Foundationless Frames

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 (photo) 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 various mites, and the bees are generally healthier when they’re allowed to do what they would naturally do. Look at this video from the Backwards Beekeepers to see how frames with starter strips are made:

Check out this video at the 1:30 mark to see bees building off the starter strip — and don’t tell me it isn’t cool:

It’s the Backwards Beekeepers who got me hooked on beekeeping, so I’m trying to follow their example. I don’t know how well the more natural methods of beekeeping will work in the cold climate of Newfoundland, but I’ve asked around and I’ve been told by more than a few beekeepers in similar environments that the foundationless methods will work. So I’m going for it.

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. (Skip to the 4:18 mark on this video to see what I’m talking about. You might want to watch the other Bushkill Farms videos while you’re at it. Lots of good stuff.) 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 could have done it like the Backwards Beekeepers in their instructional video, but I had a minuscule amount of wax. I hope it was enough to encourage the bees to build off it. UPDATE: I got hold of a big chunk of natural raw beeswax, melted it down in a pot and re-waxed many of the starter strips just like they do in the video. Worked like a charm.

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 got me into beekeeping in the first place.

OCTOBER 22, 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.

Related posts: Adding a Second Brood Chamber, Expanding the Hive and Dead Baby Bees.

September 01, 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.

PHOTOS NOTE (AUGUST 2015): The photos in this post may not display properly because they were uploaded through Google’s Picasa online photo album service, a service I no longer use because certain updates created more work for me instead of streamlining the process. I will eventually replace the photos with ones hosted on the Mud Songs server. This note will disappear when (or if) that happens.

4 thoughts on “Foundationless Frames

  1. I have found that pine cones are also good starter fuel. They burn quite smokey & a bit fast but are clean to carry.

  2. I’m not sure what starter fuel has to do with foundationless frames (the topic of this post), but yeah, I tried pine cones, too, based on Fat Bee Man’s recommendation.

    I discovered the pine cones burn so hot my smoker nearly turned red, and hot tar poured out of the top of the smoker. I’m not sure what happened, but I gave it up quickly. The intense heat nearly destroyed my smoker.

    I use basic wood shavings now, sold in bulk as “bedding” for hamsters and other rodent pets. Works fine.

  3. Hey Phil,

    don;t buy anymore shaving. My brother is a cabinet maker. I can get all the kiln dried shavings you need.

    Also Phil, I still have drones in a couple of colonies. These are good strong hives too. Crazy eh.

  4. No worries, man. The big bag of shavings cost about dollars and last me all year.

    As for those drones, my colonies last year had drones going well into winter, and 3 out of 4 swarmed in the spring. Though I probably overfed them too.

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