WHY TRY FOUNDATIONLESS BEEKEEPING?

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Throwing out your foundation can be met with more controversy than you might expect. You may have already been urged by other beekeepers not to try it or been warned that it would negatively impact your bees. Read on and I’ll debunk these myths as well as give you several compelling reasons for trying it!

Why go foundationless?

  1. It’s what the bees want. Beekeepers have been using foundation sheets in the Langstroth frames since 1857, but bees have been building natural comb for millions of years. When you give bees the choice, they will always choose empty frames where they can build natural comb, over foundation frames. I have tested this in supers with empty frames vs. wax foundation frames and empty frames vs. plastic foundation frames. Each time, the bees chose to build natural comb and left the foundation frames alone until they completely ran out of space. For me, this is the most compelling reason to ditch foundation and let the bees build their own comb. My beekeeping philosophy is to let the bees decide and trust that bees know best whenever possible.

Cleaner beeswax. Wax foundation is made from recycled commercial beekeeper’s beeswax. Studies have shown them to be heavily contaminated with agricultural pesticides and miticides. Pesticides bond easily to the oils in beeswax and can build up over time. So, it’s likely that even natural combs will become contaminated with pesticides over time, but why contribute to that risk? These chemical contaminants have shown to disrupt bee development and lifespan as well as an increase incidences of queen failures. When you start out your hive with foundation, you are starting them off with pesticide tainted combs.

Small cell size may help with mites and diseases. In the early 1900’s beekeepers began using foundation to increase cell size. Since brood is reared in cells, the size of the cell will determine the size of the bee. The idea was that bigger bees would be healthier and able to make more honey. Today, most foundation cell sizes are a uniform 5.3mm when natural cell size in the brood nest tends to be between 4.5 – 4.8mm and are not uniform. Many natural beekeepers have claimed that smaller cells help to keep varroa mites under control. The theory was borne out of observations of Africanized colonies, which show strong mite resistance and typically have small bees and cells. Small cell bees tend to develop more quickly than foundation raised bees. Theoretically, this could mean less time for mites to breed during pupation. However, there aren’t any studies to back the claim that small cells help with mites and there have been several (here’s one) that concluded small cells did not impede varroa populations. It’s important to note that when allowed to build natural comb, bees will build cell sizes according to their own body size. So beekeepers wanting to test the benefits of small cell must take into consideration where their bees came from. Bees that have been raised in foundation frames with large cells will not build 4.5 – 4.8mm cell size, nor will they build 5.3mm. They will build something in-between. So, in order to achieve truly small cell sizes, if you are working with big, foundation raised bees, you must regress the bees slowly. This is done by allowing them to build combs, raise bees and then slowly moving those combs out of the brood nest so that the newer (smaller) generation of bees can build combs with yet smaller cells. I imagine this could take several seasons. It’s worth noting that the process of regression happens naturally. Bees, when given the option will become smaller and return to their natural size. The studies that have been done take a group of bees, split them and then put half in standard foundation and half in small cell foundation (4.9mm). Personally, I find that problematic because it does not allow for the bees to adapt to their comb size. We don’t know what kind of combs these bees were raised on to begin with, but at least one group is going to be in comb that does not match their body size. As stated above, there is quite the range among natural combs. That is because bees build cells to match their body. So my takeaway from these studies is that small cell size alone has no impact on mite levels, but we need further testing on natural comb and naturally regressed bees. Maybe it’s not the size of the cell, but the size of the cell combined with the size of the bees? Or perhaps there is another variable that needs to be looked at which will explain the rift between anecdotal accounts and scientific research.

Less money, less work. Wax foundation costs $16-20 per 20 sheets. That’s not too costly, but over time it does add up. More meaningful will be the time saved installing it. Sure, you will need to spend some time installing comb guides instead, but if you use a permanent guide, this only need be done once.

Nature knows best. I’m not sure why humans must learn this lesson over and over again. The more we interfere, the more problems we seem to cause. It does not take much sacrifice to let the bees build their own comb the way the have done for millions of years. Why do we puport to know better? On Michael Bush’s website he quotes Eric Sevareid, “The leading cause of problems is solutions”.

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Foundationless Myths

Not giving bees foundation is setting them up for failure because it takes too much energy to build comb from scratch. I will not dispute that it takes a tremendous amount of energy and food to build combs, but hey, that’s what bees do! Feral bees build their own comb and survive just fine. The assumption with this statement is that beekeepers are saving their bees a lot of work and therefore allowing them to expand more quickly by giving them foundation. However, I consistently see bees draw out natural combs faster than the do foundation frames. On several occasions I have mentored first year beekeepers with nucs that were not expanding beyond their original frames. Per my suggestion, we removed the foundation from these frames and found that the bees began to happily draw out comb. So my experience is that foundation can actually hinder hive growth in new colonies.

