HOW TO: FOUNDATIONLESS BEEKEEPING IN A LANGSTROTH HIVE

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Ready to try foundationless beekeeping? I run all 50 of my Langstroth hives without foundation and continuously encourage new beekeepers to do the same. Here’s a how-to guide to make sure you get started off the right way with tips on how to avoid common pitfalls and what to do when they happen anyway.

*If you have not read my post on why you should consider foundationless beekeeping, you might want to read that first.

Comb Guides

The most important part of foundationless beekeeping is getting the bees to build straight combs. Once you remove the foundations, there’s nothing stoping the bees from building diagonally across or even perpendicular to the frames. If the bees do this, depending on the severity of it, you will have a very hard time pulling up frames without destroying comb and angering your bees. You can avoid this (mostly) by building your own comb guides! There are several ways to do this, there are even readymade frames intended for foundationless beekeeping that have comb guides. However, I find that these homemade guides are the most effective.

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Materials:

  • – Grooved or slotted frames
  • 14 ” Paint Stirrer Sticks
  • – 1 inch nails
  • – Hammer
  • – Beeswax
  • – Small paint brush
  • – Beeswax melting container (such as a can)

Step One:

Gather your paint sticks, beeswax, paint brush and melting canister around your  stove top. Start by melting your beeswax. Make sure you melt it in something you don’t mind having beeswax on, because it can be difficult to get it off (I use a metal can). Also, make sure you do not walk away from your stove while the beeswax is melting. Beeswax can be extremely flammable. Many people recommend melting it in a double boiler, but I haven’t bothered with that. It should be fine as long as you keep your heat low and supervise everything. Make sure the wax doesn’t start to boil. If it does, turn off the heat. When it comes to the beeswax you use, try to find a chemical free source. Beekeeping groups might be a good resource for this if you can find any treatment-free beekeepers who have wax for sale. If you have your own wax, don’t worry about using a high quality wax or even straining it completely for that matter. It’s okay to use lower grade wax from old combs. My primary concern would be to find out if the wax came from hives that have been treated with acaricides (miticides).

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Step Two:

Take your paintbrush and paint the wax along your paint stick. Coat both sides about half way up. No need to coat the entire thing since only half of it will be exposed (example in picture above). A single coat should be enough. Take care while painting not to get any drips on yourself. If you do, you may get a burn. Luckily a dab of honey will relieve the pain and help the burn heal! I hold the paint stick over my melting container while painting to catch any drips. If your wax cools too much, the wax will become tacky and hard to apply. Just turn the heat back on to return it to a paintable state.

Step Three:

It should not take longer than a few minutes for your paint sticks to dry. I often do large batches so they are ready to go for new frames throughout the season. Center your paint sticks (beeswax half down) in the groove or slot at the top of your frame. Your paint stick should hang down about an inch. Note: If your paint sticks are shorter than 14″, you may need to use two. The 14″ sticks work just fine when centered because the gap on either end is small enough that bees are not tempted to cross. However, don’t assume just because your bees started out building straight on a frame, that they will continue all the way across without a guide. I’ve seen bees build half straight comb and flare out to the frame next to it when the guides are too short.

IMG_5093Step Four:

Nail your comb guide in place. This part can be tricky because you will need to hammer the nail close enough to the edge of the frame that it goes through your guide, but not so close that it splits the wood of your frame. Take care with your nail size. Make sure it is long enough to go through both sides of your grooved frame, but not so long that it pokes out the back. I use two nails on each end of the comb guide and give a small tug to make sure it is secure. Once the bees build comb and fill it will honey and brood it can be quite a bit of weight on the guides. Securing them with beeswax or glue is not enough. You must nail them or you risk the guides falling and out and the combs with them.

IMG_5098Alternative Comb Guides

If your frames already have foundation in them, you may prefer to make use of them. When visiting new beekeepers, I often convince them on spot to let me cut their foundation out, leaving just a strip at the top. This method works just as well if you have wired wax foundations or plastic foundations, however, if your goal is to get chemicals out of your hive, leaving a wax strip of likely contaminated wax foundation may not be ideal. That said, it is better than a full sheet. When cutting away the wax foundation, cut just under the top wire. The wire will help hold the wax strip in place. Wax foundation without wires is trickier to secure. I am sure there are ways to do it, but I would recommend just knocking the whole thing out and installing a paint stick comb guide. Cutting away plastic foundation and just leaving a top strip will also work, but make sure it is secure at the top of the frame. You may also like to try the ready made foundationless frames. I have not had as much success preventing cross-comb with this design as I have had with paint sticks, but if you paint a line of beeswax along the ridge of the guide it does help. Check out the gallery of options below.

