Synopsis : Foundation is getting more expensive. Try foundationless frames; save money and reduce miticide contamination in your hives.
While preparing some minor updates for a talk this week 1 I had cause to look up the price of foundation.
Foundation is one of the beekeeping basics. It’s effectively a consumable item that you periodically have to replace … or more correctly you replace the frames containing new sheets of foundation. It is recommended that brood frames are replaced every three years; this means you should expect to replace 3-4 frames per season in a National hive.
Like other basics, such as eggs and pasta, the price of foundation is rising inexorably. The last stuff I bought – premium National wired worker deep – was about £13 from Thorne’s. I bought ~15 packets and it hurt.
It’s now £15.60 a packet (for 10 sheets) 2. If it goes up much more I’ll have to trade in a kidney before visiting Brian at Thorne’s of Newburgh.
At £15.60 a packet, the foundation costs alone of frame replacement are ~£5.50/hive/year. You’ll need another 5-11 sheets per hive during the swarming season, depending how you do your swarm control, and yet more if you rear queens and sell nucs. This is worst case scenario of course, but it gives you an idea of the costs.
I run 20-25 colonies and estimate my foundation costs should be ~£350/annum. I actually spend well under half that because I use a lot of foundationless frames.
are mean like saving money. As it’s 6 years since I last wrote specifically about foundationless frames I thought it was time for an update … so here goes.
What is a foundationless frame?
The clue is in the name.
It’s a frame constructed without a sheet of foundation. Typically it will contain some guides (‘starter strips’) so the bees know where to start drawing comb, together with supports to be incorporated as the comb is drawn.
The frame itself is a standard brood or super frame, exactly the same as you would use with a sheet of foundation. You can purchase frames specifically designed to be used without foundation but I strongly recommend you don’t bother; at £23.60 for 10 they’re already more than standard first-quality brood frames 3.
What’s more, I also recommend you don’t bother buying first quality frames. The majority of my frames – and almost all the foundationless ones – are built using second quality frames purchased during the annual sales.
The most recent price I’ve seen for these second quality frames is £38.50 for 50 i.e. ~77p each. You can expect a few knots or splits, some of which are unrepairable. Use your judgement, if the lugs are weakened, use the top bar for firewood. Ditto if it’s badly warped. A dab of wood glue and a well aimed gimp pin will sort out most other problems. I usually find that ~2-3% are duds.
You start with a standard frame. I’ve described how I build these before. Remove the ‘wedge’ from the top bar, assemble the top bar, sidebars and bottom bars. Use a nail gun or frame nails (gimp pins) depending how much you value your thumb and fingers.
I always use wood glue on the joints, with the sole exception of the bottom bar on the face of the frame that the wedge was removed from if I’m going to add a sheet of foundation. That bottom bar is usually added after the foundation is fitted.
For a foundationless frame both bottom bars can be glued for additional rigidity and longevity (however, see also the section on ‘recycling’ below … I often convert frames previously used with foundation into foundationless frames).
Once the frame is ready I glue in wooden tongue depressors to provide the starter strip from which the bees will start drawing comb. These are the guides that keep the comb straight (or at least ensure it starts straight). See the additional comments on starter strips below.
I then nail the wedge back in place in exactly the same way as I would if I was using foundation.
If you’re building new foundationless frames it’s easier to drill the top bars or sidebars for the supports (see below) before assembling the frame. However, if you’re reusing frames, it’s easy enough to do this ‘as and when’.
Comb built on a frame as described will have little or no lateral support and will need delicate handling. To make things more robust you need to provide some sort of support that is incorporated into the comb as it is drawn.
I’ve used three different types of support for the comb in my foundationless frames – nylon monofilament, bamboo skewers and stainless steel wire.
All my early foundationless frames were built with 40 – 50 lb breaking strain nylon monofilament (‘mono’). You can buy bulk spools of this for sea fishing. Buy the cheapest stuff you can find but don’t be tempted to use lower breaking strains as the bees can nibble through it.
Mono is reasonably easy to handle. You need to drill holes in the sidebars and thread the mono through, starting with a loop over a drawing pin. After pulling it tight, wrap it around another drawing pin and drive it home.
If the mono cuts into the sidebars, add a staple to take the strain (see discussion of stainless steel wire below).
I’ve got lots of these frames still in use. However, the mono stretches in the steam wax extractor and it needs to be replaced before the frame can be reused. For this reason I’m slowly replacing these frames with one or other of the alternative supports below.
These are the easiest foundationless frames to build. Two small holes in the top bar, push a 3 mm bamboo BBQ skewer up, point first, jammed into the hole. Glue in place, top and bottom, and cut off the excess after the glue has set.