You cannot extract with foundationless frames. This is just not true. I have extracted with foundationless deep frames! However, you do need to take a care. The frames need to be attached on all  four sides. Often bees only attach on three sides and leave the bottom unattached. I find that they usually will attach the bottom on heavy honey frames. Also, when extracting, you must go slowly at first, letting some of the honey lug out. Then, once the frames are a bit lighter, you can spin faster to get the remainder out. I will also mention that extraction is not the only method for harvesting honey. Crush and strain method is usually more practical for small scale beekeepers and it allows for a beeswax harvest as well. If you do intend to extract with foundationless frames, you may want to consider using mediums. Some also recommend that you wire your frames, however I never do and have not had any problems. Also, a recent study found that wired frames increase the levels of iron in the brood which are raised along the wire (6 times more iron) and that gives me pause.

Your hive will become overrun with drones. Depending on their genetics, bees raise 15-25% drones. Foundation suppresses this natural behavior because the cell sizes are too small to properly raise drones. If you start to convert a hive from foundation to foundationless, you should expect a burst in drone production. The bees have been denied the resources to make drones and they tend to compensate for that with a large number of drones. This often frightens beekeepers who were experimenting with foundationless frames. They see if as proof that their hive will indeed be overrun with drones. However, if you give it time and continue to provide foundationless frames. Everything will balance out. Using foundation has created an imbalance, it takes time to set it right again.  If you start with foundationless frames from the beginning, you will see more drones than you are used to if you have been using foundation, but likely not until their second year and this is not necessarily a problem. This myth is also based on the assumption that drones are “bad”. Beekeepers tend to view drones as a drag on honey production because they consume honey, without helping to make it. They view drones as expendable because their one job (to mate) is something that beekeepers would rather control themselves. However, we are starting to find out that drones may have more to contribute than beekeepers realize. One study found that drones contribute to thermoregulation. Another study found that worker bees were better nourished and had a more developed pharyngeal gland when in the presence of drones. To me, these two studies suggest there may be more benefits to drones than we know. After all, the bees seem to have a purpose for everything that they do and it is arrogant for humans to think they understand them all. Another reason conventional beekeepers tend to dislike drones is because mites prefer them. Drones have a longer incubation period which may allow mites to rear more offspring. Thus, beekeepers think more drones means more mites. In this 3 year trial natural cell colonies were found to have 30% drone comb as compared to 1% in the foundation colonies, but this did not result in higher mite counts. In fact, the natural cell colonies had significantly fewer mites in their second year. Although mites mate in both worker and drone brood in European honey bee colonies, there has also been some speculation that allowing drone comb in your hive may reduce the number of mites feasting on workers. Asiatic honeybees (Apis cerena) survive mite infestations possibly because mites mate only in drone brood, leaving workers unharmed. Mites already prefer drones in European colonies, might European colonies evolve in a way that makes drones even more appealing which could ultimately spare workers?

Want to help combat the drone haters? I made us all a shirt so we can declare our love for drones to the world!

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Drawbacks of going foundationless

Foundationless beekeeping has a higher risk of cross-comb. The main problem with foundationless frames is the potential for cross-comb. Many new beeks make the mistake of not providing an adequate comb guide and end up with a sticky, mess. It can be intimidating to new beekeepers to repair crooked combs. It may even prevent them from inspecting their hives. This is why creating strong comb guides as a prevention is so important. In another post, I go into detail on how to make comb guides, fix crossed-combs and keep bees building straight. Once you get a system in place, cross-comb problems are fairly rare.

Breaking old habits to avoid breaking combs. Foundation allows beekeepers to flip and spin combs any which way they want. They can be handled without care, whereas as foundationless combs must be handled with more care or else they may break off. I tell my students to hold their combs straight up and down and to be careful not to tilt the frames. If you need to see something more clearly turn your body instead of the frame to get the right lighting. Changing the way you handle combs can be a bit of a challenge if you are used to using foundations.

May produce less honey. Some have observed that natural comb colonies make less honey. This is likely because they have a higher population of drones who will consume more honey. However, I find natural comb colonies store honey more efficiently because they tend to backfill drone comb with honey and often make extra thick honey frames. In my natural comb colonies, one deep honey frame may weigh up to 15lbs whereas foundation frames rarely weigh above 10lbs. I’ve never tested honey production of natural comb hives vs. foundation hives so I can’t make any claims. Honey production is not my priority as a beekeeper. If yours is, you may want to weigh this point against the above health benefits. Unhealthy or dead colonies won’t make any honey at all.

