Beehive Frames And Foundation (A Beginner’s Guide)

Foundationless frame and frame with plastic foundation

Updated on November 23rd, 2021

Langstroth hives are the most common beehives used in North America. The hives consist of vertically stacked, modular boxes. Each hive box contains movable frames for holding beeswax.

So what are beehive frames and foundation?

Beehive frames and foundation create a space where bees build wax comb to store food and raise brood. Rectangular frames hold a wax or plastic sheet of foundation embossed with hexagonal cells serving as a base for drawing straight comb. Frames are movable for inspection, transfer, and honey extraction.

Beekeepers may use frames without foundation, a practice naturally called “foundationless” beekeeping.

While an individual frame with foundation may cost less than $2, total costs add up as you need as many as 10 frames per box.

The options available when it comes to frames and foundation can be confusing if you are beginning backyard beekeeping. In this article, we will help you understand the choices.

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Foundationless frame and frame with plastic foundation

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Why Use Hive Frames

Langstroth frames and foundation facilitate beekeeping in several ways.

A Langstroth hive is a modular system of vertically stacked boxes containing movable frames. The Langstroth hive’s design focuses on the concept of “bee space.”

Generally, bees will not propolize or build wax in any space that is about 3/8 of an inch wide, the distance of bee space. Areas of that size are left open for the bees to travel within the hive.

Frames are designed to leave a bee space gap between each frame and each component around it: adjacent parallel frames, frames above and below, sides of the hive box, bottom boards, and covers.

Bee space prevents components from being connected with beeswax and thus remain movable. Movable frames can be taken out of the hive for inspection, relocated to other hives needing food or brood, or removed to extract honey as efficiently as possible.

Frames help keep bees building comb in a straight line so they are easier to manage.

Honey is efficiently removed from sturdy frames and foundation using centrifugal extractors that spin at high speeds.

See our article on why we think the Langstroth hive is the best beehive for beginning beekeepers.

Beehive Frame Construction & Design

Frame heights vary to correspond to the depth of different hive boxes. However, all frames are the same width and length.

Regardless of size or material, frames are rectangular structures consisting of:

  • A top bar,
  • Two side bars, and
  • A bottom bar.

The top bar is longer than the bottom bar. The extra length permits the frame to sit on the frame rest ledge in the hive box and provides bee space between the side bars and the adjacent walls.

The top bar is also wider than the bottom bar. Tapered side bars are wider at the top than the bottom. Notches in the side bar provide attachment points for both the top and bottom bars. Thus, the side bars are the widest part of the frame at both the top and bottom.

This tapered design allows the sidebars of adjacent frames to touch at the top but leave bee space between the top bars and fully drawn comb in the frame.

Hive boxes are defined not just by their depth (deep, medium, shallow) but by their width in terms of the number of frames they can hold (10, 8, or 5).

Hive frames can be either wood or plastic.

Plastic Hive Frames

Manufacturers generally mold plastic frames and foundation as one piece. Unfortunately, this style does not permit the beekeeper to choose a wax foundation.

With plastic frames and foundation, the only selection options are for height and embossed cell size.

Green plastic frames with larger embossed cell sizes to serve as drone brood frames. The larger cell size helps concentrate drone brood on these frames so that beekeepers can mitigate Varroa mite infestation by removing them from the hive.

Green neon identifies drone foundation.

Wood Hive Frames

Each component of the wood hive frame comes in two formats. You can mix and match pieces depending on the type of foundation used.

Top bars are either wedge top or grooved top.

Wedge top bars have a small strip of wood that you easily remove and use to pin wax foundation in place.

Unsurprisingly, grooved top bars have a groove that holds the foundation in place.

Some side bars are solid, while others have holes. Wire, pins, or support rods inserted in holes help stabilize wax foundation.

A wire is run through side bar holes, across the frame, and embedded in the wax foundation. Wiring keeps the foundation rigid and holds it in place during honey extraction.

As an alternative to wiring frames, support pins inserted through side bars support the wax foundation to keep it from sagging.

Bottom bars are either grooved or split.