I’ve used hundreds of these frames and they’ve been excellent. The bees tend to build the comb in three separate ‘panels’ to start with, only joining them laterally with the second or third round of brood rearing. They’ll often build entire panels of worker or drone brood. If it’s not what you want it’s simplicity itself to cut out with the blade of a hive tool.
Two skewers is sufficient in a standard brood frame. I’d be wary about using bamboo skewers on 14 x 12’s just because of the extra weight of the deeper comb before the panels are joined together.
Stainless steel wire
More recently I’m building my foundationless frames with stainless steel wire. This is less pleasant to handle – I use one Michael Jackson-esque work glove for protection – but is incorporated well into the drawn comb.
Drill 2 or 4 small holes in the top bar, adding a stainless steel T50-type staple on the appropriate side of the hole to prevent the wire digging into the wood. Drive two frame nails part-way in 1 cm or so away from the outer holes.
Add T50 staples perpendicular to the bottom bars, using the same spacing.
Cut off sufficient stainless steel frame wire, with about 6 cm excess, and wind 3-4 turns around one of the frame nails before driving the nail in flush with the top bar 4. Important now stretch the wire taught before threading through the frame. This helps prevent the wire kinking when you thread the frame. Wear a glove for this and for tightening the wire.
Thread the frame, carefully pull the wire as taught as you reasonably can, wind the end of the wire around the second frame pin and drive the latter home. The two tail ends of the wire can be easily twisted off and the frame is finished.
With imagination you can experiment with other wiring patterns; three holes in the top bar and two staples in the bottom bars generates an aesthetically-pleasing 5 W pattern, for example.
If you use 14 x 12’s then you probably need four evenly-spaced wires. Leo Sharashkin does this on the large frames in his Layens hives.
I have dozens of foundationless super frames, all built with horizontal mono support. These have been in use for almost a decade and go through the radial extractor once or twice a season with very few breakages.
I’ve never used vertically wired super frames, or super frames with bamboo supports. I might try the former out of interest 6, but wouldn’t attempt the latter. The thicker bamboo takes more time to be incorporated into the comb, and I would be concerned that the frames would always be a little too weak for the rough and tumble of the extractor.
Don’t be tempted to use strips of commercial foundation for starter strips and don’t bother daubing the wooden tongue depressors with melted wax to ‘help’ the bees.
Why do I say this?
I built a dozen frames with three different types of starter strip positioned randomly; wood, waxed wood and foundation. I used these for a season and observed which the bees ‘preferred’, as determined by which they chose to use first.
The bees showed no preference whatsoever, so I only ever now use plain wooden starter strips as they are easier to prepare and a lot more robust.
Frame making is a bit of a chore, so any shortcuts are very welcome 😉 .
Using foundationless frames
With one or two caveats you use foundationless frames in exactly the same way you would use a frame with standard wax foundation, or even plastic foundation.
I don’t know much about the mechanics of comb building. Comb is drawn vertically (almost always down, but they can build up into a void) and built out to the required cell depth from a central midrib (A and B, below).
A sheet of foundation provides this midrib and is dominant over the tendency to draw comb vertically. This means that your frames will – within reason – still be drawn properly if they do not hang vertically (C above).
In contrast, a foundationless frame by definition lacks the central midrib until the bees build it, and they build it vertically. Consequently, there is a danger that the comb in a foundationless frame will not be in the same plane as the sidebars (D to F above) unless the frame is vertical.
Believe me … this way lies madness. The frames cannot be reversed, and they do not fit into other hives.
The solution is simple. The hive must be perfectly level when viewed along the plane of the frames (B to B’ in the diagram below). In the other orientation (perpendicular to the face of the comb, A to A’ below) the hive does not need to be level.
Most smartphones have a spirit-level app that will help if needed.
Mind the gap
If you present a colony of bees with an empty void they will fill it with beautiful natural comb. Some of it might be in nice parallel sheets, but often they adopt all kind of weird and wonderful shapes.
Although the starter strips are included to encourage the bees to draw parallel comb they sometimes fail to take the hint. I get the impression this is a particular problem during a really strong nectar flow or when being fed copious amounts of syrup.
To avoid this from becoming an issue avoid presenting the bees with a complete box of foundationless frames (A, below). Instead, introduce frames one or two at a time, flanked with frames with foundation or drawn comb (B).
You should always use foundationless frames in bait hives (to give the impression of a suitably-sized void e.g. C, above), but add alternating drawn comb or foundation soon after the swarm arrives (D).
Likewise, if I was using foundationless frames for a Bailey comb change, I would alternate them with frames containing foundation (D) 7 .
In natural comb the bees will build ~17% drone comb. This ‘investment’ reflects the importance of drones in passing on the genes during swarming and queen mating. In contrast, if you only provide worker foundation in your frames you are likely to be used to a significantly lower level of drone comb, and consequently drones, in your hives.
