Updated on October 26th, 2020
Frames set in your Langstroth hive body provide the structure for honey bees build out their comb. Within the hexagonal comb cells the queen lays eggs, brood develops, bees store nectar and pollen and make honey.
A layer of foundation set within the frame provides a base of the bees to begin building comb. Frames with foundation is probably the way you’ll begin beekeeping.
However, frames don’t require foundation. Bees in the wild build comb without the need for any foundation. “Foundationless” frames provide a more natural building space for the bees. In fact, other types of hives (Warre and Top Bar) don’t use frames at all. They use bars with a top guide for the bees to begin comb building.
We recommend that you start with foundation in Langstroth hives as a beginner. It’s simple. Foundationless frames are more likely to lead to cross-combing or other issues you’ll need to fix.
As you gain more experience and comfort working with bees you may want to transition to foundationless. That’s what we’ve done.
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First, Let’s Talk About Frames
Langstroth hive boxes are all the same rectangular shape but vary in depth and may vary in width. The outside dimensions depend on the thickness of the material used to make the hive. The inside dimensions, however, are consistent. This means the frames can be consistently 19 inches long across the top and they are interchangeable between boxes of similar depth.
The width of the box determines how many frames it will hold: 10, 8 or, in the case of a nuc, 5.
Frames consist of a top which is hung within the hive body on a ledge. Two vertical side bars and a bottom bar complete the frame.
Side bars often have pre-drilled holes to facilitate wiring the frame. The wire helps secure beeswax foundation (see below) and provides rigidity. The height of the side bars will vary based on the depth of the box you are filling.
Properly assembled frames and boxes leave the appropriate “bee space” between the side bars and the walls of the hive body and between the top bars in one box and the bottom bars in the box above.
Bee space is a natural spacing (3/8″) used by bees to permit travel within the hive. Bees will not close off these areas with comb. With frames designed to leave bee space between the side bar and the hive body’s side, the bees will not attach comb to the walls.
However, it’s not unusual to fine some burr comb connecting the top bar of one frame to the bottom bar of another. If you encounter this simply remove the burr comb with your hive tool.
The width of the frames are measured so that once the bees build comb, bee space is maintained between the drawn out frames. Even then you may find some frames have connected comb you’ll need to clean up.
Keeping bee space between frames also gives you some room to lift the frames out of the hive. You still need to be careful because in a densely packed section of comb you might harm the bees by “rolling” them.
Now that you’ve got your hive boxes and the proper frame sizes, it’s time to talk about foundation.
Foundation in General
Foundation is available to fit the frames of various depths in your hive. It comes in two main formats: beeswax or plastic with a thin beeswax coating. The wax gets the bees going. Plastic foundation can also be part of an all-in-one frame and foundation.
The face of the foundation is embossed with the same hexagonal shape of bee comb. This provides a base for the bees to begin drawing out wax. The size of the embossed cells may vary to encourage either worker or larger drone production. Drone sized cells can also hold more honey.
Foundation also provides the bees with a straight line to follow as they draw out comb. A straight line keeps they comb within the structure of the frame so it can be easily removed.
Your choice of foundation can be driven by how you eventually plan to harvest honey.
If you have many hives you’d probably want to use a honey extractor. After removing honey frames from the hive, you cut the caps off and insert the frames in the extractor and spin it. The centrifugal force extracts the honey so the foundation needs to be securely attached to the frame.
As a newbie you won’t have enough honey in the first couple of years to warrant an extractor. Your best ways to harvest the honey is to simply cut the comb into manageable pieces or crush it and let gravity separate the honey and the wax.
Beeswax foundation comes in sheets that can be vertically wired or plain. The wires provide rigidity that keeps it within the frame structure.
Some frames have a slot in the top bar to insert the sheet of beeswax. It’s more likely you’ll get frames that will require you to remove a wedge from the top bar, hang the sheet and tack the wedge back in place.
You’ll also need to add horizontal wires to provide more stability. Frames are available with pre-drilled holes in the sidebars to assist in wiring. Pins can also be inserted to hold the foundation.
In this photo you can see pins holding the foundation and vertical wiring in the wax foundation:
All these wires help keep the foundation in place through honey extraction. If you want to cut your honey into comb though you’ll have to work around them.
The main advantage to beeswax foundation is that it gives the bees a base they will be attracted to. After all, its beeswax.
There are several disadvantages to using beeswax foundation:
- Beeswax melts so it needs to be properly stored.
