Category Archives: Frames

Being Certan

It’s November and the end of the ‘bee season’ is well and truly here. Inspections finished some time ago (or should have) and the winter Varroa treatments are completed (or should be).

My precious …

Preparation for the coming season should now be the priority. One of the first things that needs to be done is protecting any valuable drawn comb not covered with bees.

Drawn comb is a really precious resource and is well worth looking after carefully. All beekeepers are likely to have super frames of drawn comb after honey extraction. Some will additionally have drawn brood frames. Finally, beekeepers who do a lot of queen rearing may have drawn frames of drone comb. All can be re-used, in the case of super frames many, many times, so saving the bees the effort (and the nectar used) to draw fresh comb.

Super frames

I allow the bees to clean out super frames from which the honey has been extracted. I place them back on the hive in the evening and the bees clean out the traces of honey. After clearing them again I stack them outdoors carefully on a plastic or Correx ‘floor’ and a wasp-proof roof. Sometimes – though not every year due to forgetfulness – I treat them with acetic acid to kill Nosema spores. I’ll discuss this in a future post as I’ll be doing it this season. If I remember.

I’ve got super frames dating back to my first year of beekeeping that are still perfectly usable. Any with odd-shaped comb just get sliced back square to the sidebars with a breadknife.

Any which has had brood reared in it (for example, when the queen sneaks above the excluder, or I’ve run a colony as ‘brood and half’, both increasingly rare events) goes into the steam wax extractor.

Brood frames

Spare brood frames are a great thing to have at hand when making up nucleus colonies, during queen rearing or at a variety of other times. They deserve to be protected and stored properly.

Unless, of course, they’ve had more than about three years of use, in which case they are also usually rendered down in the steam wax extractor. Even these old ones sometimes get a reprieve. I give them one more season as the single frame of old brood comb in my bait hives. These manky old frames should also be treated with acetic acid to kill Nosema spores and protected and stored carefully.

Galleria mellonella and Achroia grisella

Lesser wax moth (12mm)

Lesser wax moth (12mm)

These are respectively the greater and lesser wax moth. They infest stored comb and favour brood comb with old cocoons, traces of pollen and larval faeces. If unchecked they can destroy your valuable comb, converting the lovely wax to a mass of silk-lined tunnels and dust. They much prefer brood comb to super comb and seem to avoid supers stored ‘wet’ i.e. extracted but not subsequently cleaned by the bees.

It’s difficult, but not impossible, to provide moth-proof storage for your comb. They can sneak through a surprisingly narrow gap in the joint of a brood box.

In early copies of Hooper’s Guide to Bees and Honey it was recommended to use paradichloro-benzene (or, more correctly, 1,4-dichlorobenzene) to protect your brood frames from the ravages of wax moths. This is the stuff that makes moth balls stink. It’s pretty unpleasant, potentially neurotoxic (for humans) and not something I want anywhere near my ‘honey for human consumption’ bees.

I’ve not got a current copy of Hooper, so don’t know what is recommended now, but there are much better alternatives.

Biological control

Wax moths lay their eggs in stored frames, the eggs hatch and the larvae (caterpillars) burrow through the wax, eating their way through the old cocoons and other rubbish, creating a huge network of silken tunnels which eventually trash the comb. They then pupate and subsequently emerge as moths to fly off and decimate more stored comb. Little blighters!

It’s the ‘eating’ in the paragraph above that makes them susceptible to biological control with Bacillus thuringiensis.

Bacillus what?

B401 Certan

B401 Certan

Bacillus thuringiensis is a bacterium. During its replication it generates spores and a so-called crystal protein that is lethal to the moth larvae in which it is replicating. I’ll return to the spores later … these are a thermally and environmentally stable form of the bacterium, protected by a thick cell wall. 

The crystal protein (or, more correctly, δ-endotoxin) dissolves in the alkaline environment of the insect gut, thereby making it susceptible to digestion by proteases present in the gut. This protease cleavage releases the active form of the toxin which inserts into the cells of the gut, paralysing the cells and finally resulting in the formation of a pore.

This isn’t good for the moth larva. Not good at all. Actually, it’s probably a rather grisly end for the moth but, having seen the damage they can do to stored comb, my sympathy is rather limited.

However, it’s very good news for the beekeeper. It’s particularly good because of the specificity of the toxin (which is often referred to as Bt-toxin). The vast majority of Bt-toxins used for biological control are specific for the larvae of the lepidoptera – the butterflies and moths. These have no activity against bees or other pollinators.

