Why go foundationless?

Photo credit for the above photo goes to Valerie Wright! Thanks for sharing this with us!

Over the past 5 years, we have switched our operation to foundationless beekeeping. This decision came gradually, but matches our natural beekeeping philosophies. This post will talk about our deciding factors. Work by Michael Bush has influenced our decision greatly.

Before going foundationless, we used deep plastic foundation that was imprinted with hexagons and sprayed with a light coating of beeswax. Foundation gives strength to the comb and provides a starting point for the bees.The imprinted hexagons guide the bees with where to build comb. We love using all deep equipment, as it requires fewer frames and boxes for each hive, which is more efficient and saves us money.

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Plastic foundation by Pierco. Here is a link to foundation reviews, for those who choose foundation.

We kept hearing about the advantages to foundationless beekeeping, but the trouble was that deep comb requires some kind of support. We couldn’t just put an empty deep frame in the hive and expect the comb to hold up. It weighs too much and the comb would buckle.(Comb in medium or shallow frames holds up okay in foundationless frames.) Plastic foundation, wires, or wooden shims can provide needed support.

The trouble with plastic foundation is that it doesn’t allow bees the freedom of building comb the way they would like. Most of the cells bees build are sized for smaller, worker bee brood. However, bees like to build about 20% of larger, drone bee cells. They use the drone comb to raise drone bees in the spring or to store honey in the fall.

Also, plastic foundation is sprayed with a thin layer of beeswax from someone else’s hive. This wax may contain disease spores and pesticide residues the beekeeper used in the hive, or residue from pesticides on plants bees visited. Wax is a reservoir for storing contaminants. We really like the idea of giving bees a clean start with only the wax they create.

Before plastic came along, beekeepers would string wires through holes in the sides of the frame, in a zigzag shape. Some beekeepers still do this. Wiring frames took a long time. We asked Stan’s mom to show us how. As a commercial beekeeper’s daughter, she remembers spending countless hours stringing frames for her beekeeping dad. Wiring frames can work to support comb, but it is not efficient, and then there are wires running through the comb.

Wooden shims seemed like the best idea. We saw a couple articles in the American Bee Journal about different types of vertical shims, especially in honeycomb production, but not really any horizontal shims. Stan thought a horizontal shim would be a good idea.

He experimented with several styles and came up with the middle bar frame, now our signature frame. It features 2 removable dowels running horizontally across the center of the frame. The top bar of the frame has a chamfer (triangle) that encourages bees to build comb in the center of the frame. It also has grooves in the top bar and bottom bar so beekeepers can put foundation, if they like.

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We set up an experiment with 70 hives. Groups of hives had plastic foundation, starter strips of wax foundation, foundationless, or burr comb wedged between the middle bars of the frame. We watched bees build comb and noticed that bees didn’t prefer one particular method. Foundation did not speed them up, neither did starter strips. Bees built comb on all of the arrangements. It’s as if the bees said to us, “We know how to build comb. It is part of our nature to build. Give us space to build and we will do it.” As far as timing goes, bees didn’t build significantly more quickly with any type of foundation (or lack of it).

Bees usually prefer to build from the top down. When given a choice between a starter strip on the top bar, or one in the middle, they preferred to build from the top one.

Bees generally like to match the front of the frame to the back. If a section of comb has honey on the front side, it will store honey in the same place on the back too. The same is true with brood and pollen. In foundationless frames, there is more empty space. Bees can “festoon” and communicate better from one side of the comb to the other. (Festooning is where bees hang onto each other in a kind of chain to build comb.) With a solid wall of foundation between them, bees can’t festoon. Interrupting the bees’ cluster and festooning with a sheet of foundation isn’t necessarily bad for the bees, but it’s not what they naturally do.

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Photos by Valerie Wright

When bees’ hive is a hollow log, wall cavity, etc., their parallel combs are often interrupted by obstacles. The bees deal with that okay. It’s not necessarily bad for them. But their preference is to build parallel combs at the same time. From this video you can see that bees build where they can.

Bees need a hive temperature in the mid-90’s to draw out comb. If the bees can festoon within a cluster, it makes it easier for them to maintain that temperature. Without walls of foundation in between, it makes it easier for them to maintain the cluster of drawing comb.

With foundation, bees can still communicate through the comb using vibration, and the bees can tell what is going on the other side of the foundation. However, it is easier for them to communicate if the frame is foundationless. Sometimes with all middle bar frames, bees build comb across several frames instead of down the middle of the frame (like they’re supposed to). We added a chamfer to the top of the frame to prevent this, but it is still a possibility. When cross-building happens in our hives, we correct it by carefully cutting out the comb and placing it between the bars of the middle bar frame. It is relatively easy to fix when we catch it early. The second half of this video shows how to fix burr comb.

To avoid bees building comb across frames, beekeepers could alternate foundationless frames with frames with foundation. Sometimes we recommend that new beekeepers buy middle bar frames for their hive, plus 5 sheets of foundation. In the bottom box, you could alternate frames with foundation with frames without. Once comb is 80% drawn in the bottom box, it’s time to add the second box. At this point you would have 10 frames with drawn comb in the bottom box and 10 new middle bar frames in the second box. Beekeepers could rearrange both boxes to alternate drawn comb with empty middle bar frames.

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This idea works great, but it’s not what we actually do in our own hives. We just let them build on empty frames and fix errant comb.

Another reason we prefer foundationless frames is that it allows bees to build small cell size. Beekeepers historically experimented with enlarging the cell size of worker bees by stretching wax foundation, which was commonly used then. The reason for larger bees was to create a bee with a longer tongue so it would have access to more floral nectar sources, primarily red clover. Larger cells created a longer incubation time for the brood, which yielded a larger bee.

Fast forward 100 years to today, when bees are commonly infected with the varroa mite parasite. Varroa mites feed and reproduce within the cell with the brood. A longer bee incubation time gives the mites longer to reproduce. Perhaps going back to a smaller bee will limit the reproduction of mites. Giving bees the opportunity to build smaller cells may help them go back to smaller bees.

In addition, there are some reports that smaller cell size bees forage further from the hive. This would give them access to more forage, which can be critical in arid regions like southern Utah.

I hope this helps our customers know a bit about why we’ve decided to go foundationless and that maybe you will join us in our sustainability journey.

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