MIXING FOUNDATION & FOUNDATIONLESS FRAMES

Posted January 2, 2019
by Hilary

Mixing Foundation & Foundationless Frames

Many beekeepers are intimidated by foundationless beekeeping. They aren’t sure their bees have enough time build out before winter without assistance or they worry about cross-comb. They often ask me, “Can I do a mix of some frames with foundation and some without?” After all, mixing the two styles seems like a natural solution— a way to ease yourself into the style, but most beekeepers who attempt this end up with the worst of both worlds. Find out what you need to know about using foundation in only some of your frames.

The First Mistake

Most beekeepers who decide to try foundationless frames make the mistake of doing so only in the honey supers. This might be because their hive is already established, with the brood nest already built out or because they are first-time beekeepers worried about jumping right into foundationless beekeeping, but either way— it’s a bad idea.

The bees tend to build more creatively in the honey supers than in the brood nest. They like to build fat combs, with deep cells that can store more honey. They often curve their honey combs that they start out on one frame, but end on another. From the bees perspective, they are just making more efficient use of the space, but for the beekeeper, it means they cannot lift a frame without damaging comb. It can be a constant battle to keep bees from building cross comb in the honey super and if the beekeeper does not keep a close watch they will end up with quite the mess. Correcting new comb, heavy with honey is a messy undertaking that takes some skill. It’s the kind of thing that will scare off someone from foundationless beekeeping for good.

Yet, in the brood nest, the bees tend to build straight, narrow, orderly combs. This habit makes the brood nest the ideal place to try foundationless frames. Not only that, but the brood nest is where the bees will most benefit from natural combs. Read my article Why Try Foundationless Beekeeping to understand why.

Mixing Foundation & Foundationless Frames

Drone Explosion

Another problem will simply adding a completely foundationless super to an existing colony that has been raised on foundation is the imbalance of drones. Foundation supresses drone production because the cells are too small to raise drones. When you give the bees the chance to build natural comb, they will often go overboard making drone comb as they seek to rectify this imbalance in their hive. This can scare off beekeepers from foundationless beekeeping because they wrongly conclude that this is how the bees always behave when you give them the chance to build foundationless. The reality is that drones are part of a healthy hive. The bees may get a little overzealous with drone production at first, but if you allow them to find the balance, most of that drone comb will be filled with honey and if you allowed them to be foundationless from the beginning you wouldn’t experience an imbalance.

Alternating Frames

Some beekeeper advocate for alternating foundation every other frame to keep the bees building straight, but beware. This practice may work for some, but I have also had it backfire. Some of my colonies rebelled against the foundation frames by leaving them completely untouched. They then built extra fat combs on the foundationless frames, which  made them impossible to manage.

IMG_5811

Replacing Foundation Frames with Foundationless 

If you are starting out with a nuc from another beekeeper, there’s a good chance that the frames in your nuc will contain comb built on foundation. You can eventually rotate these frames out, but you should do so gradually. As your colony grows, move the foundation frames upward. Eventually, the foundation frames will become honey frames that you can simply harvest out of the hive.

My Recommendation

Of course, you can mix foundation and foundationless frames. You can even alternate them in the same super and the bees will make do. However, if you’re going to mix, it’s my opinion that the best combo is to go completely foundationless in the brood nest and then use foundation only in the honey supers.

15 Comments

  1. Anne Dovel

    Beekeeping in NEbraska. Hard spring to start new hives. One colony dropped numbers drastically and had to be re-queened…thank you for your blog how-to on that. I re-queened, then left on a long trip, and crossed my fingers.
    I’ve gone back to foundationless, because my first hive was foundationless, and healthiest. However, I didn’t know bridge comb wasn’t great, I let them do their thing. Maybe that’s why they were so healthy.
    Anyway, on the weakened hive that I re-queened “at the last hour”… I checked today, and they have some crazy bridge comb going on, BUT..it has capped workers! Yay!
    Would you leave it, … it crosses 3 frames…knowing that this colony is just now getting up numbers and we are already in the middle of July. Frost date here is Sept. I would say 1/3 of the 2nd box, on top, has comb, some capped brood, and some food stores.
    Thanks!
    Anne

    Reply
    • Anne Dovel

      And I’m not expecting to harvest any honey off this hive. Just hoping they store enough food for winter and make it to spring.

