Starter Strips

The Idea

Un-embossed starter strip.

Bees just like to draw out comb their own way. Yet, it’s often necessary to direct comb building so a hive can have removable combs/frames.

Beeswax starter strips are used for this purpose. They are easy to make. But must be waxed in carefully to avoid heat related failures.

Un-embossed starter strips:

  • confuse the bees less than embossed strips
  • allow for a rapid cell size transition
  • should be as short as possible for comb strength

Embossed starter strips:

  • confuse and confound the bees
  • small cell size starter strips are the worst
  • use a 5.4mm minimum cell size
  • drone cell sizes may work the best

When using starter strips:

  • make them as short as possible
  • use the coolest beeswax possible to fasten them in
  • use an un-embossed starter strip
  • or use a larger cell size embossed strip with cell sizes that matches the natural cell size near the top bar
  • natural attachment cell sizes average 5.64mm for American bees
  • natural attachment cell sizes average 5.44 for Africanized bees

Used carelessly, starter strips can confuse and confound the bees. Like all things in natural beekeeping less is often more. A beeswax filled saw kerf:

  • doesn’t interfere with comb building
  • is easier, faster to make

The Details

The Test

Top bar hives were used to test the effects of different starter strips:

  • unembossed beeswax starter strips were prepared by dipping
  • embossed strips were cut from commercial foundation
  • a beeswax filled kerf without a starter strip was used
  • strips were about 4 cells tall
  • strips were fastened to top bars using molten beeswax in a saw kerf
  • test bars were inserted into the broodnest core between two fully drawn out comb
  • test hives were actively drawing out comb

Un-embossed Strips

Comb building started from the bottom edge of the un-embossed strips. After sufficient comb was drawn for rearing brood, the bees returned to the top of the strip and worked upward filling the space between the comb and the top bar. Some irregular comb was drawn out. But the transition to natural comb was fast.

Fixing beeswax based starter strips in a saw kerf with melted beeswax is problematic. If the wax melt is too cool, the strips will fall out at higher hive temperatures. If it’s too hot, the lower portion of the strip will be consumed by the melted beeswax. That results in a starter strip resting on a beeswax filled kerf. These are weak and easily break off. Using plastic foundation strips and not beeswax negates this problem.

Starter Strip Height

Bees drawing comb on a beeswax starter strip that’s too tall. Bees and comb hang from the starter strip rather than the top bar!

Making a starter strip too tall creates problems. When too tall, the bees hang from the starter strip, rather than the top bar, and start building comb from the bottom of the starter strip. Later, they return and attach the comb to the top bar itself. This will guarantee comb failure if the starter strips are fragile or insufficiently attached to the top bar.

Small Cell Size Starter Strips

Embossed small cell foundation starter strip.

Unlike the un-embossed starter strips the bees started construction comb on the top bar and not the bottom of the starter strip. But they didn’t use the smaller cell size embossed on the foundation as a pattern. They reworked it to a more natural cell size.

Look at the seven, five, four sided and odd shaped transition cells built as the bees attempt to get the comb on the right track.

Although the bees reworked the initial cell size, they just couldn’t make the same transition throughout the rest of the comb.

Natural Starter Strip Cell Size

Natural comb drawn on a top bar with a beeswax filled kerf without any starter strip is much more regular. I’ve measured the initial cell size, on top bars without the starter strips, and found the following:

  • with a few exceptions, all initial combs starts out at just about the same size!
  • it didn’t matter whether the comb was broodnest or storage comb
  • within a row or two, the bees would quickly expand or contract the cell size to accommodate their comb building needs

For my top bar hive, these cell sizes ranged from 5.0mm to 5.67mm. The majority of measurements were in 5.63 to 5.67mm range. The average was 5.64mm.

I did the same thing with the small cell Lusbee comb images shot from Barry’s top bar hive. And the same construction pattern was observed. Cell sizes ranged from 4.6mm to 5.83mm. Most of measurements were in the 5.3 to 5.5mm range. The average was 5.44mm.


When it comes to comb building, bees do best when we do the least. We simply don’t understand enough to help the bees rather than hinder them.

So, I’ve abandoned starter strips. A beeswax filled saw kerf usually provides enough guidance for workable comb without interfering with comb building. It’s stronger and takes much less work than do starter strips.


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One response to “Starter Strips”

  1. Rod Lawrence says:

    Hi Dennis, happy Thanksgiving ! Ok, I’m getting sold on the small cell TBH’s, going to build a box w/ your spec’s for the Langsthroth interchangabilty(Thanx again for the plans on google skechup).
    What would be a good plan for getting bees introduced to it? I’m thinking of trying for a swarm and some drawn out frames as opposed to a split and new queen?
    Also when you speak of unenbossed starter strips, is that the sheets of beeswax that you can buy out of the catalogs?
    CU rwl

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