One of the surprises when switching to foundationless frames is the amount of drone comb the bees will draw.
Don’t worry … they’re only trying to achieve that 17% figure (which is almost two full frames in a brood box).
I’m proud of my drones and I want them to get out and donate their good genes (and die trying!) to the local honey bee population, so these additional drones don’t worry me at all.
However, they could cause a problem if your mite control is poor. Varroa preferentially reproduces in drone brood and generates more progeny. If your mite levels are high at the start of the season they may rapidly get out of control and necessitate some sort of midseason intervention.
The solution to this is to take a lot of care to minimise mite levels in the winter, when the colony is broodless. That means the colony starts the season with very low levels and – irrespective of the level of drone brood available – they should never reach dangerous levels.
Don’t ignore the benefits of foundationless frames from fear of mites … control the mites properly and all will be well (whether you use foundationless frames or not).
Reusing foundationless frames
A well built frame can be cycled through the steam wax extractor several times and still remain rigid and reusable. I’ve got frames that have probably gone through four or more times during their ‘lives’, so reducing frame costs from a nominal 77 p each to less than 20 p.
One of the advantages of foundationless frames is that the supporting wires (or bamboo) remain attached to the frame, rather than being melted out with the comb. That means the frames can be cleaned up more quickly, scrubbed down with soda, dried and then reused. If you use wire or bamboo supports they might need no additional preparation.
As I periodically recycle my frames that contained foundation I often convert them to foundationless. Prize out the wedge, scrub the frame clean, allow to dry and then add the wooden starter strips. Drill the top bar, wire the frame and hey presto you’ve one less frame to make for the season ahead 🙂 .
Miticide residues and commercial foundation
I’m not saving the best to last, but here is is another compelling reason to use foundationless frames (at least some of the time).
Any commercial foundation you purchase – perhaps with the exception of the very expensive organic stuff 8 – will almost certainly be contaminated with wax-soluble miticide residues.
I’ve qualified this with an ‘almost’ as not all foundation has been tested. However, there is an international trade in recycled beeswax and the foundation I am aware of being tested – in the USA – is contaminated. Here’s a relevant quote from the abstract of Mullin et al., (2010):
Almost all comb and foundation wax samples (98%) were contaminated with … fluvalinate and coumaphos, and lower amounts of amitraz degradates and chlorothalonil, with an average of 6 pesticide detections per sample and a high of 39.
Fluvalinate and coumaphos are synthetic pyrethroids, the former being the active ingredient in Apistan strips. Amitraz is the active ingredient in Apivar strips and chlorothalonil is a fungicide.
Where do these contaminants come from? The clue is in the phrase ‘recycled beeswax’ … the miticide residues come from prior treatment of hives to control Varroa. The chlorothalonil probably originates from exposure of bees when foraging.
Detrimental effects of miticides on bees
There is contradictory evidence about whether these traces of miticides are damaging. Exposure of individual bees, particularly queens and drones, is probably detrimental (though it is arguable whether all these studies used field-realistic miticide levels), for example:
- Sublethal doses of miticides can delay larval development and adult emergence, and reduce longevity (Wu et al., 2011)
- tau-fluvalinate- or coumaphos-exposed queens are smaller and have shorter lifespans (Haarmann et al., 2002)
- Queens reared in wax-coated cups contaminated with tau-fluvalinate, coumaphos or amitraz attracted smaller worker retinues and had lower egg-laying rates (Walsh et al., 2020)
- Drones exposed to tau-fluvalinate, coumaphos or amitraz during development had reduced sperm viability (Fisher II & Rangel, 2018)
Despite this, a recent study has shown little or no effect of miticide contamination on either colony expansion or overwinter survival (Payne et al., 2019).
However, these are miticides. They may or may not be detrimental to bees, but they are detrimental to mites.
However, at the low levels contaminating foundation they probably aren’t detrimental enough. Instead, they could well contribute to the selection of miticide-resistant Varroa.
I’m not sure if there is scientific evidence from Varroa supporting this (but I’d bet my mortgage there would be if someone bothered to look), but exposure to sub-lethal levels of a compound is a classic strategy to select for – and maintain – resistance in a population of parasites or pathogens. It’s why you’re always told to finish the course of antibiotic treatment, or not use just one Apivar strip in a brood box.
I don’t use Apistan as mite resistance is so widespread. However, tau-fluvalinate residues are undoubtedly present in all my colonies from commercial foundation. That these residues may contribute to continuing Apistan-resistance in the mite population seems somewhat ironic.
I therefore reduce my use of commercial foundation and use 40-60% foundationless frames.