Since the only moth or butterfly larvae that occur in hives, or on stored comb, are the unwanted wax moths, this is an effective and safe way of preventing infestations.

Preventing, not curing. Once infestation is present the damage is largely done.

Biological control is compatible with organic farming methods, if that’s what floats your boat.

Certan

B401 Certan is the most commonly available and regularly used Bt-toxin for beekeepers. You can buy Certan from the majority of beekeeping suppliers. Certan is supplied in bottles containing the spores or protein toxin of Bacillus thuringiensis subspecies aizawai. You make it up in water and spray it onto both faces of the drawn comb you want to protect from wax moths.

Certan costs about £16 a bottle which is sufficient to treat 120 brood frames (~13p/frame). Certan is used at a 1:20 dilution in water i.e. a 5% solution. Full details are available from Vita Bee Health who are distributors for Certan. There’s a nice video on the Vita site which shows how easy it is to administer.

DiPel DF

DiPel DF

DiPel DF

As an alternative to Certan, some beekeepers use DiPel DF. This contains the kurstaki subspecies of Bacillus thuringiensis. Although a different subspecies, the toxin is equally effective and equally specific. DiPel DF is widely available from agricultural suppliers and costs about £55 for 500g. DiPel DF sourced from Italy is routinely listed on eBay at a much lower price.

Because DiPel DF isn’t specifically sold for beekeepers the recommended dilution to be used isn’t published. However, if you grow tomatoes under cover the recommended dose is 100g per 100 litres of water i.e. a 0.1% solution.

I’ve used DiPel DF at a 1% concentration. I mixed the powder thoroughly 1 part in 20 and then used this stock solution 1:5 to make the working-strength solution to be sprayed onto the frames. About 10 ml per side per frame is used, sprayed with a fine nozzle. At this dilution, DiPel DF costs about 2p per frame … a very considerable saving. It may be equally effective at 0.1% – I’ve not tried – in which case it would obviously be even more economical.

DiPel is listed as non-toxic for bees and it’s certainly effective against wax moth.

A pressurised hand sprayer works well to administer DiPel or Certan. You can usually get these sprayers from big supermarkets for a couple of pounds.

Spores store

The beauty of spores is that they’re very stable. This means you can store them for long periods without them ‘going off’. Neither Certan or DiPel DF make absolutely clear what the bottle contains – sometimes they refer to ‘active protein’, sometimes to ‘toxin’ and sometimes to Bacillus thuringiensis. Some even suggest a mix … Valent BioSciences, the manufacturer of DiPel DF claim that it contains an optimized blend of four potent Bt protein toxins and a spore. They should know. The DF suffix means ‘dry flowable’ by the way.

Whatever is actually in the bottle, it’s pretty stable. If you store the powder in a cool, dry, frost-free location it should be OK for several years. The safety data sheet for Certan states that it remains active for at least 5 years if stored unopened at 5°C or less.

Store frames

The Certan or DiPel-treated frames should be stored, dry, in empty brood or nucleus boxes. These are best stacked outside, protected from rain or being blown over, until they’re needed next season.

Which is a long way off, but slowly getting closer …


Hic!

Hic!

† Certan is also a well known and respected Bordeaux wine from the appellation Pomerol. The full name is Château Certan de May de Certan, which is both a bit of a mouthful and internally redundant. The middle ‘de May’ part of the name is derived from the Demay family, the original owners, who were of Scottish origin and lived in France from the Middle Ages.

Make sure you buy the right Certan … whilst the stuff from Thorne’s is not inexpensive, a 2005 Vieux Château Certan will cost about £360  🙁  However, this is a bargain when compared with a similar aged Petrus (which shares the same clay soil on the right bank of the Gironde) at ten times the price.

Oh yes … these prices are per bottle  😯

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.

Disclaimer

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

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.

 

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.

 

 

Bamboo

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.

