Tag Archives: 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.




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 😉


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 …

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.


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.

Wax processing

Wax can be relatively easily reclaimed from used frames, brace comb, cappings and – depending upon the quality – used for candle making, cosmetics, polish or traded in to buy foundation. Since I’m not interested in producing show quality candles or preparing vast quantities my wax processing routine is relatively simple.

  • Frames (brace comb, failed candles etc.) for processing are loaded into a home made steam extractor.
  • The molten wax is collected in a honey bucket containing a small amount of rainwater. If the frames have large amounts of stores, pollen, brood etc. in them the bucket will also contain all the big bits not filtered out … and can be pretty messy.
  • After a couple of rinses in clean water the set wax disc is broken into pieces and added to a slow cooker containing a couple of centimetres of rainwater. Slow (Slo?!) cookers go in and out of fashion and can be picked up at car boot sales or via Freecycle easily and/or cheaply.
  • After a few hours on the ‘high’ setting, perhaps with the cooker being topped up with additional wax, the slow cooker is turned off and the wax allowed to set overnight.
  • The resulting wax block can easily be tipped out and the dirty water discarded. The bottom of the block usually has a layer of crumbly propolis that has collected at the water/wax interface.
  • Scrape the propolis off with a hive tool or paring knife to leave a block of sufficient quality for trade-in for new foundation.
  • Alternatively, having cleaned out the slow cooker, put the clean block of wax back to remelt (on ‘high’ again) then filter it through something suitable … 2-3 sheets of kitchen paper, J clothes etc. depending upon the quality of wax you want to produce. I do this filtering in my honey warming cabinet set on ‘high’ (about 60ºC) directly into an old ice-cream container sprayed with silicon release agent … ideally I’d do this in the kitchen oven at a slightly higher temperature, but wax gets everywhere. You have been warned 😉
  • The resulting wax blocks are easy to store and of good enough quality for preparing furniture polish and day-to-day candle making. Darker ones are used for homemade foundation strips or traded-in.
The finished product

The finished product

Super poly bait hives

MB poly National

MB poly National

Shortly after they were introduced I purchased two of the poly National hives sold by Modern Beekeeping. These are well made but, in my view after using them for a few months, poorly designed. The poly is dense and strong, they have clever plastic frame runners and they are easy to assemble. I’ve kept bees in them for a couple of seasons and they did fine. However – for me – the negatives of these hives far outweigh the positives. They have handles on all four faces of the boxes which, together with the manufacturers name, means painting them takes ages. Much more significantly, the boxes can only accommodate 10 frames and are too narrow. The frame lugs of a standard National frame are tight against the sidewalls making it almost impossible (once there’s a bit of propolis added to the mix) to slide the frames across the hive during inspections.

The dreaded overhang

The dreaded overhang …

To make matters worse, the boxes have an “overhang” where they join. Although this presumably helps prevent water ingress it also makes stacking supers on top of brood boxes packed with bees a recipe for death and destruction. It’s not possible to offer the box ‘on the squint’ and then rotate it into place. Furthermore, the overhang prevents you even seeing the bees you’re about to slaughter. Of course, the overhang also means the kit isn’t easily mixed with standard wooden or Sweinty poly boxes. I did build a wooden shim that meant the supers could be used, but the beespace was messed up. At about £110 for a complete hive and a couple of supers these hives appeared reasonable value … but they actually represent possibly my biggest outlay on unsuitable kit ever 🙁

Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat …

The obvious solution was to flog the boxes to some unsuspecting novice. However, since the design problems would provide a particularly unrewarding start to beekeeping, I didn’t do this and they’ve sat piled in the corner looking a bit forlorn. The original floor, brood box and roof were pressed into service as a bait hive last year and worked well. The supers have simply been stacked up, unwanted and definitely unloved.

Honeybee Democracy

Honeybee Democracy

However, the combination of a bulk delivery of extruded, twinwall, fluted polypropylene (aka Correx, though it certainly isn’t going by the price I paid) and the ease with which it could be converted into very useful roofs for about £1.50 each, suggested a way to use the supers. Two stacked supers – at least of these slightly smaller than normal “National” boxes – enclose a volume of about 43 litres. Conveniently this is only slightly larger than the 40 litres recommended by Tom Seeley in his excellent book Honeybee Democracy. The addition of a simple floor from a piece of Correx (so much easier to write than extruded, twinwall, fluted polypropylene 😉 ) stapled together with some scraps of wood from the offcuts bin and including an integral entrance of about 10cm2, a crownboard from strong polythene sheet and a Correx roof make a perfectly serviceable bait hive for the coming season.