Conclusions … I know it makes sense 😉
Beekeeping is one of those wonderful hobbies that you can have a lot of enjoyment from and (more than) cover your outgoings from honey sales. By reducing your outgoings you can increase your income or – to think of it in other ways – you can give away more honey to friends and family, or pay for all your miticides and winter feed, without cutting into the ‘profit’.
And have fun.
Of course, most of us don’t keep bees for profit, and would keep them even if we didn’t sell the honey.
Nevertheless, by reducing the cost of replacement frames and foundation – the bulk of which is foundation if you reuse your frames – then it reduces the overall outlay associated with keeping bees.
But the arguments for using foundationless frames (some or all of the time) are not just economic.
The bees appear to do very well on foundationless frames. Comb is drawn fast and, once the mono, wire or bamboo supports are incorporated, is as robust as comb built on foundation. There are more drones in the hive which – assuming your bees are well-tempered – I consider a good thing. And – as if that lot wasn’t enough – trace levels of miticides are reduced.
Finally, frames without foundation are easy to store. There’s no foundation to go brittle in the cold, or that develops a waxy white bloom which slows the bees from drawing comb. At the height of the season you’re not dependent on the supplier having foundation in stock as your frames are always ‘ready to go’.
Give them a try and tell me how you get on.
Fisher II, A., and Rangel, J. (2018) Exposure to pesticides during development negatively affects honey bee (Apis mellifera) drone sperm viability. PLOS ONE 13: e0208630 https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0208630.
Haarmann, T., Spivak, M., Weaver, D., Weaver, B., and Glenn, T. (2002) Effects of Fluvalinate and Coumaphos on Queen Honey Bees (Hymenoptera: Apidae) in Two Commercial Queen Rearing Operations. Journal of Economic Entomology 95: 28–35 https://doi.org/10.1603/0022-0493-95.1.28.
Mullin, C.A., Frazier, M., Frazier, J.L., Ashcraft, S., Simonds, R., vanEngelsdorp, D., and Pettis, J.S. (2010) High Levels of Miticides and Agrochemicals in North American Apiaries: Implications for Honey Bee Health. PLOS ONE 5: e9754 https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0009754.
Payne, A.N., Walsh, E.M., and Rangel, J. (2019) Initial Exposure of Wax Foundation to Agrochemicals Causes Negligible Effects on the Growth and Winter Survival of Incipient Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) Colonies. Insects 10: 19 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6359559/.
Walsh, E.M., Sweet, S., Knap, A., Ing, N., and Rangel, J. (2020) Queen honey bee (Apis mellifera) pheromone and reproductive behavior are affected by pesticide exposure during development. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 74: 33 https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-020-2810-9.
Wu, J.Y., Anelli, C.M., and Sheppard, W.S. (2011) Sub-Lethal Effects of Pesticide Residues in Brood Comb on Worker Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) Development and Longevity. PLoS ONE 6: e14720 https://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0014720.
- There’s a difference between cutting edge and last minute, but it’s subtle.
- BKA’s may well get discounts, and you’d be advised to take advantage of them if you have the opportunity.
- Throughout this I’m quoting DN5 or SN5 National frames, not 14×12’s.
- The point may protrude through a millimetre or two … ignore it.
- Though possibly no better.
- In particular for heather cut comb.
- D’oh! It’s late and I’ve just realised the last two diagrams show 12 frames in a box … let’s hope no one else spots this. It can be our secret.
- Can you even still buy this??
The burden placed upon the bees be foundationless frames seems trivial for brood frames inserted between two drawn brood frames in late spring, but in honey supers, this can mean that the bees spend the entire flow drawing comb, and fail to make a sufficient crop.
Stainless-steel wire seems a needless expense over non-stainless. Rolls of “frame wire” do develop surface rust, bit I still have old “wired wax” frames in some brood chambers that I keep in service because they were gifted to me by my mentor in the early 1990s, and they are older than most beekeepers. Using an electric embedder is tedious, but the two hives still using these old frames are a memorial to my mentor, so I do things his way.
But those super frames will last a decade or more … and in a good flow they certainly shouldn’t use it all just to draw the comb. Here in Scotland we depend upon the late season thixotropic heather crop for the best honey of the year (and sometimes the only honey of the year). It’s too viscous to easily extract it, so the majority crush and strain, thereby destroying the comb anyway. Many start with thin unwired foundation – see the comment by Bridget above (?) – but foundationless saves even that initial outlay.
Just back to the supers while I remember … other than using that fancy purchased comb (I’d be interested to see data on miticide levels in it) the bees have to draw super frames at some point and, whether foundationless or not, it still uses nectar.
Stainless steel because a) I’ve got a big roll of it, and b) the bees tend to remove larvae from cells above commercial foundation that’s made with plated wire. I’m not certain why they do this, but two possibilities are pretty obvious:
I’m guessing … but I do think stainless steel wire is probably better (and not just because of the big roll of it 😉 ).