Skewered

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 😉

 

Building frames

Foundationless frames

Foundationless frames …

There’s something repetitively rewarding about building frames for the season ahead. It’s an activity I now tend to associate with early season rather than midwinter, mainly because I have to build them outdoors and it’s simply too cold or wet most winters (a misplaced hammer blow on a really cold fingertip is excruciatingly painful). Since moving to Scotland I don’t have the luxury of a garage/den and the bee shed has no power supply. I could build them indoors, but the incessant nailing/hammering can get a little wearing for other members of the family (as has been made very clear to me). Secondly, it’s the sort of activity that needs a little preparation – both in terms of collecting together the necessary tools, frame parts, nylon, nails, staples, foundation etc and organising them to be close at hand and in the right order during the building process. Good preparation goes a long way to making for a quick and efficient frame building. Finally, it’s repetitive and rewarding – repetitive because I usually set up to make 50-100 at once and rewarding because I get better at it the more I do in any one session. By the time I’m through the first couple of dozen I’m fairly whizzing along, with relatively few nails going awry or frames ending up askew. It’s actually doubly rewarding as the more I do before the season gets into gear the less last-minute panicky frame building will be needed mid-season.

How many?

Assembled frames ...

Assembled frames …

Last weekend I built ~100 brood frames, approximately a 50:50 split between foundationless frames and those with a full sheet of foundation. This, together with about half that number of ‘leftovers’ from last year and some yet-to-be-built super frames for cut comb, should be enough to get me through the season. Remember that although super frames can generally be reused for years it is recommended that brood frames are replaced at least once every three years, usually by rotating out one third of the frames during the season and replacing with fresh ones. With about a dozen hives that means I can expect to use ~40 frames per year for replacements alone. In addition to those I need some for bait hives – for which I almost exclusively use foundationless frames for reasons I’ve previously discussed – together with sufficient frames for the nucs I expect to raise for sale or overwintering. Finally, almost all swarm control procedures (like vertical splits) will require additional frames. Far better there are sufficient in advance of the season than having to scrabble around at the last minute. Been there, done that 😉

Tools of the trade

Tacwise nail gun

Tacwise nail gun …

For a handful – or hive full – of frames a small hammer and gimp pins will do the trick just fine. It’s a beekeeping right of passage to get reasonably competent at this … and also a component of the BBKA ‘Basic’ certificate. However, significantly more than that and you’d be wise to invest in a nail gun. It turns frame building from a somewhat unpleasant, finger-punishing chore into a semi-automatic, smoothly efficient, digitally-undamaging experience. Honestly … your first 50 frames with a nail gun is one of those Archimedian “Eureka” moments that so rarely happens with beekeeping (though a huge prime swarm descending into your carefully-placed bait hive comes close). I’ve discussed foundationless frames at length before so won’t repeat myself here. However, it’s worth noting that an upholsterers staple gun – for example a Tacwise 140EL – together with a few hundred Arrow 8mm stainless steel staples is the easiest way to protect the softwood side bars from the taught monofilament support ‘wires’. These staples withstand the rigours of the steam wax extractor, allowing the frames to be re-used after extraction, though the monofilament stretches and does need replacing.

One nailed and glued ...

One nailed and glued …

For the last year or two I’ve also glued my frames. More specifically I’ve used a dab of waterproof wood glue before using the nail gun to join the side bars to the top bar and to join one of the bottom bars on. The second bottom bar – the one on the same ‘face’ of the frame as the removable fillet in the top bar – isn’t glued in place but is instead simply nailed on with a couple of gimp pins. That way this bottom bar can simply be pried up when taking the frame apart – having extracted the wax using steam – before adding a fresh sheet of foundation.

Kerchunk

Kerchunk …

I do frames in sets of ten, laying out the top bars all orientated the same way (having removed the fillet and dumped them in a ever-growing pile next to me … don’t misplace these as you’ll need them when adding foundation which might happen much later in the season), add a dab of glue to either end where the side bars are attached. I then push side bars onto each, using a swift tap with the hammer to seat them properly, before placing them down top bar down, again all orientated the same way, adding more glue and one of the bottom bars. Since they’re all oriented the same way round there’s no need to check – after the first – which of the two bottom bars is the correct one to add. Then it’s a simple case of kerchunk, kerchunk, kerchunk, kerchunk, kerchunk, kerchunk with the nail gun, a quick eyeball that everything’s straight and true and onto the next frame. Well under ten minutes for ten frames plus a bit of tea drinking time. The ‘wiring’ of foundationless frames (which should be monofilamenting as that’s what I use but it sounds nonsense and isn’t a real word) takes appreciably longer than putting the frames together.

Foundation

still have to attempt to make my own starter strips for foundationless frames. I know how to and I’ve got the wax … what I don’t have is a deep enough heated container to melt the wax in. Until I get round to resolving this I purchase sheets of unwired brood foundation and cut it into 1-1.5 cm strips which are then inserted into the wired frame in the normal manner (after adding the monofilament as previously described).

