ADDENDUM (March 31/14): I’ve changed my tune. As much I love honey, it’s not my main reason for keeping honey bees. I like being around the bees and watching them all the time, getting my nose inside the hive whenever I can to see how they’re all getting along. And that’s a whole lot more fun with foundationless frames because you can watch the comb get bigger and bigger as the bees hang from the frames in chains and gradually build comb naturally with no help from plastic foundation. It’ll take the bees three or four times longer to build and then fill the comb, but if you’re into beekeeper to watch and learn and absorb calmness from the bees, foundationless beekeeping may be the way to go.
Foundationless beekeeping is turning out to be less successful than I’d hoped. Foundationless hives require considerably more resources to thrive than conventional hives with foundation, and those resources are not consistently available in St. John’s, Newfoundland, given our cold wet springs and short summers. I was recently informed that the foundationless hives can survive in Newfoundland, but they will likely take two years to establish themselves in our cold climate before I can harvest any honey from them. I wouldn’t have bothered with foundationless hives had I known that from the start. As much as I like the idea of going all-natural, I want some honey too.
So here’s the best plan I can come up with at the moment.
Neither of our hives are 100% foundationless. Each hive has about 10 conventional frames with foundation and 10 that are foundationless. I might be able to combine the 20 conventional frames from the two hives into one strong hive so that at least one hive has a chance of producing some honey I can harvest this summer. All the foundationless frames loaded up with drone comb can live together in their own hive and fend for themselves. If they do alright, wonderful. But if they don’t, at least I have a chance of harvesting some honey from the conventional hive this summer. Maybe.
It’s possible the excessive number of drones on the foundationless frames using up all the bees’ resources are a result of a laying worker bee, but there would have to be a laying worker in both hives to account for all the drones if that was the case, and that seems unlikely to me. I’m not certain about anything that’s happening in the hives. However, I am certain that I’m off the foundationless track. Knocking it down to one foundationless hive will be enough for me. I would love to have the foundationless hive do well, but until I see with my own eyes that foundationless works well in the cold wet environment of St. John’s, I have to hedge my bets with what’s been proven to work around here, and that’s conventional hives with foundation.
If it seems like I’m making this move only because I want more honey, I’m not. It’s better for the bees too. A young colony started from a conventional hive with considerably less drones would most likely not be as starved out as ours are now.
UPDATE (July 03/11): I’ll be glad when all this moving of foundationless frames to a single hive is over with. All of it makes me feel like I have a second job on top of my regular job, which I do not want or need. Again, I would like to warn new beekeepers not to do what I have done. Don’t try any great experiments or anything unconventional in your first year of beekeeping. The peace and harmony that comes from hanging with the the bees can quickly evaporate into a cloud of apprehension and worry if your experiment fails. Instead, stick with what has been proven to work in your local climate, and keep your beekeeping simple. At least until you know what you’re doing.
UPDATE (July 04/11): I pulled out a few frames from both hives to exchange out some foundationless frames with conventional frames, and every frame was full of drones. Thousands of them.
UPDATE (Jan. 09/12): When I first got into beekeeping and tried to follow the foundationless route, I didn’t know about moving drone frames to the outside of the box — or any of the manipulation that goes along with foundationless beekeeping. I got the impression from the Backwards Beekeepers that I could just let the bees be bees and everything would work out fine. But that isn’t exactly how it works.
For more thoughts on this topic, read “Let the bees be bees.” Really? from Honey Bee Suite.