Is Foundationless Beekeeping a Good Idea for Cold Climate Beekeepers?

I had time to inspect my hives today for the first time in about three or four weeks. It’s the first time in June we’ve had some half decent weather on the weekend. Anyway, I’m confident there is no chance of either of my colonies swarming or building into a honey super any time soon. Not by a long shot. I inspected my hives today and both are weak. The combination of about 40 days of drizzle and cold and thousands of drones from the foundationless frames eating up all the hives’ resources has weakened the colonies (my best guess). One hive is overloaded with drones and drone comb, a little bit of worker brood, some pollen and virtually zero honey stores.

The other hive has more worker brood and more honey, but I found several frames with waxed foundation that have barely been touched. These bees are starving (I think.)

I’m going to feed them constantly for the next week or so. They are nowhere close to filling up the two deeps of the brood chamber. I had foundationless medium supers on both hives for the past month and saw no signs that they were interested in building on the medium frames. So I removed them.

I also removed four frames of drone brood from the hive that’s overloaded with drones and replaced them with fully drawn foundation or basic waxed foundation. I put the drone comb in a box above a bee escape. The plan is to gradually remove all the foundationless frames. I’ll say more about this at another time, but I think my experiment in backwards beekeeping is coming to an end, at least for the time being.

Capped drone comb.

Perhaps I should combine the hives into one strong hive. Maybe re-queening the hives would help. I’m not sure. But the excessive number of drones on the foundationless frames using up all colonies’ resources and the near total lack of pollen and nectar intake for the past month or so has been the perfect storm that’s knocked the colonies down so low that they’re just surviving, not thriving. Both colonies were doing better back in April. (The weather was more bee-friendly then too.) I don’t think I’ll be harvesting much honey this year.

And I’m pretty much convinced now that foundationless is not the way to go for beekeeping in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Living and learning here, folks.

February 2019 Postscript: I’m not sure what was happening with this colony that was producing an excessive number of drones. But I have learned through some presentations by Michael Smith for the National Honey Show (and other sources) that most honey bee colonies aim for about 20% drones and that removing drone frames to reduce the drone population usually compels the colony to make more drones. So it may be better to just leave the drone comb alone.

I’m not sure if going with foundationless frames resulted in the large number of drones. That was my conclusion at the time, but what did I really know then? What do I know now? Drone production usually indicates that a colony has an abundance of resources coming in and that they’re in good shape. An excessive amount of drone comb could indicate a laying worker. It can indicate that the queen doesn’t have any fertilized sperm. It can mean a few things.

At the time, I thought foundationless hives were probably not the greatest move for my cold climate. Foundationless colonies require more resources to build up comb and therefore, sometimes, produce less honey. Does that make it a bad choice for beekeepers in Newfoundland? I don’t know.

I eventually steered away from foundationless frames and had no problems with wax-coated plastic foundation. But these days I use a combination of both plastic and foundationless frames. I try to insert at least one foundationless frame per brood box because if the bees are short on drones, the foundationless frames give them the space they need for making drones. If they don’t need drones, they’ll fill the empty frame with honey or worker brood — whatever they need. The foundationless frames might reduce the honey production, but I found that the bees will build comb on foundationless frames (when placed between two frames of drawn comb) more readily than they will with wax-coated plastic foundation. There are pros and cons all over the place, and in the end it’s probably just a matter or personal preference whether to go foundationless or not. But I’ve never gone completely foundationless, so I can’t say for sure.

3 thoughts on “Is Foundationless Beekeeping a Good Idea for Cold Climate Beekeepers?

  1. Sorry to hear about your challenges. Have you asked around on forums for ideas? I can’t say I have eny experience in a climate as mild/cold as yours, but our spring and early summer was marked with a lot of rain as well. Under the recommendation of others I have kept up feeding almost constantly until only just recently.

    I wouldn’t give up on the foundationless frames just yet. If the bees have a steady stream of food coming in it will drive them to build comb. Also, if you haven’t already, you can rotate some frames that are full or well working into the box that isn’t. For example, taking two frames from the outer edge of the bottom box and swapping them for two inner frames in the upper box. Doing this with frames with brood is a good idea. Hope things improve for you.

  2. Phil,

    Feed, Feed, Feed. I topped up two frame feeders yesterday. I went back today and I put another 22 cups of 1:1 in. The bees were starting to beard on my honey comb below the board on the frame, but nothing on the foundation. What ever it is the bees prefer foundationless over foundation to start on. They are storing it somewhere so at some point they have to build some comb. Thate being said I have a frame of partially drawn from last year and I cannot get them to draw the rest of it out.

    Crazy man.

Comments are closed.