Foundationless Frames

The Idea

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:

Foundationless Frame Concepts

Foundationless Frames

The Details

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.

Optimum?

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

Considerations

Frame Spacing

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.

Easy Transition

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.

Meddling

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.

Feeding

Inserting honey/pollen frames above, beside, or below a broodnest is the most natural and easiest way to feed bees.

Splitting

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.

Requeening

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.

Comb Rotation

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

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.

Honey Harvest

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.

-bW

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4 Responses

  1. mark says:

    I like the ease of getting to all the frames in a TBH. I want to build a TBH but use lang frames with foundation in them. How would i transfer the bees from my true TBH to my hybrid TBH. any suggestion would help.

    thank you

  2. -bW says:

    Hi Mark,

    Sorry for the late reply.

    You could treat the top bar hive comb as a cutout. Most bee books show how to use string, rubber bands, etc. to mount natural comb inside a frame.

    -bW

  3. Marley says:

    In Australia, I use 2 weekly interventions, staying in touch with the Q bee, adding a water sprayed extracted frame, removing (most but not all) surplus honey, rotating unsealed honey frames from the brood box into any honey super above the QE, rotating sealed and unsealed brood from the brood box ( most but not all) into the exact same position in a super above the queen excluder, inserting fresh foundation/clean drawn comb, 14-16 new frames during each honey flow into the brood box, (bees MUST go to work every day) rotating dark combs filled with honey to extraction for cut out and replacement with fresh foundation as a hollistic rotation process continual and ongoing allows me to work with gentle determined fulfilled balanced bees offering 150kgs of honey per year and best of all no swarming. Any problems are spotted during each 2 weekly intervention and rapidly put right. This is what Langstroth observed when he invented the MOVABLE COMB HIVE 158 years ago. Why reinvent a perfectly good rotation system that works without stressing the bees? I also use a Harmony frame for Drones in position 2 of the brood box. The Queens respect and accept regularity, predictability, cleanliness, friendliness, fulfillment, balance, communication, understand our co-operative energy, the bees love to work best of all and to play and seek expressing normal behaviour in a man-made rotating comb hive which allows bees to remain in focus. These bees are happy and the BK is even happier. “Natural method”? Have
    another ponder about what is good for the bees. Exploit their energy at all times but get in close to the QB. QB raised in quiet places not in stressed swarming modes and remaining in close co-operative communication with her BK always do best. The other 60,000 followers raised in a hive and following a calm enthusiastic Q equals fantastic beekeeping!

    • -bW says:

      Hi Marley

      When I first started working for a commercial beekeeper in the 60’s, he insisted on a two week inspection schedule. We ran about 1500 hives so you know how busy I was.

      Your management style is intensive compared to mine. But apparently you and your bees are happy and healthy. So, stick with what works best for your needs.

      It’s great to hear from someone in Australia. Fifty years ago, I dreamed of going there and digging for opal. But I got stuck in beekeeping instead. 🙂

      Take Care -bW

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