Thorne's premium ...

Thorne’s premium …

It’s best not to work with foundation if the weather is too cold as it gets very brittle. This year I used up my old stocks of foundation from Kemble or Maisies, and started using a few packets of Thorne’s premium foundation. Irritatingly the latter was a couple of millimetre over-width, meaning that every sheet had to be cut down. Not the end of the world I accept, but nevertheless irritating. The old Maisies or Kemble stuff fitted perfectly. In the photo below it’s the near-white sheets covered with a wax ‘bloom’ … it’s still perfectly usable but just needs to have a hairdryer run over each side to warm it through to restore it to it’s fragrant best.

New and old ...

New and old …

It’s then just a case of finding a suitable place to store all these prepared frames and having a little more patience for the start of the season.

Frame building

Beautiful ...

Beautiful …

It’s 3-4 weeks until the first full hive inspections (around about when the ornamental Ribes starts flowering) … after that it’s startling how fast the season takes off. I’m never as well prepared as I should be and often run out of frames and have to build them on the day they’re needed. This doesn’t make for relaxing beekeeping and is something I hope to avoid this season.

Brood frame replacement

The recommendation from the National Bee Unit is to replace at least one third of brood comb a year (PDF). Unless brood comb is nearly unused – for example, frames that have only had stores and/or pollen in – I  usually try and replace it more frequently than this. This helps prevent the build-up of pathogens such as Nosema. In addition to fresh floors, many of my colonies will therefore also be getting either a Bailey comb change or will be ‘treated’ to a shook swarm early in the season. This ensures they are on new, fresh, disease-free comb and gives them the best possible start to the year. This means another 11 frames are required for every overwintered colony. Furthermore, because I’m concentrating on making nucs this season I’m going to need even more frames than usual.

Remember to keep a few empty old dark brood frames for your bait hives. Keep the wax moths away by freezing them, using DiPel or wrapping them up securely.

Reusing old frames

Old frames can be reused if sterilised. I use a homemade steam wax extractor to clean them up and then scrape away any remaining old propolis. After 15-30 minutes in boiling steam they should be sterilised. The frames look a bit tatty but are perfectly serviceable. Foundationless frames need re-‘wiring’ (actually fishing monofilament) as it tends to lose tension in the heat.

I’m gradually switching over to predominantly foundationless frames (as they did so well last year) so also needed to prepare more sidebars – if you drill them in pairs and then put staples/nails into each of the pair (to take the tensioned nylon) it speeds the entire process … but nothing like as much as using a nail gun for assembly. I also now use wood glue on the joints, leaving just one bottom bar unglued and held in with gimp pins. This makes disassembly after steaming easier and means the frame can be used with a full sheet of foundation if needed.

Less foundation …

I’ve not got round to making my own foundation starter strips this year. Instead, I’ve bought unwired brood foundation. A single sheet is easily sufficient for 10 frames and could probably be eked out further. At Thorne’s full price for premier quality unwired deep wax, the small strip of foundation in a foundationless frame costs costs about 1p (and much less if your association has a co-operative purchasing scheme, or you trade-in recovered wax). Cost is certainly not a reason to delay brood frame replacement.

Frame building is quite therapeutic when you have a bit of spare time. The large pile of neatly bundled, slightly fragrant pine is gradually reduced as the tottering pile of assembled frames grows. It’s far better to do this on a cold, wet winter day with the radio and copious mugs of tea for company than rushing around in late May when you’ll have much less time.

Only another 120 to go … 🙂

Foundationless frames reviewed

New comb ...

New comb …

One of the big successes of this season has been the use of foundationless frames. These have reduced my use of foundation by over 75%, leading to a significant accumulation of unused packets which were ordered before the season started (as an aside, if stored flat in a cool place foundation should be OK for years, simply needing a quick blast with a hairdryer to remove the pale bloom that appears). Aside from the economic benefits, I’m convinced that the bees draw comb on foundationless frames at least as fast as they do on frames with foundation. In some cases, given the choice, the queen also starts laying in the foundationless comb earlier. Finally, they are an ideal way to prepare a bait hive, providing the volume the scout bees are seeking coupled with the ‘order’ that will ensure that any swarm will build comb where you want it.