Grooved bottom bars work with either plastic or wax foundation. Some beekeepers like a split bottom because it provides more “wiggle room” when inserting wax foundation. Also, opinions vary as to which type of bottom bar is easier to clean out for reuse.

These Mann Lake deep frames are the ones we use with plastic foundation.
We also assemble these Mann Lake frames for our medium box honey supers.
Mann Lake deep wedge top bars & side bars with holes are for wax foundation.
These wedge top bars and side bars with holes are for medium boxes with wax.

What Is Foundation In Beekeeping?

Foundation is a plastic or beeswax sheet placed within hive frames to serve as a base for bees drawing comb. Hexagons embossed on foundation encourage production of certain cell sizes. Plastic foundation snaps in place; wires support for wax foundation.  Frame components can vary based on the type of foundation.

Bees will build cells of a particular size based on the hexagons embossed on each side of the foundation. Most foundation has a “standard” cell size of 5.2mm – 5.4mm. “Small cell” foundation, intended to imitate what is considered a “natural’ cell size, is about 4.9mm.[i]

Do I Need Foundation In My Frames?

Hive frames can be used without foundation. Without foundation, take certain steps to avoid a mess of cross comb inside the hive.

Using a grooved top bar in your frames, insert a starter strip of foundation (plastic or wax) or a strip of wood (a popsicle stick, tongue depressor, or paint stick will work). Without foundation bees will draw comb from the top down using the added strip as a starting point.

Keeping the hives level from side to side helps assure that comb will attach to the bottom of the frame.

Without foundation, bees are more likely to build in undesirable directions. Furthermore, until the comb can easily fall out of the frame prior to being attached to multiple points on the frame.

For these and other reasons, we do not recommend foundationless beekeeping for beginners.

Types Of Beehive Foundation

There are two broad categories of hive foundation: plastic and wax.

Plastic Foundation

Plastic foundation is available in four colors:

  • Yellow,
  • White,
  • Black, and
  • Green.

The yellow and white foundation works throughout the hive. These lighter colors let you see the natural color of the comb and honey easily, making them excellent choices for honey supers.

Some beekeepers prefer a black foundation for the brood chamber. The dark color helps make a visual inspection of eggs and larvae easier.

Green plastic foundation, combined with a plastic frame, has large, embossed cells (6.0mm to 7.1mm) to encourage its use for drone brood. Varroa mites prefer these bigger cells. Beekeepers can thus remove a frame full of drone cells as part of their mite mitigation program. You can purchase yellow drone comb, but the neon green frames and foundation make them easier to identify.

Acorn foundation is popular among beekeepers.
Mann Lake Rite-Cell foundation has worked great for us.
First year beekeepers should consider fully assembled frames.

Drone brood management is one of several non-chemical mite mitigation methods discussed in our article Varroa Mites: A Complete Treatment Guide.

Plastic foundation is available with a single or double wax coating to increase acceptance by the bees. You can also buy it plain and apply wax yourself. This foundation can last for years; recoat it with wax after cleaning off any old comb.

Wax Foundation

Beeswax foundation sheets are available in several forms:

  • Beeswax only
    • Medium brood (“medium” refers to the thickness, not box depth, in this case)
    • Thin surplus
    • Cut comb
  • Wired beeswax
    • Hook
    • No hook

Bees are quick to accept wax foundation for building comb.

Beeswax Only Foundation

Medium brood foundation sheets are the thickest beeswax available.

Secure medium wax foundation to the frame using a wedge top bar. Bottom bar selection (grooved vs. split) is a matter of personal preference.

Provide additional strength by running horizontal wires through side bars holes and embedding the wire in the wax.

Wire adds rigidity to the foundation, keeps it from sagging, and holds it in place when using a centrifugal extractor.

Thin surplus and cut comb foundation provide a base for comb honey extraction. If you are planning to cut comb honey, you do not want wires running through the wax. To secure thin surplus foundation, use a wedge top bar, a grooved bottom bar, and pins inserted through holes in side bars. Also, thin foundation is for medium and shallow frames where it carries less weight.