Fixing Cross-Combs

If you follow my advice above, cross-combing should be extremely rare. However, in the event that it happens or in the event that it has already happened. Let’s talk about how to fix it.

Materials:

  • – Helper (extra set of hands)
  • – Thin rubberbands
  • – A knife
  • – A bucket or Tupperware with a lid.
  • – Latex gloves
  • – A feather or bee brush
  • – Routine Inspection equipment (smoker, bee suit, hive tool etc.)
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Items of Note:

  • – The bees will likely be angry with you while you do this, so make sure you have your smoker going and that you’ve properly suited up.
  • – Newer comb and comb that is full of honey can be extremely difficult to repair. I often leave these types of combs alone until they’ve either aged (become more stable) or the honey has become capped and harvestable. If you decide to leave comb like this and there are empty frames next to it, take a drawn out comb or a comb with foundation  and place it in-between the crossed comb and the empty combs. This will block the bees from continuing to build crooked on the remaining frames.
  • – Wait for mild temperature to do this work. Hot weather makes for melty combs.
  • – If you are handling honey combs, I like to wear latex gloves over my bee gloves to keep the honey off. This will also prevent you from getting stung through your gloves should the bees get angry.
  • – Convince someone to help you. Having and extra set of hands for this will make everything much easier.
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Step One:

Find a way to give yourself room to work. If the cross-comb is in a box that still have empty frames or a box that has some properly drawn out combs that are straight, pull those out first. You can put them in an empty super or hang them on a frame holder. Then you have room to slide the frames, see the extent of the crossing and catch any falling piece of comb.

Step Two:

Use your smoker and your feather to get bees off the combs you want to fix. Take care the queen is not on these combs. You do not want to accidentally cut through her or crush her. I normally smoke the area, then wait a minute for the bees to run away.

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Step Three:

Figure out how to make the minimum number of cuts. Look at how the combs are crossed and connected. Try to cut away whole pieces that can be easily tied into another frame. After pulling out the combs, I use my feather to get bees out of the way before attempting to tie them in. You may not even need to cut away a whole piece of comb if the comb is not completely crooked. Sometimes you can simply cut along the top part of the way and then gently push the flap of crooked comb back into place. Secure it with one to two rubber bands around the frame.

Step Four:

For combs that had to be cut out of the frame completely, Place two rubber bands around an empty frame. Have your helper hold the frame upright and steady, while you slide them in between  the rubber bands. If the combs that had to be completely removed are really small, too wavy or leaking a lot of honey… it may be best not to put them back in the hives. You can place them 10 ft away and let the bees clean out what the want from the combs or if they are harvestable honey, throw them in your Tupperware or honey bucket. Just make sure you put the lid to keep bees out while you are still working.

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Step Five: 

Arrange your frames so that the bees will not cross comb again. This can be done by alternating straight, fully drawn out frames with corrected frames that still have gaps or by making sure all the frames have proper comb guides.

It’s a good idea to check your hive a week or two after you repair it to make sure everything is going as planned. You should start to see new combs being built from the top and connecting with the transferred frames at the bottom. You can see this happening in the photo above. Eventually the bees will chew through the rubber bands and drag them out of the hive. However, if the combs look secure you can cut them off yourself.

IMG_0367Hopefully you found this guide helpful and will have lots of success with your foundationless beekeeping adventures. My favorite part about not using foundation is watching the bees festoon while building their combs. If you have your own tips or questions, please do leave them in the comments!

42 Comments

Susan T Rudnicki

I have fixed a lot of cross combed frames in my own hives and mentored quite a few students who had not had instruction till rather late in the development of a hive—2 deeps and a couple mediums is not uncommon. Some of these “surgical jobs” went way beyond mentoring, and I had to charge the beek a rate that took that intense labor into account!
Sometimes it is really hard to decide where is the best place to start, but with a good deal of planning and careful observation and cutting (sometimes reaching the knife down between frames to free combs crossing over the space of 2 or more frames) it can be done satisfactorily. Even with comb guides, some bee colonies just seem to want to draw “messy” comb, with “fans” of comb extending at 90 degree angles from the face of the comb. Another tendency I have noticed is the bending or curving of combs at the 2 ends of the frame area. In natural hives, I think they must use this curving to strengthen panels of comb. Having done lots of cutouts, it sure seems to be a common occurrence.
A very good prevention plan is to just inspect the development of the colony in each box at a regular interval when they are in heavy comb-building mode and catching small messes before they become big ones.
One other tool to secure combs that are too short to reach to the topbar is the use of small zip-ties. The bees don’t like to fill in gaps in wax that are between the top of a comb piece and the topbar. They willingly fill a gap from the edge of a comb to the bottom bar. (this is because they normally draw wax from the highest point, downward) The zip tie is used to shorten the rubberband (wrapped tightly around the band) so it pushes the piece of comb up against the topbar. My Croatian beek friend, Josip, taught me this. It works GREAT!
Diagonally placed rubber bands (running from top bar to the opposite bottom bar, two sets, criss-crossed) also make a nice “platform” for placing raw comb down securely, and allowing you to draw the vertical bands across to hold things in place.