Some quick questions:
1. How are you tensioning the wire?
2. Is the wire better than bamboo or just neater?
3. Have you ever tried lollypop sticks as starter strips?
Cannot wait to see how mine go this year with wood/bamboo.
Always great reading you blog.
Brilliant. I advocate this myself for the benefit of the colony. It allows the bees to follow their natural inclinations in the number of drones they need, how they construct their nest. and also the size of the cells, appropriate to the race of bee.
The drones were probably the most surprising thing when I started using these frames. I’ve never measured cell size differences but all mine are Heinz 57 Varieties on the east coast, and native blacks on the west.
I owe you an email about feral colonies. It’s been on my To Do list and I hope to get round to it soon. I guess this cold weather will slow down early detection of overwintering success?
Honey wax conversion is 8:1 so if I loose 8kg honey to make 1kg wax, 15.50/kg is still a good deal!
I let young colonies draw a frame or two from scratch as I feed them and will not harvest honey from them. And drone frames are a great source of wax and way of removing varroa..
I harvest brood from nucs that are expanding too fast (for example, those destined for overwintering), donating frames of emerging brood to production colonies. I then give them new foundationless frames to draw.
Murray McGregor regularly talks about autumn feeding colonies and getting them to draw new comb surprisingly late into the season. I think a real advantage of this late feeding/comb drawing is that the bees only build worker comb … there’s no need for drones in September 😉
I ‘Wire my Frames’ with the Frame wire going Horizontally Wise ! Why you ask ?
See Tool use suggestion below ! it’s WORKS.
Feed your Wire through (pre-drilled) Holes, with spare Wire to Twist and Nail each End. But WAIT. . .[Hold that Hammer. Get a Long Slider Clamp instead !!! ]
Nail and Twist Starter End. BEFORE nailing that other END off (!)
Get your Slider Clamp, clamp Frame from Side to Side ‘gently’ so it starts to curve under pressure (making the sides be under Inward Tention.)
Nail that Frame Wire Ends Off ! Now ‘Cut from Wire Reel’. NEXT :
Then you can “de-Clamp” your Frame !
It will be as TIGHT as Piano Wire ” Forever” !!!
So much so even a Beekeepers Wire Crimper (tightening) Tool collects dust !
You will never have sagging Frame wires again. . .
Also supports this Natural Comb in Hive Inspections, Honey Extraction etc.
May need a slower speed on starting the Extractor, then increase it carefully, [Natural Comb is worth its weight in gold, so it can be Extracted, Stored and Used once more in the following Spring / Bee Hive use.]
Haven’t done any Foundation for Years. . .
AND I am sure the Bees prefer their own Cell size needs re Stores, Brood, Drone need. Or for easy Communication Holes (movement) through out the Hive.
Easy Starter Strips
I just get a Spare length of thin wood, hold it within the Side Bars, at a 45 degree angle, on an upturned Frame.
Dribble a line of Hot Melted Wax along this Midline (on the under)Top Bar.
Held ‘simply as a Starter Guide Rule’, wait a few seconds, take that piece of timber away. You now have a precise Starter Strip the Bees will use. A small tin, with a pinched pouring point, aids wax pouring process (eg use an empty Small Tinned Fish.) Laddle enough Wax to pour that line, out of your Wax Melter source.
And repeat process on the next Frame.
Its a super ‘easy’ cheap way to make a Starter Strip for the Bees to drawn Natural Comb down from. Even cheaper than buying Skewers, BBQ Sticks or Tongue Depressors !
Any Burr Comb makes excellent Hot Wax Dribble for the New Season Frame needs.
Some suggest placing non Foundation Frames ‘ New’ in between Pre-Drawn Comb Frames, or in between your last purchased ‘Foundation used Frames’. Bee have vertical guides each side of an (empty) Frame. No random or wonky Bee Drawn Comb in sight.
Hope this helps. . . 🐝
Hello … many thanks for all that useful detail. I use glue for my starter strips so I never need to replace them. I presume a waxed-in starter strip would melt out when the frame goes through the steam wax extractor. I’m going to have to look up a slider clamp, but I’ve a pretty good idea of what you mean. I do something similar with vertically wired frames – if you pull the wire tight enough you get a very slight bow in the bottom bars of the frame and these keep the wires nice and tight once the wire is tied off. You can just about see this in the 4th photo on the page above.
Would like a pic of your slider clamp process if possible?
Elaine from British Columbia, Canada, here. Great article, thank you! I’ve been doing this for a few years now. The old brood frames, I use a box cutter to cut about an inch down from the top and pull out the majority of the old comb and scrape the wax off the remaining little strip. So in effect I have left a starter strip. I usually paint the top of the frame with a bright colour so I can identify them easily.