Conclusion

Although I am clearly a strong advocate of foundationless beekeeping, the intention of this article is not to shame beekeepers who do use foundation. I am also a supporter of “do what works” beekeeping. So, if you are having success with foundations maybe you don’t need to stop using them. However, beekeeping is all about continuous learning and experimentation so, do keep an open mind.

24 Comments

steve

As a person trying to regress bees using wax foundation i have discovered it takes at least 3 years to get reasonably consistent results from the bees to show they have been properly regressed down in size. Alternatively you can use full depth 4.9mm plastic foundation to achieve this in one season. The study you linked shows there complete lack of understanding of the regression process and how to recognise when bees have been properly sized back to the smaller 4.9mm size. Such a study should not have even begun till they understood and achieved proper adaptation to the small cell foundation. A flawed study with flawed results. Also the first ever sheets of foundation made on a wood press and hand carved prior to A.I.Root where in the 4.7mm range so your information is very biased against small cell to state the obvious…

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Hilary

Hi Steve,

I think you might have misunderstood some of what I was trying to say. I agree with you about the study I linked. That the study is problematic because they did not naturally regress the bees. Maybe I did not write that clearly enough or maybe you misread, but we agree there and I am not biased against small cell size. I am just exploring the issue and addressing the scientific studies that have been done. Also, I know foundation was first used shortly after the invention of the Langstroth hive in the 1850s with small cell. I was just saying in the early 1900’s is when they increased the cell size.

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Stephen Williams

Thanks Hilary, great post.

This is what Warré beekeepers have always known. And frankly, anyone who has read Jürgen Tautz’ work and continued to use wired, four-sided, foundationed frames just hasn’t understood the importance of natural comb and the sophistication of bees’ “comb technology”.

As far as extraction from foundationless frames is concerned, I feel the real problem is “I’ve bought this expensive centrifugal extractor and now I must use it.” For backyard beekeepers, crush and strain (better termed “cut and strain”) is a simple, low cost means to extract 95% of honey from the comb, and of course, only works with unwired frames.

The probable reason why bees are tending to leave a gap above the bottom bar on closed foundationless frames is that they are working downwards, upside down, and stop when they are a bee space above the bottom bar.

A more bee-friendly arrangement would be to have open frames (i.e. top and side bars, no bottom bar). This would lead to less timber and fewer gaps in the hive. My bees seem much happier with this arrangement.

I say “more bee-friendly” because it is evident from Tautz’ work that any arrangement which increases the rigidity of the comb impairs bees’ ability to communicate by vibrating it.

I would be happier with topbars only, but alas that contravenes Australian regulations which require easily removable frames.

I’m sorry, I just had to laugh at the story of the poster above regressing his bees “properly”. Let’s end the hubris: there is nothing we do as beekeepers that “helps” the bees, other than provide them a home! It would be great if more beekeepers would leave it to nature, stop bothering their bees and spend their time more usefully on other activities.

Going foundationless certainly requires greater skill on the beekeeper’s part when manipulating hives. On the plus side, moving to an apicentric method of beekeeping means that we should only be opening the hive 1-3 times a year, so there is generally a lot less work involved than with the typical Langstroth regime.

All the best,
Steve Williams (Victoria, Australia)

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SAYAR

Hi Steve, regrading your problems, I can suggest you to use reinforcment in your top bar, as patented in France for beeosense named top bar. Allowing beekeepers to manipulate honeycomb(split,tilt…) as they will do with a foundation in frame.

Working fine in Warre, Langstroth or any other hives.

Regards

Sedat SAYAR(Grenoble,FRANCE)

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Dan

Hi, great blog, so easy to read and understand! I want to try TBHs but after reading this I’m a bit worried about cross comb. Do you have any suggestions on this?

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Hilary

With TBHs it is all about the style of the bars. If you have a good design then cross bars are rare. I have had really good luck with the ones from beethinking.com Did you read my article on TBH vs. Langstroths?

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Steve

Hi, I use both foundation-less and foundation. Both have there pros and cons. I like to produce cut comb so nice straight combs looks nicer to my customers. When it comes to varroa its now generally accepted that wild feral bees in the face of varroa become smaller as one part of there adaptation and survival strategy against varroa without treatments. Its not the only way they can survive against varroa but if combined with genetics and best practice then i believe it helps so i want my bees to be smaller ready for when varroa arrives in Australia. There is also evidence that smaller bees generally out perform larger bees in there honey collection abilities and are generally healthier so there are many reasons to have smaller bees beyond the varroa debate. The last thing i want is to put poisons in my hive to treat varroa so anything that gives my bees a natural edge against varroa is something i will do. Natural comb foundation-less hives that have not been either chosen for there natural small cell comb or regressed back to a smaller cell size are not as good at survival against varroa without the use of treatments. If you want to survive without treatments against varroa you need to use every tool available.