Reply
Erik

I have foundation in most of my hive, and tried a few foundationless frames last year. One thing I found is that the bees built very wide frames that were much wider than the width of the frame. That is, the comb intruded into the empty space for the next bar. I ended up leaving a gap between the bars to accommodate this extra space, as I think they would have started cross-combing or otherwise joining the two frame together had I left them closer.

Is there a way to prevent or account for this? I’ve heard they prefer a wider comb for honey, which is perhaps why the bees did this. However, I’m leery of using foundationless frames side by side as a result.

Any suggestions?

Erik

Reply
Hilary

Hi Erik,

I see this, too. Normally I leave all 10 frames in and let them build how they want. If it gets too tight, I will reduce to a 9 frame, but only after they have built on all 10. That way I am not encouraging wide combs.

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First Hive! – Liv's Bees

[…] bee blog is what convinced me to at least test going foundationless. I followed the instructions in this article on those 3 frames in the deep box. If it works, I will happily go foundationless.  I […]

Reply
Rich

I am a newbee & will be starting 2 hives in 2017. Each hive will consist of 2 brood box & 2 supers. Should I install 10 foundationless frames in each starter brood box?
Some say to alternate with foundationless & foundation frames to keep the bee drawing straight comb.

Reply
Hilary

You can do it either way. Certainly there is less of a risk of cross comb if you mix in some foundation. I take my chances and do just comb guides though.

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r2889

I think I will try your way & use all foundation less. Most bee keepers in this area are using foundation, & I am not getting must encouragement to go foundation less.
i am also interested in the blog about how you insert a nuc into a foundation less deep body.

Reply
Hilary

Hi, when you get the nuc, transfer it in the same order to the hive and then on one side of them, add your foundationless frames with comb guides. Keep a close eye on it to make sure they are building straight.

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Pamela Vasquez

Hi Hilary,

I’m glad to have found your blog as you are keeping bees the way I aspire to. I will be picking up my first nuc this weekend. I am still readying my hive, which was given to me by a former beek. I am discarding all of the plastic frames and popping plastic foundation out of the wooden ones. Then I’m going to clean them up (scraping off stray comb) and do the comb guides as you and others have suggested – the paint stirrers. I had intended to alternate nuc frames with my foundationless frames in one box but have read that the nuc frames should go into the box exactly as they come out of the nuc. Is this true? Then I was just going to have all foundationless frames in the upper box.

Thoughts? Am I on the right track? I am completely new to this although I did take a class two years ago.

Do you wire the frames to give the comb more support? How do you extract the honey from your frames?

Reply
Hilary

First, do not alternate your nuc frames with empty ones when you transfer them. Put them in the same order and put empty frames to the sides of them. It will stress out your bees to put holes in their nest like that. You want to keep all their combs together. Second, wiring can give the combs more support. I find it necessary. Just handle the frames carefully. Don’t tip them. Hold them straight up and down so you do not stress the combs with gravity. As far as extracting honey. I will probably post about that later. Stay tuned.

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Pamela Vasquez

Another question or two…

I picked up the nuc today but it’s been rainy and cold so the nuc is hanging out in our poly-covered hoop house while we wait for the ground to dry up enough to get the hive set up.

In the meantime, do I need to feed the nuc? I was told that I just need to open the entrance to the nuc and let them do their thing. Is this sufficient?

I also had somebody tell me that I should not start a nuc on foundationless frames – that I would be creating problems and putting the hive at risk. What is your opinion on this subject? Do you have any experience putting a nuc on frames into a foundationless hive?

Pamela

Reply
Hilary

Hi Pamela,

You should not keep your nuc closed up. The most important thing is to open their entrance when you get home. I am not exactly sure what you’ve done with your nuc because of the rain, but it sounds like it is going to create a lot of confusion for your bees. Have you read my post on feeding? It answers your question in some detail. People will say all sorts of thing about foundationless beekeeping and why not to do it. The worst that could happen is that they will cross their combs. If you follow my comb guide instructions, the chances of this happening are slight. If it does happen, it can be fixed.

