I introduced some foundationless frames to Hive #1 this weekend. I’ll tell you why and I’ll tell you how. Here’s one of my foundationless frames:
Conventional frames hold a plastic foundation the bees use to build their comb on. They follow a honeycomb pattern that’s impressed on the plastic. Foundationless frames have nothing but a little strip of plastic or wood near the top called a starter strip. The bees hang off the starter strip and construct their comb like they would in nature, creating cells the size they want them to be, not the size that’s imposed on them by following the pattern on a plastic foundation. It’s argued that the natural sized cells are better for the bees because they help prevent infestations of varroa mites (which we don’t have on the island of Newfoundland) and the bees are generally healthier when they’re allowed to do what they would naturally do. Or so I’ve been told.
I built the foundationless frames like I did my regular frames, but I also had to do the following:
1) Cut out and insert plastic starter strips. I made my starter strips from a corrugated plastic sign I got from a friend of mine pretending to be a politician. Cutting and trimming the plastic and then inserting it into the frame with carpenters glue was time-consuming and tedious. All of this stuff is tedious.
2) Wax the starter strips. I took the little bit of wax I scraped off the top of my frames in Hive #1 (see the First Taste of Honey post), melted it in a jury-rigged double boiler, and then applied it to the starter strips with a toothbrush. I hope it was enough to encourage the bees to build off it.
3) Wire the frames. Freely-drawn comb is usually anchored only to the top of the frame, which makes it easy to accidentally break off during inspections. (UPDATE: Our bees seem to connect the comb on all sides of the frame. A strong anchor is not a problem.) The bees have no problem building through the wire, though, and the wire provides greater support for the comb. I couldn’t find any half decent wire locally, so instead I used the strongest mono filament (or fishing line) sold at Canadian Tire — 30 pound test, though 40 is recommended. Apparently it works just as well. If the line gets old and eventually breaks, I’ll tie wire on the outside of the frames and be done with it. The bees can work around the wire and it’ll due for brood frames. The wire is strung through holes that are already drilled in the side of the frames. Just make the wire tight and you’re good to go. (UPDATE: I got hold of some real wire. I’ll try it out for 2011.)
I’ll quickly check the foundationless frames next week. If the bees are building comb on them, hooray! If they’re not, the experiment is over and I’ll insert foundation into the frames. I will be thrilled if it actually works, though, because my admiration for the Backwards Beekeeping methods is what more or less got me into beekeeping in the first place.
October 22nd, 2010: The foundationless frames worked out fine. I don’t know if going foundationless in Newfoundland is better than any other method, but I think it might be fun to give it a try.
September 1st, 2015: I gave up on foundationless frames after my second summer because it took too much time for the bees to draw out comb in the foundationless brood chambers, whereas the colonies started on foundation were always much stronger going into winter. I also had some foundationless colonies create frame after frame of drone comb, as much as 50% of the hive. That’s way too many drones. Finally, it took two years for the foundationless colonies to establish themselves so that I could eventually harvest surplus honey during the third summer. Not that honey was ever my priority, but waiting three years for a honey harvest was a bit too much for me. All that being said, going foundationless isn’t the end of the world for Newfoundland beekeepers as far as I can tell. It can be done. It requires more resources and more time for the bees to establish a foundationless colony, and the honey harvests are probably less, but at the moment I don’t see why it wouldn’t work. I can understand the appeal of it seeming more natural. The bees build however many drones they need and the size of the cells are dictated by the bees, not by a size imprinted on plastic foundation. It also removes plastic found inside the hive, so the bees and the honey are never exposed to plastic, which some people argue gets into the honey. I’m tempted to start up another foundationless colony just to see what happens, though I’m not convinced that any method of beekeeping is more natural or better for the bees than any other.
November 2018 Postscript: It didn’t take me long to give up on following the Backwards Beekeeping approach of “let the bees be bees.” It seemed natural to me at the time and I loved it. But if I just let my bees be bees, they’d be dead within a year, which is what seems to happen to many beekeepers in Newfoundland who try to follow a natural approach to beekeeping. If I just let my bees be bees, I wouldn’t feed them in the first year or any time they ran low on honey; I wouldn’t do anything to keep the bees warm and dry over the winter; I wouldn’t add mesh to the entrances to keep mice and shrews out of the hives in the winter; and I wouldn’t do anything to prevent swarming. Swarming isn’t necessarily a deathblow, but most new beekeepers aren’t ready for swarms right away, and they end up with a weakened colony that doesn’t survive the winter. Fortunately for me, going with foundationless frames was the least harmful aspect of so-called natural beekeeping, and it didn’t kill my bees. I steered away from foundationless frames for several years, but now I’m steering back. Whenever I need to add a new frame to a brood box, I just put in a foundationless frame, mainly because I’m too lazy to put foundation in my frames. I also think a strong colony will build inside a foundationless frame more readily than on plastic foundation. It takes more resources, but most of the time, that seems to be the way it plays out.