      Reply
    • Hilary

      Hi Anne,

      Since the damage is already done, I would probably leave this until spring to fix just because I would be nervous about doing too much trauma to them at this time of year. Unless you think it can be easily fixed.

      Reply
  2. Anne Dovel

    Clarification…my first hive was 4 years ago…that is the foundationless I’m referring to that was so healthy.

    Reply
  3. Guy

    Thank you for all of the fantastic knowledge you are sharing!

    What you have described here is exactly what has happened to me. My colonies build great foundationless in the brood nest but will not build foundationless for a super. I have wanted to avoid using foundation as I did not want to use plastic and I am not thrilled at the possibly of wax foundation having any chemical residue from wherever the wax came from before it was purchased by me from one of the major national bee supply companies. With that being said, when it comes to foundation, what do you recommend? Thank you again so much!

    Reply
    • Hilary

      Despite the potential for wax pesticide contamination. I still prefer wax mainly because when given the choice, bees prefer it.

      Reply
      • Guy

        Thank you so very much for replying…I am going to take this course of action.

        Off topic of this post, but both of your books QueenSpotting and The Little Book of Bees are excellent!

        Reply
  4. Sam

    This is what I’ve just been thinking, wanted a natural alternative and was thinking foundation less brood and foundation supers for easy extraction and not stressing the bees to make new comb . Its just a hobby for me so want to extract only in spring with what the bees havnt used over winter .good plan or not ?

    Reply
    • Hilary

      I think it’s a good compromise, yes.

      Reply
  5. AnnM

    Hi Hilary, thank you so much for all of the information! I’ve also watched your hive inspection online class–so helpful! I am brand-new to beekeeping and have done the Penn State class and reading and watching everything I can.

    Here’s my question. My hive came from a local friend whose husband just passed from COVID, sadly, and he was going to mentor me. I have two deeps and a shallow super currently, and she gave me another shallow super with built out comb on plastic foundation, and a queen extractor. I would like to convert to foundationless and wondering if I am careful and keep a close watch, could I clean off the extra super frames, put in the paint stick comb guide, then put this on the top with the queen extractor? I know this super was stored in moth balls (because she told me, and the smell) and I’m really concerned about that leaching into the honey. Plus, I would like to approach beekeeping from a chemical-free perspective if possible.

    Any thoughts very much appreciated!

    Reply
    • Hilary

      You should be able to push out the plastic foundation if the frames are wood with plastic foundation inserts. If they are plastic frames, you won’t be able to remove the foundation. I hope that answers your question!

      Reply
  6. Kimberly Meyer

    I found you by searching for a way to transition my two Langstroth hives (8-frame deep brood nest with medium supers) from foundation frames to foundationless–I am trying to move toward chemical-free hives. I was imagining that I would slowly replace foundation frames with foundationless, but I’m realizing that would mostly be possibly only with supers as they fill with honey and are harvested. Do you have any suggestions for replacing the brood frames in the brood nest? How would I do that? Thank you for any insight you can offer!

    Reply
    • Hilary

      Next spring, move your brood box to the top and empty mediums to the bottom of your hive instead of the top. See if they change the brood box to honey then you could harvest it off.

      Reply
  7. Jennifer

    My nuke had foundation plastic frames. I have foundationless frames that I have inserted. It’s a mixture now with still two plastic foundation frames and five of my foundationless which they are building comb very nicely on. I just removed one of the plastic foundation frames, it has a bit of capped honey and a little bit of comb but not much. No larva. I have set it next to my hive in hopes that they will repurpose the honey into the new hive. Is that a good idea or will that confuse them? Thank you so much.

    Reply
    • Hilary

      It’s a bad idea because it can attract robber bees. Better to put it further away from your colony.

      Reply

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My name is Hilary Kearney. I’m the author of the book, “Queenspotting” and founder of the urban beekeeping business Girl Next Door Honey in San Diego, California. I’m an artist turned beekeeper on a mission to help new beekeepers succeed and educate the public about the magic of bees!

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