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Cormac Farrell

Really nice post! I have been trying this in some of my Langstroth hives after I saw your photo awhile back. So far they definitely seem to be happier.
I am also a Warre beekeeper, totally agree with you that the crush and strain method is more convenient for hobby beekeepers.

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David F Weir

Enjoyed reading your article. I have used foundationless frames in honey supers very successfully for making cut comb honey. If one alternated empty frames with drawn comb frames there is no cross comb. After these are drawn out then the step can be repeated and eventually all old comb with foundation has been removed with perfectly straight comb.

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Susan T Rudnicki

I have 27 colonies of all feral sourced, partially Africanized bees—foundationless since I began beekeeping in June 2011—in Los Angeles. When you take bees via cutouts, there is obviously the brood comb with arching zones of honey/bee bread in the way bees set up their colony in Nature. This observation of bee behavior is very instructive for newbees getting their first colony. 70 million years of bee evolution has something to say about the drawing of comb and siting of resource depots in the colony. Foundation is a human conceit and we would be well to remember the humans don’t know it all. The main issue with cross comb is that the newbee does not inspect often enough to stay on top of comb building. The bees don’t care—we are the ones that care! That has been my experience with teaching, so I insist the new beek inspect every 2-3 weeks and fix small aberrations before they are a real problem. “Leaving them alone” is not bee keeping.
Your article here is 100% my experience, and so helpful, especially the part on extracting. Putting wets back on the hive gives them the opportunity to re-fill those areas that crush and strain processing would require complete rebuilding.

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Thomas Bickerdike

Excellent post Hillary. I have been foundationless for a number of years now and can agree with everything in your post. People are often surprised when I tell them I do minimum treatments for varroa and don’t consider it to be a great threat. I consider going foundationless as the best thing I have done in beekeeping it’s way more fascinating than frame after frame of foundation based combs. The bees have so much to teach us if only we would let them rather than trying to over control them. I would also say the bees are way more relaxed and seem less stressed when on natural comb and particularly like the drone worker relationship throughout the year and quite funny at times. I do one thing different to you and I like to wire the frames and like to give them a good 20mm starter strip as this keeps the combs nice and straight.
Thomas

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Hilary

Good to hear and great insights! Did you catch the study I mentioned about the wired adding a bunch of iron to the brood that are raised along them? I just found out about it and now I feel hesitant to recommend wiring.

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Thomas Bickerdike

Sorry Hilary for the late reply the iron is new to me and will take a look. I doubt I would stop wiring the frames but a strong fishing line may be the answer as I know plenty of people prefer this over wire.

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Heidi Kile

I will be a brand new beekeeper this spring. I will be purchasing a starter kit that includes the hive and most of the accessories. The frames come with the plastic foundation. I would prefer to start out foundation-less. Do I need to buy specific “foundation-less” frames, or can I pull the foundation out of these frames and use these frames? Are all frames the same, or is there a difference between foundation based frames and foundation-less frames?

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Hilary

Hi Heidi, you should be able to pull the plastic foundation out and use the frames you have. When you pull out the foundation, there is usually a grove or slot at the top of the frame. You can use this to insert a comb guide. Check out my how-to post on this: http://beekeepinglikeagirl.com/how-to-foundationless-beekeeping-in-a-langstroth-hive/ It’s important to have some sort of guide at the top when you start out 100% foundationless because you need something to encourage the bees to build straight. Foundationless frames that you can buy have comb guides already installed, but they are a shallower sort of wedge. I don’t think they work as well as the home-made comb guides I describe in my post. Best of luck!

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First Hive! – Liv's Bees

[…] comes with 5 deep frames. The frames I ordered with the deep box do not have foundation. Why? This article  from my favorite bee blog is what convinced me to at least test going foundationless. I followed […]

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chris johnston

Can you have a hive with foundationless frames in one of the deep boxes and foundations in the other? And do you need three deep boxes for the bees to survive winters (I live in southern Illinois, USA, about 2 hours southeast of st. Louis) or is two ok?

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Hilary

Yes, you can combine foundation and foundation less frames. What makes the best sense given the research is to do foundation less in the brood nest and then use foundation in the honey supers. Bees tend to build honeycomb more “creatively”. As far as how many deeps your bees should fill to survive, that answer varies with region. I would ask a local beekeeper.

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FishermanAllen Sentance

Hi Hilary,
Wow….I am so glad I have discovered your site as I am relatively new to BeeKeeping & personally I am a great supporter of Nature Knows Best. Your information & research in this post is a real credit to you. I live in the Top End of Australia 100km below Darwin in an isolated area, so I am basically starving for the correct information over & above the video’s on U-Tube which can become confusing at times.

I will be following you with great interest from here on.

regards
FishermanAllen

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