Knocking It Down to One Foundationless Hive

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.

11 thoughts on “Knocking It Down to One Foundationless Hive

  1. Based on the pictures you’ve posted, there’s no way you have laying workers. Laying worker brood tends to be spotty–a cell here, a cell there–not compact masses of drone cells like you have.

    Whoever said it would take a couple years to get honey from foundationless hives in Newfoundland is exactly right. Basically, once all your combs are drawn out, the bees can spend their time collecting nectar instead of building comb. However, you will still have excessive numbers of drones because that’s a feature of natural comb. It’s a give and take.

  2. Someone also suggested I might have drone-laying queens in both of my hives, and that the queens are more or less failing. I don’t know.

    Either way, this kind of stinks. In all the reading I did about foundationless hives, I never got the message that it would take two summers for me to get any honey from the hives.

    I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I want to try dividing up the hives so that I have one that’s completely foundationless and one that’s not, and hopefully the one that’s not will give me a little honey. I’ve put too much time and money not get some honey this summer.

    Does anyone have any creative suggestions?

  3. Phil,

    You have 20 frames with plastic foundation. Take 16 and put in one hive. In position 1 and 10 of both boxes place drone comb. The bees should be less likely to lay eggs right to the edge.

    Use thoses 4 remaining foundation frames and the queen to start a good sized nuc. That way you should get some honey and have a good healthy colony for next year. The four frames available for brood that colony will get off to a roaring start and be built up by the fall.

    That way you can have your honey and eat it too. Also get the screens to get rid of the drones. Don’t know where you will find the #5 mesh but it has to be avaiable somewhere. Dan may have some to spare.

    Go out on a cool night vacuum off the drones, shake them off the drones, whatever. Either way you will get the numbers down. More honey for you, less for drones.

  4. Despite the massive number of drones produced on the foundationless frames, I think the colonies are healthy. The worker bee population has certainly taken a big hit because of the drones, so the colonies are much weaker than local hives using conventional frames, but when the sun actually does come out and the temperature rises, both hives kick into top gear like I assume good healthy hives do.

    I’m hugely disappointed that the foundationless route means little or no honey harvest this year. (I was always concerned that foundationless wouldn’t work in NL’s cold climate, and I feel somewhat misled that those who encouraged me didn’t mention that it could take two years to get a honey harvest. Maybe they didn’t realize how cold and wet NL really is. For now on when it comes to my local climate, I will trust my own opinion more than anyone else’s.) But I’m still interested to see how a more natural hive without foundation manages itself. If it turns out that the foundationless hive over-winters well and does well next summer, I will start up another one.

    I only wish I hadn’t hitched my horse to the Backwards Beekeeping wagon so soon out of the gate. The thought of not getting a honey harvest from the hives this year after spending a couple thousands dollars on them (if not more) and countless hours and a lot of effort — well, mothers, tell your children not to do what I have done. Because it’s no fun.

    I’m still hopeful I can get some honey from at least one hive this summer, probably not until late August. I expect the hives won’t be too strong during the first honey flow, but I might be able to catch something during the second that happens around August-September.

  5. Hi Phillip,

    Nice website.

    I am beekeeper and I live in Quebec.

    Last year, I decided to go foundation-less (f-less) because I don’t have to pay for the foundation (wax or plastic) and it takes less time for me to assemble.

    I do have an increased number of drones. Some people estimate that up to 20% of drones is normal in a hive.

    The first few f-less frames that ones inserts in a new hive will become drone comb (the bees finally have the place to build it and they will). This is the reason why many people say f-less does not work.

    I also move the drone frames away from the box center.

    We had a very wet spring this year. Many beekeepers that I know had quite a few weak hives at the beginning of this summer.

    The medium honey supers are also f-less.
    In a good nectar flow, the bees build and fill it with honey in a bit more than 1 week.

    I found that the best way to build the f-less frames is to insert them in the middle of your brood nest.

    Good luck,


  6. I’m not concerning myself with foundationless frames in the brood chamber anymore. But I would love to have them in my honey supers. What’s better than natural honey comb?

    The foundationless hives will probably work out alright — eventually — but both of my hives have produced thousands of drones, easily five or six full frames of drones per hive, all on foundationless frames, and in the cold climate of St. John’s with its short summers, that’s a huge chunk of the yearly resources going into drone production instead of honey.