Wired Beeswax Foundation

Wax foundation with crimped wire already embedded eliminates the need for you to add wire to frames. (You can add more wire if you wish).

Use a wedge top to secure a wired wax foundation to the top bar. Many beekeepers prefer to use foundation with hooks to make the connection more secure. Side bar pins further secure the foundation.

Plastic Foundation Vs. Wax Foundation – Pros And Cons

PlasticWax
green check mark
Readily snaps into the frame for easy installation and stability.
red x mark
Requires wedge top and wiring for rigidity and stability.
red x mark
Bees may be slow to accept the plastic or do not draw comb properly. Reapplication of wax coating may be necessary.
green check mark
Beeswax foundation is readily accepted by bees for comb production.
green check mark
Holds up well in centrifugal extractors at higher speeds
red x mark
More likely to blow out in extractor if speed is too high
red x mark
Plastic is more expensive and heavier than wax.
green check mark
Wax is cheaper and lighter than plastic.
green check mark
Will not be damaged by pests such as wax moths.
red x mark
Can be damage by wax moths and other pests.
red x mark
Plastic prevents cut comb honey production.
green check mark
Comb honey production is possible with unwired wax sheets.
green check mark
Not materially affected by weather conditions so it can be shipped at any time. Can also be put in frames and installed when convenient.
red x mark
To avoid damage during shipping, may not be available during high heat or extreme cold. Put in frames and install only shortly before the bees are ready to avoid sagging.
red x mark
Plastic foundation must be purchased from reputable suppliers.
green check mark
Beekeepers can make their own foundation with beeswax harvested from their own hives.
green check mark
Black plastic foundation is available to aid visual inspection of eggs and larvae.
red x mark
Eggs and larvae may be more difficult to see in translucent beeswax foundation.

We recommend that beginning backyard beekeepers use plastic foundation because it is quick and easy to install, requiring no special tools.

Summary Of What Frames To Use With Foundation

The following are common combinations of frames and foundation for best results.

For plastic foundation, use

  • Grooved top bar,
  • Side bars (no holes as they are not needed), and
  • Grooved bottom bar.

For medium, pure beeswax foundation, use:

  • Wedge top bar,
  • Side bars with holes,
  • Optional metal eyelets to protect holes, and
  • Either a split or grooved bottom bar (personal preference).

For thin surplus foundation, use:

  • Wedge top bar,
  • Side bars with holes,
  • Pins to hold foundation, and
  • Grooved bottom bar.

Buying Frames And Foundation

Purchase frames and foundation from reputable suppliers.

Since every hive box needs a full complement of frames, buying in bulk makes sense and will save you money. Bulk buying can also reduce or eliminate shipping costs.

We recommend that beginning beekeepers buy fully assembled components if the extra cost fits within your budget. There is a lot to do in your first year of beekeeping; fully assembled parts save a lot of time.

Amazon carries frames and foundation, mostly in bulk, from suppliers that include some of those listed below.

Other online suppliers we recommend for frames and foundation are:

Frames and Foundation In Other Types Of Hives

Warré hives are vertical and modular hives like the Langstroth. Warré hives typically use just a top bar. The Warré Store offers frames as an option.

As the name implies, top bar hives use only top bars from which the bees hang comb.

Langstroth long hives, a horizontal version of the standard Langstroth, use the same standard frames and foundation. However, the long hive uses all deep frames.

The horizontal Layens hive uses frames and foundation configured to fit its deeper boxes.

See our article What Is A Horizontal Hive? for more information on top bar, long Langstroth, and Layens hives.

Conclusion

Frames and foundation are a major component of a Langstroth hive. Even though the cost of each individual frame or sheet of foundation is relatively small, the costs add up since you need 8 – 10 of them for each box.

Take time to understand how to match components to your needs and preferences.

We recommend that beginning beekeepers use plastic foundation for it’s ease of use. After you gain more experience, you may opt to try wax foundation.

This article is part of our series explaining how to start beekeeping. Frames and foundation are key components need to set up your beehive.


[i] Comb Management Part 2: Comb size by Garett Slater | Bee Informed Partnership

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