I also usually mark the top bars of foundationless frames (if I remember) so – at least when they’re new – I have an idea of how gently I’ll need to handle them. In a few hives I’ve also used drone foundation (long story, but there was a reason not to use foundationless) and those are also labelled as there’s no need to inspect them for queen cells 😉
Hello and thank you for really interesting review of foundionless frames. I use the bamboo style in my deeps. But with supers – anything else to recommend for horizontal support other than mono?
Wire should work well … I’ve not tried it because all my foundationless supers were built years ago with mono. I will be needing a few more this season so will be using stainless steel wire. It’s even less pleasant to handle than mono, but once made they should last as long as the frame does.
I’ve been using foundationless for several years now with no issues. The increased drone brood means I don’t feel so guilty about culling the first of the season in the interests of varroa control.
I’ve never drilled a top bar: I use three pins, one to secure each tongue depressor (trimmed in bulk on a table saw to be a neat fit) through the wedge – which also traps to top of the two bamboo skewers. The bottoms of the skewers are secured with a single small zip tie around the bottom bars.
My super frames survive a radial extractor as well as frames with foundation.
Thanks for an info packed blog; keep up the good work.
You’re welcome 🙂
The zip tie is a neat idea. The bamboo skewers can become unglued from the bottom bars in the wax extractor. It’s never been too much of an issue, so I usually just ignore it and use the frame (again) anyway. None of my tongue depressors are a ‘neat fit’. I just glue two in let the bees fill in the gaps. If they don’t they just end up with a little passageway between the comb, which they seem to like anyway.
could u put up a photo of the finished frame please Dave
Dave kindly sent me the following pictures:
All images from Dave Stokes who should be credited if they are used.
It’s notable how much neater they are than my foundationless frames 🙁
A very timely post David, given that I have taken advantage of the inclement weather to enjoy a peaceful few hours this week making up a mixture of foundationless and starter strip frames and indeed even spent some time at the weekend waxing lyrical (ahem) on the merits of such with a group of beginners. I shall be out hunting for your spy cameras tomorrow morning, never fear 🙂
I’ve never used completely foundationless frames before so they’re an experiment for me this year. Last year however I did use frames with starter strips wired with fishing line in my bait hives in a similar way to your suggestion here. Because I’ve never succeeded with bait hives in the past I also put in one frame of old comb scavenged from those I’d cycled out of my hives earlier in the season. They spent some time in the freezer in the hope of killing off potential nasties before being placed at the opposite side of the bait hive to the entrance to allow the rest of the box to still appear as one large space to scout bees. And to top it off I used a couple of drops of lemon grass oil on the top bar of that old frame.
This arrangement turned out to be very successful and I had four swarms take up residence. I assume that because the arriving swarm starts making use of the old frame immediately and builds “forward” from there, in every case all of the frames with starter strips were drawn out perfectly in line with the frames.
I shall be attempting the same with the foundationless frames this year, and possibly also trying some with a full frame of foundation substituted for the old comb. I suspect that in a box of frames with starter strips the bees won’t care that one frame has a full sheet of foundation compared with a couple of centimetres in the rest and will start to draw out comb wherever suits them, but perhaps they might prefer to start work on that frame if the rest are foundationless. I’m in no way certain about that either (possibly even leaning towards doubtful), but there’s only one way to find out…
As an alternative to a frame of foundation in the bait hive (which, after all, probably smells less like bees than an old drawn comb) why not try painting the walls with a mix of melted wax and propolis. I hasten to add that I’ve not tried this, but it was suggested to me (by someone who also hadn’t tried it) in the Q&A’s after a talk I gave. I reckon the relatively crude wax that the steam wax generator produces might be ideal. I’m going to try it this year.
With a large enough swarm they’ll probably no distinguish between your frame of foundation and the foundationless frames … they’ll just get on with drawing comb for the queen to start laying.
Delighted to hear your bait hives worked. If you get the opportunity this season, try and be present when the swarm arrives. It’s a fantastic sight.
Hi Sarah, or fellow Beekeepers.
Want Very Tight Frame Wires Forever ! ? . . .
Use a “Quick Grip / Slider” Woodworking Clamp.*
Think mine is an x18 Inch Irwin Blue one. [Other Brands can be found in DIY Stores.]
I Wire my National, Langstroth, even DIY Warre Frames. So my Natural Comb can go in my Honey Extractor without collapsing.
. . . ” By placing the Rubber Ends on the outer side of Bee Frame “Sides” you can apply ‘Clamp Pressure’ making the Frame kind of Shorter by a bit (!) Don’t place the Ends over the Wire Holes. . . done that. 🤭
Get your Wire of choice. Feed through Horizontally backwards and Forwards etc.
Twist Wire end around a Frame Nail both top , and lower bottom. Bash nail in, then over to ‘catch’ fasten these Wire ends .