    I hope to contain all the drone production to a single hive by migrating the remaining foundationless frames to a single hive. For the time being, one hive has about 2/3 foundationless frames, the other about 1/3.

    I don’t plan to start up any more foundationless hives until I’ve seen with my own eyes that it works well in our local climate. I know from talking to local beekeepers that conventional hives work well — significantly better than foundationless.

    I could go all-natural and stick with foundationless frames, but that’s somewhat delusional. With or without foundation, there is nothing natural about keeping honey bees in Newfoundland. The bees spend at least eight months of the year stuck in their hives, and they would very likely die in hurry without our assistance.

    If I were to truly go all-natural with our honey bees — for instance, only starting up colonies from locally acclimated feral swarms (which don’t exist in Newfoundland), never requeening and allowing the hives to reproduce naturally through swarming — I’m pretty sure I’d have a lot of dead bees around, and that’s about it. Newfoundland in not honey bee paradise. Until global warming kicks into high gear, it never will be. Realistically, in our climate, I don’t think there’s any advantage to going foundationless, not in terms of honey production or the overall health of the bees.

    I would still like to get some foundationless frames in my honey supers. But in the brood chamber, I’m not sure it matters much in Newfoundland.

  7. I’m still interested in the whole foundationless thing. I’m just not thrilled about the no-honey part of it. It’s like spending a year and a half working and saving up to a go on the fishing trip of a lifetime, and then not catching any fish once you get there. Yeah, it’s pleasant and relaxing to commune with nature and all that, but it’s be even better to bring a big one.

    We’ll see how it works for the second honey flow later in the season.

  8. Hi Phillip,

    Even with foundation, I don’t think you could expect to have a lot of honey since the bees have to build the comb.

    Have you noticed bees kicking out the drones yet ? I’ve had that started two weeks ago in some of the hives.

    Almost none of the hives have drone brood anymore, they are mostly back-filled with nectar.

    Do you have any foundation hives with lots of no comb for comparison purposes ? How do they do ?

    How did you add the honey supers ? Do they have at least 2 build frames inside ?


  9. “Even with foundation, I don’t think you could expect to have a lot of honey since the bees have to build the comb.”

    They already built the comb last year. Both hives came out of the winter with two deeps with most of the 20 frames drawn out.

    “Have you noticed bees kicking out the drones yet? I’ve had that started two weeks ago in some of the hives.”

    I have noticed more drone corpses being pulled out lately, though I’ve been too busy with work to pay close attention to them.

    “Almost none of the hives have drone brood anymore, they are mostly back-filled with nectar.”

    The last time I checked a couple weeks ago, I still saw plenty of capped drone comb. None of it looked fresh, though, so hopefully that means the drones are on the way out. I won’t have time to confirm this until the first weekend of August.

    “Do you have any foundation hives with lots of no comb for comparison purposes? How do they do?”

    One hive has mostly plastic foundation and the other mostly foundationless. I haven’t been able to compare them for awhile, so I can’t say.

    “How did you add the honey supers ? Do they have at least 2 build frames inside?”

    At first I put entirely foundationless honey supers on. That was at least a month ago. The bees didn’t touch the honey supers for the longest time. Then about two weeks ago I added 3-4 medium frames with plastic foundation to the top brood boxes of both hives. A week later I pulled the partially drawn frames up into the honey super. I also cut off the excess comb hanging off the bottom of three of the medium frames and melted the comb into foundationless medium frames, then installed them between regular frames in the honey supers. (So I frames in the honey supers alternate between foundation and no foundation.)

    Hive #2, the mostly foundationless hive, didn’t go for it. Those bees are still ignoring the honey super. Hive #1, though, is building on at least one frame and has begun to build on the foundationless frames with the melted in comb, even on some foundationless frames that were installed completely empty. So that’s promising.

    I haven’t installed a queen excluder yet. I’ll only do it if I see signs of the queen laying in the honey super.

  10. I saw a worker pulling out a drone today. Don’t know if that is the first indication or not. Only time will tell.

  11. I use foundationless frames her in South Africa(5 years now). I have no problem with excessive drone brood, actualy hardly any. I catch my swarms during swarming seasons which are mainly strong primary swarms and usualy during a flow. Try feeding your bees heavily with sugar syrup when they are drawing out brood and it will be worker brood.

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