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Carol Chromicky

New beekeeper…I started my frameless hive on my birthday, May 14th and waited two weeks before opening up. I found the first two frames filling up with comb, they seemed a little wide when I pulled them out but as it was my first foray, I stayed very calm and saw what I was looking for…spotted Eleanor of Aquitane (I know, dumb to name them, but it is who I am) and put things back as they were. I was most absorbed in not crushing anyone.

Because of heat, thunderstorms and very windy days, I waited almost three weeks to open inspection again…did I wait too long? This first two frames are heavy with comb and honey, I
couldn’t pull them at all…3 and 4 are better, filled with capped comb, nice butterscotch color., 5 and 6 seem to be in the process of following their pattern, comb forming straight, but no caps or honey. The bees were not happy to see me, a lot more surrounding my mask. Frame # 7 had a little comb on the top bar, #8 was empty.

I am concerned that all the activity is massed in the first two and when I pulled them out, or tried to, comb was broken and fell into the bottom. Have I botched this already? Should I call in the troops? Is this cross combing?

Reply
Hilary

Hi Carol,

It’s really impossible for my to tell from your description. If comb broke and fell, that sounds like cross-comb. I would have to see it to know what was going on. Sometimes people mistake bridge comb, for cross comb. Bridge comb is shallow bits of comb between the wooden parts of the frame usually. The bees use it as a bridge to get across. I would call in the help of an experienced beekeeper. If you break comb, that falls out of the frame, you should reattach it with rubber bands. I would inspect every 2-3 weeks.

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Micki

Hello! I really enjoy your website, very informative!! I am new at beekeeping, I installed a 3lb package of bees on June 3rd, 2016. I am using a Langstroth hive with deep boxes and foundation-less frames. The bees have drawn comb on half of 9 of the frames…(.from the middle of the frame, from top to bottom, but only half of the frame). Each frame is half drawn. I do not see them being interested in drawing out the other half of the frames, and wondering if I should add the second box on top or wait until they have fully drawn the entire frame? Is this making sense? Thanks in advance for your advice!!

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Micki

Thanks for your reply. ‘Waiting a bit longer ‘ ? How long is a bit longer? Wait until 2-3frames are fully drawn, 4-5 frames 6-8, all 10? I want to do what is best for the bees without stressing them out. Thanks.

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Katharine B Weaver

Hi there! I currently have wax foundation in my hive but I want to transition….is that possible? I am about to add a super, can I go foundationless in my super box? Can I transition frames within by deep box to foundationless during the active season?
Would appreciate any advice! Thank you. 🙂

Reply
Hilary

Hi, it sounds like you are using both deep and medium boxes. You can transition to use foundation less, but it is easier if you also use all the same size box. When you add another box, let them build natural comb and then you can slowly cycle out the foundation frames by moving them up and putting holes in the brood nest. You will want mark the natural frames somehow to keep track of which is which. It is more significant to let the bees build natural comb in the brood nest. You can also just add your new box to the bottom of your hive stack. They may be more likely draw it out and start laying in it if it is the first box in the stack.

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Barry

Hi Hilary,

The preparatory work continues–still shooting for a spring start . . . I recently purchased a bunch of hive boxes, etc at an estate sale. Some look new and unused, some look like they need repair, and everything in between. I have 5 medium boxes and 9 shallow. All 10 frame, no deeps. Lots of frames, mostly with support wires. Tops and bottoms are a bit beat up. All seem to be from Dadant. There are several boxes of foundation from 1992! OK, here come the questions:

1) what would be signs that you should not use the old frames or boxes?

2) what are good methods to clean the old stuff to get it ready for a new colony?

3) given the age of the foundation, is it more likely to be pesticide free?

4) Should I choose to use the foundation (because I have it and it cost me nothing), or melt it and use it for coating shims in the top bar for foundationless (like your paint stirrer sticks)? Or trade it to another beek??

5) Do you recommend using slatted bottom board? The logic seems good

6) I have read about feeders and there seem to be a lot of cons with entrance feeders and frame type feeders in terms of having to disturb the hive, sitting in sun, etc. Do you prefer top feeders since you can fill them without opening the hive?

7) In SoCal climate, if I use a medium for a bottom/brood box, should I add another medium before putting a queen excluder and then supers, or just go straight to supers? [seems like most of the info having two boxes under the supers comes from east coast keepers]

Ha–I’d better quit before you send me a bill!

