Tag Archives: foundationless

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 … 🙂

2014 in retrospect

Hives in the frost

Hives in the frost

2014 was a pretty good year for beekeeping. The winter was not overly long or cold and colonies came through it in good condition. Spring was cool and damp – although colony build up was about normal it was difficult to find good enough weather for inspections. Despite the weather the OSR yielded well. The summer flows were good, with excellent lime and blackberry which persisted for a long time (and necessitated frantic frame and super assembly in mid-summer). I took the honey harvest off in mid-August but – in retrospect – should have left it longer to get more from the himalayan balsam. The autumn ivy was excellent, with the bees working it here until at least mid-November. I’ve ended the season with more honey than I’ve had in the last 4 years, a dozen strong colonies and some overwintering nucs. As always, some things went well and some things went badly (or at least, less well) and I hope I’ve learnt from both.

Three day old grafts

Three day old grafts

Queen rearing was patchy to say the least. This was entirely my fault. Although I achieved consistently high ‘take’ rates for grafting my work commitments meant I lost a couple of batches of queens by not caging the cells early enough. With queen rearing, timing is critical. I used a mixture of Kieler mini-nucs and 3 frame nucs for queen mating, losing some of the former to wasps and – stupidly – getting a 50% return of mated queens from the latter because the plastic crownboard (pinned down along the central wooden divider) buckled or stretched from the heat of the colony allowing one of the virgin queens to slaughter the other. D’oh! Needless to say, this is being fixed for the 2015 season.

Morris board

Morris board …

On a more positive note both preventing and capturing swarms went very well. The combination of clipped queens and prompt use of the Demaree method kept my production colonies under control and I’m only aware of losing one swarm from an over-stuffed 5 frame nuc early in the season. I increasingly favour the Demaree system (or versions of it, such as the use of a Morris board) for swarm control – it requires minimal additional equipment and keeps the colony together. My bait hives for capturing swarms worked well, particularly as I’ve learnt the best way to set them up is to use foundationless frames. The incoming swarm has somewhere to build immediately and they only need to be checked every few days. The combination of a nail gun (for frame assembly) and foundationless frames was a revelation – the former slashing frame building times and the latter providing the obvious benefit of reduced foundation costs, and a number of less obvious (but greater) benefits in terms of improved colony vigour.



The first inspections of the 2015 season are still several months away so there’s ample time yet for preparation. This includes painting several more poly nucs, frame building and wax filtering. I’ll make an annual batch of mead in the hope that – one year – it will be drinkable. Beekeeping is too dependent upon the vagaries in the weather to make definitive plans or resolutions. However, I do intend to experiment with upper entrances during Bailey comb changes and Demaree swarm control, to use more foundationless super frames and to overwinter more nucs for the 2016 season.

Finally, this website has been running for about a year. Looking at the visitor stats it’s clear that the most popular posts have been on honey warming cabinets and Paynes poly nuc boxes (though in fairness, these were also some of the earliest posts), with visitors from over 100 countries in total. I hope you found something useful here.

Happy New Year

Memories of midseason

Memories of midseason

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 🙂

Lost and found

Walking back from my out apiary this evening and I saw this reasonably new natural comb in the bushes. This must have been a swarm I missed a month or so ago, though perhaps not from my colonies as the queens are all clipped. Most swarms settle a short distance from the hive they leave, then move elsewhere … this comb was a couple of hundred metres from my nearest colony.

Natural comb

Natural comb …

We had some good weather at the beginning of May. I was abroad and when I returned at the end of the first week I discovered a swarm had moved into a bait hive on top of my greenhouse. Perhaps it moved there from this tree? There are bees in both adjacent fields so this might have been the source. The comb was a foot or so deep from the branch it was connected to. I suspect that, having swarmed, the weather got worse, trapping the swarm in the tree for several days, during which time they built the comb.

In contrast, here’s one I did catch at the end of last month. I noticed this late in the evening and had to use flash to photograph it. It was at head height on a rotten branch.

Swarm of bees

Swarm of bees

I gave it a good shake (snapping the branch and dropping bees everywhere) into a Paynes poly nuc and left them on the ground overnight to sort themselves out. Within two days they’d drawn out sufficient foundationless frames for the queen to start laying and now, fifteen days later, are in a full hive with nearly 9 frames fully drawn and packed with eggs and brood.

Captured swarm in 8 frame poly nuc

Captured swarm in 8 frame poly nuc …

The queen in this swarm was large and pale, nothing like the ones I usually rear, so I suspect she’s a generous gift from an unsuspecting local beekeeper.