Then. . . : Release the Slider Clamp (!)
As the Frame ends are now “normal again” (wider apart) those Frame Support Wires will have been made ‘Shorter’ than the Frame. [Having been clamped under that pressure.]
End result means your Wiring will be really Tight, Almost like Piano Wires (!)
These Wires will not sag or loosen off, unlike manually Wiring without Clamping first.
(Unless the Frame breaks or those Nailed ends work lose.)
I always make sure any Frames I buy, but still need making up : Are “Glued and Nailed” before Wiring them to aid longevity.
Hope this helps. 😎
My little Beekeeping Wire Crimper has now become Redundant. (Only used on Frames from ‘Used Purchases’ : eg a Nuc.
Where I do a tightening adjustment. (After Extracting the Honey, I melt the Wax Out.)
I just Re-String these Frames with New Wire using the above process.
Or you can Drill Holes on Non Wired Frames (maybe ex Pre Wax /Plastic Foundation) and add your own Wires for the Bees to Draw out Natural Wax Comb.
This means the Bees can build Comb to their needs. This is especially so with Drone Comb. In the time of pending Swarm Season. Ideal to remove and destroy (to get Varroa Mite levels down via IPM. Varroa Mite are (Capped) within the Drone Cell. If this Comb is removed, so to is the Capped Cells with young (new) Varroa Mites within them. Its a Win win situation.
What Clamp to look for ???
Search : Quicker Release / Slider Clamp. . .
It’s a type with Rubber Holding End Pads,
a Single Handle with a Release Lever.
You either squeeze Lever until Item is Clamped, or press Release Trigger, Slide closer to Hold position, then it ‘Tightens’ around your project.
I mainly have Langstroth Hives, an odd National Hive and a couple of Warre.
By buying an x18 Inch sized Clamp, this will take most Frames Widths with no problem.
If you do woodwork and the Clamp is bigger, you just Clamp to Size, but you may need to ‘support that long Rail’ that’s sticks out way beyond your Bee Frame (!)
I found a x18 Inch length was fine to be my “Bee Frame Clamp” only. It stays with my Bee Stash and is very handy to have.
Many thanks for that … the only comment I’d make is that removal of drone brood isn’t a particularly effective way of controlling Varroa. Yes, you remove mites, but insufficient to dramatically alter the mite load in the colony. As someone else comments, the first drone brood of the season is worth removing as it acts as a magnet for mites. Those really early drones are also unlikely to ever get to chase a queen … 🙁
Here’s one of the clamps … I call them sash clamps, but I think that’s a name that applies to much larger ones than this. I regularly use this (and three others that are similar) to clamp boxes up tight when building (assembling!!) flat-pack broods or supers.
Do you find a difference in the time it takes the bees to make the foundation in the foundation less frames between your east and west coast bees? I always feel my highland bees need all the help they can get. Also as most of our honey is heather I tend to use unwired foundation for ease of cutting the honey out of the frame out for the crusher.
Everything is slower on the west coast … start of the season, queen mating, nectar flows 😉 I think it’s the latter that’s the rate limiting step. The bees can draw comb fast enough when the heather is yielding well. Scotland is also generally a bit slower than the Midlands where I started beekeeping.
I suppose it could also be temperature … at lower temperatures the bees definitely draw comb less fast.
What kind of wooden strips & measurements do you use… ply wood ?
Great article, thank you.
I use tongue depressors which you can buy by the thousand on eBay. Alternatively, if you can stomach eating dozens of ice lolly’s then lolly sticks should work just as well. As another alternative any thin strip wood will work. Finally, you can turn the ‘wedge’ through 90° and nail that back in place, which also works. Essentially all the bees need is a something for them to key on to.
Another great article, thanks David.
I tend to use bamboo skewers, vertically and horizontally, in foundationless frames.
Can’t say the bees have any preference though!
Being a pedant, can I claim a “prize” for spotting your use of the noun as a verb ( Reusing Foundationless Frames)? Unless Scotland has gone to the American usage! 😉
Even we mild-mannered Canadians stick with English usage.😂
I offer no prizes for spotting typos, spelling mistakes, shoddy punctuation or any other forms of poor English (whether American, Canadian or British) … if there were I’d be bankrupt.
I’ve not tried horizontal bamboo as the only skewers I could find that were long enough were a bit too thick for my liking.
how do you harvest your honey using foundationless frames. Do you cut the honey and wax out and melt it down using a heated uncapping tray or do have dome other method.
I’m assuming the frames even with bamboo supports etc wouldn’t be strong enough to use in an extractor.
