Frames, found in a conventional hive, can hold natural comb.
- just run the frames without foundation
- frames can be wired to reinforce the comb
- set them up like a top bar hive beekeeper would setup his top bars
- use some kind of starter strip in each frame
- level the hive
- and let the bees draw out natural comb inside each frame
It’s that simple.
Some poorly drawn comb will be culled. But that’s no different from using foundation. Some bees do a great job drawing out comb. And some don’t.
Existing conventional equipment can be utilized. And conventional management practices can be modified for a natural focus.
Here’s how a couple of beekeepers build and work with foundationless frames:
Running foundationless frames is not a new idea. Charles Martin Simon, a backward beekeeper by his own estimation, sold Super Unfoundation, frames modified with vertical dowels used as comb guides instead of foundation and a starter strip. I don’t think the idea ever caught on. But maybe Super Unfoundation was ahead of its time.
And everyone ran foundationless before foundation presses/mills and commercial foundation was manufactured.
Running natural comb frames isn’t the optimum configuration for the bees:
- comb spacing is a fixed width
- box/frame space interferes with a coherent broodnest structure
And the frames are expensive and complex.
There are some advantages when running foundationless frames:
- can use existing equipment
- frames are ready made
- no shop tools are needed
- no comb attachments to cut
- framed comb is more robust
- more familiar arrangement for conventional management/mentoring
- natural comb can be gradually phased into an existing operation
Most self spacing frames are 1 3/8″ wide. That’s a good overall approximation for a hive. But it’s too wide for a natural broodnest. Reducing frame width to 1 1/4″ is a better match. Foundationless frame beekeepers report that straighter comb is drawn with the narrower spacing.
Using a narrower spacing allows 11 frames to fit in a 10 frame brood box.
Honey supers can be run with fewer frames at a wider spacing. It’s common practice to run only 9 of the wider frames is a 10 frame honey super. Foundationless frames can be run the same way.
It’s easy to gradually transition traditional beekeeping equipment:
- stop treating with contaminating mite treatments to keep new comb clean
- gradually insert foundationless frames between drawn comb as part of a normal comb rotation plan
If the old combs aren’t plastic foundation based. And the wood hasn’t been contaminated with miticides or disease. It’s easy to just cut the center out of each comb, leaving a small amount of comb attached to the top, side and bottom bars. The bees will use the attached comb as a guide and draw out new natural comb in the center.
It’s easy to run natural comb in a frame based Lang hive. And it’s also just as easy to meddle in them. There’s no end of ways to rotate, shuffle, divide and just generally mess around inside a frame based hive. The illusion is that meddling kills few bees. And since no comb is lost, no damage occurs. But that’s far from the truth. It takes days and sometimes a week or more for a hive to recover if all goes well. In the worst case, a hive can be damaged for the season.
- delays or confounds critical colony decisions
- induces robbing
- aggravates hive defensiveness
- releases hive beetles from their prisons
- some queens panic causing balling and queen loss
- disrupts heat, humidity, odor, hive organization, brood care, and climate control
I’ve learned the hard way that when in doubt, just stay out. A hive’s situation is seldom made worse off when it’s left alone.
Running Them Naturally
There’s no end to the advice given, and management schemes promoted, for meddling inside the broodnest. But I’ve only found a few that work with the bees.
Inserting honey/pollen frames above, beside, or below a broodnest is the most natural and easiest way to feed bees.
Creating an artificial swarm is a great way to take advantage of a hives decision to reproduce. With frames, it’s an easy and quick job.
And if done systematically, splitting can be used to keep equipment full and the need for requeening at a minimum.
A colony naturally lives from three to five years if everything goes well. Then like all things, it perishes. The comb and cavity are scavenged. And in the process the cavity is cleansed and made ready for new swarm.
Unfortunately, bees in a natural beekeeper’s hives will follow the same cycle resulting in empty equipment.
Requeening invigorates a colony. And can be used to control temper and other characteristics. But it’s an expensive, intrusive and a risky process that often fails almost as often as it succeeds.
It’s absolutely necessary for optimum colony health. As it mimics the natural cleansing found in a scavenged cavity.
With natural frames comb rotation can be systematic. The age of combs can be tracked. And comb rotation/management can be done when natural comb handling in other types of hives is difficult or impossible.
Checker boarding is the only frame/hive management technique that works with the bees. It uses the management flexibility frames provide. And it doesn’t mess with the broodnest. You can read more about checker boarding here.
Harvesting frame based honey is easier and quicker than with any other hive. Comb reuse is possible. And with a proper rotation plan, comb can be kept free of environmental contaminants.