with hive manipulations and adding supers.

A pragmatic solution …

Ducting ...

Ducting …

… required that the hives were separated from the shed wall by a short tunnel built from some spare rigid extractor fan ducting. In the original design this was carefully shaped to fit neatly into the entrance slot of the hive, with the remaining front of the hive blanked off and blocked with an equally carefully shaped piece of Correx. This worked well … until the hive needed to be moved, or was inadvertently nudged during hive inspections. A partial solution was to screw the hive floor to the stand with L-shaped brackets. Although this prevented the accidental movement it made deliberate hive exchanges a right pain.

Ducting ...

Ducting …

It turns out that a far simpler solution is to have a simple flush-fitting piece of ducting (angled slightly upwards to prevent water ingress). One end is wedged into the hole in the shed wall, the other is butted up against the face of the hive. The remainder of the hive entrance slot is blocked with a standard entrance reducer screwed in place to the hive floor (not shown fixed in the picture on the right). This works a treat. The hive is heavy enough to not shift about unless deliberately moved. If I need to move it I can just pick it up as I would any other hive (i.e. carefully and with a lot of wincing).

The nucleus solution

Foam entrance block ...

Foam entrance block …

Because of the landing board these are actually easy to push flush to the shed wall, which still leaves just about enough space for frame manipulation and getting the roof on and off. I originally discussed using a small block of foam with a small arch cut into it to allow the bees access to the wider world. It turned out that the bees quickly chewed through some of the original foam blocks I used and, if the block was too small, they were difficult to reposition when moving the nuc boxes.

Correx and foam block

Correx and foam block …

I’ve recently started using an improved entrance consisting of a denser piece of foam strapped to a suitably sized Correx offcut (see picture right). The simple gaffer tape ‘handles’ allow this to be pinned to the hive body for security and make it easy to relocate when moving the nucs. I’ve stopped strapping the nucs to the shed wall to prevent them moving … there’s no need if you’re careful when inspecting them. I do usually have a strap holding the lid on. Largely because if I don’t it’s something else to locate when I want to move the box.

Pinned back ears ...

Pinned back ears …

If I need to replace a full hive with a nuc I can simply remove the ducting and push the nuc flush with the shed wall. Finally, the two dedicated nuc entrances in the shed wall can be blanked off using a piece of Correx placed into a sort of ‘holder’ on the inner wall. This turns out to be unnecessary and I’ve barely used it. If I need to block the shed entrance I simply stuff it with foam. Unsubtle, but highly effective.

Landing and drifting

On the outside of the shed are a series of simple Correx landing boards in different colours to help the bees locate their own colonies. I’ve no evidence that this either reduces the level of drifting between colonies or increases the ease with which heavily-laden foragers return with pollen and nectar.

Landing boards ...

Landing boards …

However, even if the bees don’t find them useful, I like them.

Even kewler floors

So-called kewl floors have underfloor entrances that are pretty-much rodent proof (so you don’t need mouseguards in winter) and are easy to seal when needed for transporting hives or administering vaporised oxalic acid. They are very easy and inexpensive to build. The last batch I built were all fitted with a Correx landing board that protruded a centimetre or so. It turned out that the ‘design’ (a rather grand word for the bodged solution I came up with at the time) was not ideal so I’m gradually replacing them with a modified version that corrects the worst of the faults of the original.

New Correx landing board ...

New Correx landing board …

The problem

  1. The protruding landing board inevitably got a bit bashed about when transporting colonies
  2. The gap underneath the landing board disorientated bees who climbed up the hive stand or otherwise undershot. This was particularly noticeable when reversing colonies during vertical splits. I’d previously fitted a plastic ‘skirt’ to some hives to fix this (see pic below).
  3. The ‘edge’ of the Correx provided a narrow and slippery target for heavily-laded foragers returning to the colony. Many lost their grip and fell off into the grass before having a second or third attempt at entering the hive.

The solution

An L-shaped piece of Correx (of course), though this time not protruding, with a rough textured integral ‘skirt’ to block the gap below the hive entrance works well. To make an acute bend in Correx you need to make two parallel cuts through one skin and remove the intervening ‘rib’. This takes longer to write than to do. After stapling the Correx in place I spray paint it and sprinkle sand onto the wet paint. You can use different colours to help orientate bees and minimise drifting. Alternatively, use multi-coloured ‘repurposed’ estate agent signs and a clear spray varnish of some type.

Other improvements?

The final change I’d intended to make to these floors was to add a second entrance on the opposing side. Some hive manipulations involve turning the colony 180° on the stand – these include vertical splits and using a Cloake board for queen rearing. Rather than manhandling the entire colony it would be much easier to seal off the front of the hive and open a hinged entrance at the rear (much like opening and closing the gates on a Snelgrove board). Unfortunately, this batch of floors were over-engineered, with the upper upper rim glued and screwed in place, so this modification will have to be introduced when (or if) I next build floors.

New landing board in action …

The original landing board was held in place with gimp pins. Inevitably these had rusted which made removing them a bit of a pain. When replacing them I used stainless steel staples (like these from Arrow) with the hope that this will make future removal of the landing board easier.