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