Barry

Reply
Hilary

Hi Barry,

1) what would be signs that you should not use the old frames or boxes? I don’t know of any…

2) what are good methods to clean the old stuff to get it ready for a new colony? I usually just let things bake in the sun.

3) given the age of the foundation, is it more likely to be pesticide free? I would not make that assumption.

4) Should I choose to use the foundation (because I have it and it cost me nothing), or melt it and use it for coating shims in the top bar for foundationless (like your paint stirrer sticks)? Or trade it to another week?? I would advocate for letting the bees build natural comb.

5) Do you recommend using slatted bottom board? The logic seems good. Is this a bottom board with a screen? If so, it depends on your climate. Here, I use solid bottom boards.

6) I have read about feeders and there seem to be a lot of cons with entrance feeders and frame type feeders in terms of having to disturb the hive, sitting in sun, etc. Do you prefer top feeders since you can fill them without opening the hive? I almost never feed. I like the entrance feeders because you can see when they are empty. Of course they can cause robbing issues.

7) In SoCal climate, if I use a medium for a bottom/brood box, should I add another medium before putting a queen excluder and then supers, or just go straight to supers? [seems like most of the info having two boxes under the supers comes from east coast keepers] I try not to use any queen excluder at all, but if you are using all mediums you definitely need to give them 2-3 mediums for brood.

Reply
srdoerd

How do I install 3 lbs of bees in a new foundation-less hive, using a NO-shake method?
Where do I put the Queen?
Should I keep her caged until they start drawing comb?

Richard

Reply
Hilary

You can use a rubber band to attach the queen cage to one of the top bars. I am not familiar with a no-shake method. I always shake them. If you’re worried about them absconding you could put some tape over the candy plug until they have drawn some comb. I never do, though.

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srdoerd

Thanks for your prompt reply:
I need a little more information:
Do I put the queen cage on the top bar with the wire screen facing up, or put it on the side of the top bar with the cage facing the adjacent bar & the length of cage parallel to top bar?

Reply
Hilary

Face the screen part of the cage whichever way will allow for the bees in the hive to access it best. They need to be able to feed the queen through it.

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Whitney

I have two hives with foundationless frames from Bee Thinking. They have a little wedge along the top as a guide. One of my hives was a total dud and didn’t even fill out a deep box this summer. My other hive was fantastic, but suffered from a ton of cross combing.

If the bees are cross combing in boxes that will NOT be extracted, is it still important to fix the cross combing? Can I just leave the cross combing alone if my intent is to let them eat that honey over the winter?

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Hilary

Ah, yes. I find that those wedge top frames are not bold enough to prevent cross combing. I sometimes leave cross comb in honey supers, but if it prevents you from inspecting the brood nest, it will have to be fixed. Otherwise how can you monitor the health of your colony?

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Ashley

Hi Hilary! I have been reading your blog for sometime now and you have convinced me to of foundationless in my first two hives this spring! I would like to use your paint stirrer method but I am having a hard time deciding on which frames to purchase. I have been looking at the different options from Kelley Bees. I see a lot of people buy the wedge top and use that as a guide. I could do this and use the paint stirrer instead. Or I see you say grooved or slotted frames….are these superior to the wedge top for the paint stick? From the options a Kelley, which is your top pick? Just so many options….. Thank you!!

Reply
Hilary

I hate the wedge ones! They are terrible for this paint stick method and turning the wedge does not work well. In my opinion it does not hang down far enough. Grooved is best because slotted leaves a place for hive beetles to hide.

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Ashley

Thank you! One other question…do you find it necessary to paint the guides with wax? Benefits of doing this?

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FishermanAllen Sentance

Hi Hilary

I have just managed to trap a swarm in an 8 frame box which I set with lemon grass oil & 6 frames with foundation starter strips one inch long. I have not collected it or opened it yet & intend to do so this week coming. I was wondering if you could give me some steps to take from here on how to make it into a successful foundation less hive.

I only used wax to hold the starter strips in place & left the wires in also.

regards

FishermanAllen

Reply
Hilary

Wire are nice because they strengthen the combs, but unfortunately, the make fixing cross comb difficult. I would check on them once every 2 weeks from here on out to make sure the aren’t going crooked on you.

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Brick Rigden

I notice in your pictures of foundationless frames that you have wired your frames. I assume you do this to give more support to the comb as the bees draw it out. Would you recommend new beekeepers to wire their foundationless frames in a similar manner?

Thank you

Brick.

Reply
Hilary

I actually don’t usually wire my frames. I’m too lazy. In some ways it is good because it does lend more support, but it also makes fixing cross comb a nightmare. That’s probably the main reason I don’t bother.

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