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?
- 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”.
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!
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.
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.