In due course I’ll add a single tired old brood frame (I save these from the previous year, treated with DiPel [Bacillus thuringiensis sp. kurstaki spores] to prevent wax moth damage) containing no stores or pollen, which would simply attract robbers. The smell of ‘old bees’, perhaps coupled with a couple of drops of lemongrass oil along the top bar, is a strong attractant to scout bees from a swarm looking for a new home. I’ll fill the boxes with foundationless frames so that an incoming swarm can start building new comb immediately. These frames barely reduce the internal volume but provide guides for the bees to build parallel comb, thereby making it unnecessary to check whether the bait hives have been successful quite as frequently as you otherwise need to (unless you like sorting out the wild comb they’ll otherwise build from the roof).

Floor detail … what could be simpler?


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.


Nail guns

Foundationless frames

Foundationless frames

Putting frames together is one of those tasks that should be undertaken in the dark days of winter when it can be done at a leisurely pace. There’s a certain satisfaction from the mindless repetition of the process, whether for standard frames with foundation or foundationless frames (with the latter requiring a bit more effort due to the drilling and ‘wiring’ necessary). However, it’s cold in the winter and there’s certainly no satisfaction from bashing the end of your thumb with the hammer. Your fingers are semi-numb with cold, barely able to grip the gimp pin, which is too small to hold in a gloved hand. Self-harm is almost inevitable.


Supers …

Of course, in the summer, if you need more frames you need them yesterday. There’s nothing leisurely about it. There’s a flow on, the supers are filling faster than you can keep up, the bait hive has been occupied by a swarm and you need to set another up or you urgently need a dozen new frames so you can move the nucs to full brood boxes. With nucs being sold, swarm control and 8-10 honey producing colonies I get through a lot of new frames each season. I’ve not counted, but do know I’ve used nearly a full 100 metre spool of 15kg monofilament making foundationless brood frames alone, each using about a metre of nylon.

Tacwise nail gun

Tacwise nail gun …

I needed six new supers with frames for the weekend inspection. There’s a good flow on, possibly lime, and I’ve more or less run out of boxes. Constructing the supers from flat-packed seconds bought in the winter sales was a trivial job. Knocking together the ~60 frames I needed to populate them also turned out to be quick and easy as I’d generously been given a Tacwise EL 191 Pro nail gun. This is a light duty electric model, using 18g nails from 10-35mm or type 91 staples from 15-30mm. This was the first time I’d used it for building frames. What a revelation!


Nailed …

The usual incessant tap, tap, tap (or, at best, tap, tap) for each of the 8 gimp pins in a frame was replaced with a satisfying ‘chunk’ as the nail gun drove the galvanised 20mm pin flush with the surface. It didn’t take long to get the positioning accurate and adding the six pins (four on the top bar and two holding one of the bottom bars in place) took less than 15 seconds. Most of the frames ended up with thin unwired foundation for cut comb so I fitted the second bottom bar with standard gimp pins. This is necessary as they are easy to remove (and I’ll need to add fresh foundation next season), whereas the nails driven by the nail gun are almost impossible to shift once they’re driven in flush.

Since the nail gun is essentially single handed there’s no chance (well, almost no chance) of injuring my thumb. I might even be able to use it with gloves on in the winter.

I now need to order some 18g 35mm nails – the largest this model takes – for building boxes 🙂

Time to change the queen

Or perhaps that should be “Time to change the queen?”. This disappointing brood pattern suggests that the queen is not laying very well and that – with an excellent flow from the bramble and clover – the bees are filling any gaps they can find with nectar before the queen has a chance to lay.

Patchy brood pattern

Patchy brood pattern …

The colony has ample space in the supers and there were several other frames with a similar patchy brood pattern. The colony is very strong. Clearly the bees also think a new queen is needed by the row of charged queen cells along the top bar. There was even one attached directly to the queen excluder. I could have transferred this directly to a queenless colony without any further manipulation.

Queen cell on excluder

Queen cell on excluder …

However, I’m waiting for the most recently grafted larvae to be sealed, so it will be about three weeks before I have spare mated queens to replace the current one. In the meantime I’ve given her another chance. I knocked all the queen cells back and did my normal Demaree swarm control. I’ll let the bees exploit the good flow to draw out some foundationless frames and see if the queen lays these up well.

If not … it’s going to get prickly for her.

Bramble in flower

Bramble in flower

Foundationless frames



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.

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.



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.