I attempted to address this, maybe it wasn’t clear. Horizontally supported supers – mine are all with mono because I made them 8-10 years ago – all go through the radial extractor with no problems. I’ve had a few ‘burst’ but those built on commercial wired foundation can also blow if the extractor is badly balanced or there’s crystallised OSR honey in the frame. I’ve never used super frames with vertical supports – of wire, mono or bamboo.
David an excellent article and one which answers a few questions that I pondered, having been converted to starter strips and bamboo skewers last year. My brood chambers are on 14×12 and so far I have yet to have the problem of the wax frame bursting during inspections – but there is always a first time I guess. I had intended to purchase some new foundation for replacing the old stuff along the lines of one frame of starter next to a frame of new wax, however the cost is ridiculous. I even thought about fitting straight forward National foundation and letting the bees fill out the bottom part, but your article solves the problem and saves me money!
Keep up the good work
All the £££ I quote are for standard brood frames/foundation. I think I saw that 14×12 foundation was about £23 … Yikes! I’m always careful with the bamboo-supported frames until they incorporate the three panels into one. After that I treat them just the same as any other frame. They’re easy to make and work really well. I’ve got dozens racked up and ready to go for the season, but am dabbling with some weirdly wired ones as well for fun as much as anything else.
Great article and reminder to get more ready to use for this season. I have been using foundationless in my brood chambers for about 6 years now and only use as a starter, a thin piece of wood at the top of the frame for the bees to build from. I have tried mono and probably too low a test weight and had real problems with it breaking, mostly in my swarm traps. Because I don’t use any reinforcement, I have to be careful on hot days when looking at them out of the hive, as I am sure you can guess what I learned quickly!! But I think that by paying more attention to handling, I can get away with using any reinforcing. After a couple of seasons, it becomes hard enough to manipulate even on hot days – mostly. I always start them in between to frames of plastic foundation and that works very well. In my honey supers I have mistakenly extracted comb honey frames in a radial extractor and they worked fine. My question is, have you used foundationless for honey production on a regular basis?
I started with 30 lb mono (I think, it was a long time ago) and the bees bite through it. 50 lb is much better but less pleasant to handle. I’ve made dozens of horizontally supported super frames and run them through the extractor with no problems, year after year.
First of all on behalf of Nottingham Region BKA thanks for excellent presentation on Monday now followed up by equally good blog. Bamboo sticks and lollipop sticks ordered to commence preparing some foundationless frames for forthcoming season.
As you recommended try something different.
Cheers Alec T
Delighted you enjoyed the talk … I hope you enjoy the foundationless frames as much.
Something I forgot to mention in my initial reply…
On my first reading I was thinking that as it seems improbable that it will be possible to completely rid ourselves of foundation in the short to medium term without switching to top bar hives, perhaps I should revisit my plans to make a foundation press and make my own foundation from wax recovered from my own hives. But of course this will also contain traces of my favoured mite treatment products and therefore runs the risk of increasing resistance to the products that I and many others in the UK choose to use. I’d have to assume that would be A Very Bad Thing. A shame, as wax exchange looks to be quite a poor return on investment at the moment as far as I’m concerned.
I suspect I need to do more thinking on this.
It’s worth noting that the Varroa resistance is me speculating. The mechanism I propose – chronic exposure to a sub-lethal dose – is a classic way to generate and maintain resistance. I don’t know how much Apistan is used these days, or how widespread resistance is … my guess is that resistance would be more widespread than current usage would predict. It’s known that the mutation that confers resistance is deleterious in the absence of selection, so would normally be expected to disappear. However, traces of fluvalinate in foundation might delay or stop this disappearance.
At least making your own foundation you would know what might be contaminating it. Those commercial foundations tested contained a real mixture of different miticides. What’s more, if you use thymol, oxalic or formic based miticides, these don’t leave residues as far as I know.
Sorry to be ignorant… what’s mono?
Mono = nylon monofilament. I defined it somewhere in the text (almost certainly in brackets) … those four letters are a darn sight easier to type than nylon monofilament every time 😉
Thanks for this. I would never have considered going “no foundation” but I will give it a go now, probably by gradually introducing frames into the brood box to begin with.
A friend introduced me to plastic brood frames purchased from Beehive Bits. I am experimenting with both brood and super. They can go in the dishwasher and are easy to use (snap open/close). Apparently the supers are fine when spinning out honey as they have two central struts either side to hold everything in place. Have you tried them?
I’ve not tried them. Here’s a link to the brood frames for readers who’ve not see these before. I’d be interested to see how they build around the foundation supports and/or whether you could use them with unwired foundation.
I quite like wooden frames; I’m not sure I’d actually miss the winter frame making, steam wax extractor and soda scrub, but it’s all part of my beekeeping. I also know the trouble I’d get in if I put a few hundred frames through the dishwasher 😉 . I think I’m already pushing my luck when I spend the morning cleaning jars for a big order …