Foundationless frames

Super frames …

Preparing new foundationless frames takes a litte more effort – you need to drill the sidebars and ‘wire’ them with nylon monofilament fishing line before adding a narrow starter strip. At least, that’s what I do. In my view this effort is more than offset by the benefits they provide. Framebuilding is made almost pleasurable by using a nail gun … look out for special offers on these from Amazon where a suitable model (Tacwise EL191) was recently reduced to under £40.

Foundationless frames also work well in supers. I prepared a few boxes of these this season and extracted them using a radial extractor. With a couple of exceptions the frames all survived. The only two that collapsed were either partially drawn or incompletely filled. I treated the foundationless frames as roughly (or carefully) as those with foundation during extraction – I uncap with a hot air gun and wind them up to full speed as quickly as practical.

That's blown it

That’s blown it …

 

The only real problem I had with foundationless frames in supers was getting unwanted brace comb in boxes where the frames were not vertically aligned with the box below. For example, an eleven frame brood box topped with an undrawn 9 or 10 frame foundationless super sometimes resulted in the bees trying to build brace comb between the frames. This problem was partially, though not completely, solved by mixing foundationless frames with a few frames containing full sheets of foundation. Next year I will get the comb drawn in a super filled with foundationless frames, and then remove a couple and space them further apart.

Brace comb

Brace comb …

Other than the infrequent building of brace comb, which can usually be avoided by careful frame spacing, I’ve only had two issues with foundationless frames that might be considered problems.

The first is the bees chewing through the monofilament supporting ‘wires’. I’ve been using 15 kg breaking strain cheapo mono picked up from eBay. If the frame isn’t drawn evenly (perhaps because the hive isn’t perfectly level) the exposed mono on one side of a frame is targeted by workers and sometimes nibbled through. In a frame with three transverse strands (i.e. a deep, or brood frame) this is usually the one closest to the bottom bar. This isn’t a major issue – it leaves a trailing strand which needs to be snipped off but the majority of the frame is usually drawn sufficiently well that it’s robust enough for the usual stresses and strains of inspections. In over 100 foundationless brood frames used this year, none have been unusable after the mono has been chewed through (which only happened on half a dozen). I’ve bought a big spool of 30 kg monofilament to use next year. At about 1p per metre it’s good value but may be a little less easy to work with.

Foundationless brood frame ...

Foundationless brood frame …

The second ‘problem’ is minor and depends upon your chosen method of swarm control. Colonies often draw out significantly more drone comb in foundationless frames than they do on standard foundation. It’s not unusual to have big slabs of drone comb on one or more of the outer frames of the brood nest. As a consequence, these colonies have lots more drones present throughout the season. Interestingly, I’ve not had increased problems with Varroa and deformed wing virus in these colonies. I generally use the Demaree method of swarm control, shifting the original brood box containing all the sealed brood above the queen excluder for a three week period.

Drone graveyard ...

Drone graveyard …

Consequently, drones emerging in the upper box cannot get out of the hive. If they are not periodically released – for example, during inspections, or by lifting the roof and crown board every few days – they sacrifice themselves struggling to get through the excluder. The standard inspection interval can uncover hundreds of dead and dying drones wedged half way throught the excluder. This is unpleasant, both for the beekeeper and the drones. Next year I’ll experiment with adding an upper entrance to allow the drones to escape – either by proving a thin shim of softwood underneath three sides of the upper box, or by providing a temporary hole through the side of the box (closed with a cork when not needed).

Finally, using a steam wax extractor on foundationless frames destroys much of the tension in the monofilament. They might still be usable – I’ve not tried – but it’s an easy job to replace it.

 

Foundationless frames

Beautiful

Beautiful

A discussion on the Scottish Beekeepers forums last year (and the price of foundation) prompted me to try foundationless frames. The general principle is that you build standard brood frames, reinforced with horizontal wires or fishing line, containing only a narrow starter strip of foundation. The bees build new comb, incorporating the strengthening wire or fishing line, without being constrained to the cell dimensions of the underlying foundation. The starter strip encourages them to build comb in the orientation you want. Without starter strips as guides it can be a bit of a free for all.

Freshly drawn comb

Freshly drawn comb

First impressions are very positive. During routine comb replacement or a Bailey comb change the frames have been drawn out very well, with beautiful near-white comb. The fishing line has been incorporated as intended and the comb appears reasonably robust – with the caveat that there have been no really hot days yet which can make the comb much softer. This shouldn’t be an issue once they’ve raised a couple of rounds of brood in it. The bees join the foundation to the side bars but often leave gaps at the bottom corners and/or along the bottom bars of the frames. They build a lot more drone comb, though the amount varies and reflects the strength of the colony. Very strong colonies seem to build much more drone comb, whereas nucs do not. I presume this is the bees regulating the colony composition as they want. The only problem I can foresee here is that drone brood removal will be less easy from one of these frames than by simply slicing off a lump of brace comb built on the bottom of a shallow frame.

During a recent Bailey comb change it was noticeable that the queen first started laying in newly drawn comb on a foundationless frame, rather than the flanking frames with commercial foundation.

Foundationless frame

Foundationless frame

I build the frames from second-quality parts (purchased at one of the beekeeping shows). Since these cost about £27 for 50 and you use ten times less foundation I estimate 50 prepared foundationless frames cost about 60p each  in comparison, using first quality frames and full sheets of foundation they cost a fraction under £2 each. These costs are based on our co-operative purchasing scheme prices for foundation which are already pretty good. Take care to inspect the second quality frames if you get a chance. The wood needs to be sound but the dreaded off-centre foundation grooves (which otherwise mess up beespace with full sheets of foundation) can be safely ignored.

Second quality frames

Second quality frames

I knocked a couple of 2″ nails into a block of wood to act a register points for the notch in the side bars. I then drill three roughly equally spaced 3mm holes through pairs of side bars. I’ve read elsewhere that the bottom wire/line support benefits from being closer to the bottom bars of the frame because – as explained above – the bees often do not completely seal the drawn comb to the base of the frame. Having assembled the frame in the conventional way I use 15kg fishing line secured with drawing pins or gimp pins rather than wire. There is at least one set of photos I’ve seen where the wire is relatively poorly incorporated into the drawn comb – I’ve not noticed this happening in any of the three dozen fishing line ‘wired’ frames I’ve used this spring.

Nailed

Nailed

Tie a simple overhand loop in the end of the line, place it over one pin at the ‘top’ of the frame, hammer it home then thread the free end of the line through the frame. To secure at the end I pull the line tight and wrap the line half a dozen times round a second drawing pin before hammering it home. To stop the line cutting deeply into the soft frame side bars you can use standard staples (just like you use for holding sheets of paper together … nothing too industrial) which can easily be pushed into the wood. Alternatively, I’ve used gimp pins knocked in next to the hole and hammered flat. Remember you only need a staple/pin one the side of the hole. The fishing line needs to be tight enough to provide rigidity; not so tight you can play a tune on it.

Lurid yellow 15kg mono ...

Lurid yellow 15kg mono …

A standard sheet of foundation is about 20.5cm deep. I cut this into 2cm strips, easily cutting through the wire with a Stanley knife. I secure it in place under the top bar in exactly the same way you would fit a full sheet of foundation. I’m pretty sure you could use an even thinner strip as a template for the bees to start from. Michael Bush describes simply breaking the wedge out of the top bar and nailing it back perpendicular. There are also various suggestionss about using a strip of melted wax or a wedge shaped top bar. I suspect that a thin strip of foundation is probably the easiest of the lot … it might be even more economic to use unwired super foundation.

Bait hive …

Bait hive …

I’ve used these foundationless frames one at a time between standard drawn frames of foundation – either in full colonies or nucs. They are readily drawn out and beautifully straight (though see the comments below on having a level hive). For Bailey comb changes I’ve added an upper brood box of alternating foundation and foundationless frames. There have been no problems with brace comb or the bees building comb in the wrong orientation. Finally, in my bait hives I’m using 9 foundationless frames flanked by two old tatty drawn frames. These have only been out a few days this year and have yet to be occupied.

STOP PRESS … they are now, and the foundationless frames worked a treat.

Drone cells

Drone cells

Bees build comb vertically. When drawing out foundation they have little choice but to follow the sheet. In contrast, if there is a significant slope (presumably front to back) and you arrange frames the ‘warm way’ there is a danger that the beautifully clean comb they draw out will not fit between frames using foundation, or that you’ll not be able to turn the comb around without messing up the beespace. If the hive does slope front to back – for example to help water drain out (why is it getting in? Perhaps try a Kewl floor) – you should be able to avoid this by arranging the frames the ‘cold way’.

Additional resources

Chris Slade has an excellent account of building and using foundationless frames on the recommended Beekeeping afloat blog.

Tom Bick started an interesting thread on foundationless beekeeping on the Beekeeping Forum.

(Inevitably … he covers most things) Michael Bush also has lots of information of foundationless frames at Bush Bees.