- Wax for foundation comes from various sources and is likely to contain contaminants like pesticides. The level may be low but for some it’s still a concern.
- It requires more work to install properly.
Plastic foundation comes in individual sheets or as part of an all-in-one plastic frame and foundation. It is usually coated with a thin layer of beeswax. Even so, you can brush some melted wax on yourself.
Yellow seems to be the most common color. Black or other colors are available. You may want to use dark colors in your brood chambers to make eggs more visible.
Plastic foundation is much easier to install than beeswax. The simplicity of frame/foundation combinations is obvious. Individual sheets are easily snapped into place in wooden frames. Some of them come with corners you can pop out to provide an opening for bee travel.
Some beekeepers think that bees do not take well to plastic foundation. We have not had that experience. The foundation we’ve used worked well.
The beeswax coating on plastic foundation has the same contaminant concerns as beeswax foundation. Another drawback is that you won’t make comb honey with plastic foundation (which maybe you don’t care about).
Plastic has major advantages over beeswax, particularly for newbies:
- Storage is unlikely to be a problem.
- Plastic provides plenty of rigidity and stability for centrifugal extraction.
- You can just scrape the honey and wax off with little damage to the foundation (if you’re not using an extractor).
- Plastic will stand up better to wax moths or rodents that might get in your hive.
There’s so much to learn as a new beekeeper we think you should keep it simple. Use plastic foundation to get started.
We started out with plastic foundation. I am not sure we were even aware that there were other options available.
I began reading about foundationless in connection with treating for Varroa destructor mites. Varroa mite infestations can destroy your colony. They are parasites that attach themselves to the developing brood and bees. Varroa are susceptible to various treatments that have minimal impact on bees and honey.
However, there is some evidence the impact of Varroa is lessened by letting bees build comb naturally. Rather than determine the size of the cells artificially from the size embossed on the foundation let the bees decide.
Natural development made sense to us whether or not it affects Varroa. If we were building a commercial operation we’d probably stick with foundation but this is a hobby.
There are several drawbacks to foundationless frames:
- Bees may not build on a straight line. This cross-combing can make a mess inside your hive. The best prevention is regular inspections. I’ve found comb going offline a number of times but always before it got out of hand. The comb is easily manipulated and moved when it’s not full of honey or brood.
- If you use deep frames, you’ll still need to wire them much as you would with beeswax foundation. Without wires, a deep foundationless comb is likely to fall out of the frame with the slightest turn.
- Centrifugal extraction is impractical. Your best options for harvesting are comb honey or crushing. However, this should be fine for a smaller harvest.
- One drawback we’ve seen mentioned to foundationless frames is that bees take longer to draw out comb. I didn’t take any scientific measurements but they seemed to build comb just fine without foundation.
On the plus side, in addition to any positive impact on Varroa, is reduced costs. You save money if Varroa treatments drop and you don’t buy foundation.
Transitioning to Foundationless
You can decide to start foundationless. Or you can do like we did. Start with foundation while you learn about beekeeping and decided later if you want to make the change.
Going foundationless it’s important to keep your hives level from side to side. Gravity determines how the bee comb will hang. If your hives are not level the comb will hang outside the frame and you’ll get a cross-combing mess. A slight tilt toward the front of the hive is not only good for draining any moisture but won’t seriously foul up the comb.
Our decision to try foundationless was done in connection with a move toward all medium boxes. This seemed like a natural direction.
As I mentioned, deep foundationless frames require wiring for stability. Medium frames work just fine without wires as long as you make sure the comb is attached to the frame as you maneuver it.
Even with a medium frame, foundationless still requires a little work on your part.
The bees need a place to attach comb. The simple answer is a small strip of wood attached to the top bar of the frame. You can also attach a small strip of plastic frame to serve the same purpose.
I break a wooden paint stirrer in half with a razor cutter. You can also use something like a tongue depressor (don’t steal them from your doctor…get them on Amazon).
The wood strip is glued into a slot on the frame’s top bar. I added a about 3 tacks to secure it firmly in place. You can brush it with some melted beeswax but I’ve just left them plain.
Since we were transitioning, we used our existing foundation frames for a couple of reasons.
First, they had drawn comb that the bees could re-use. Second, we thought the foundation frames, along with the wood guide, would help keep the bees in a straight line. Alternating foundation and foundationless frames seemed to do the trick. Gradually, we’ve been removing the frames with foundation as they become empty of brood or honey.
Check out our video when we started our transition to medium boxes and foundationless frames.
With Langstroth hives you’ll be using frames. Start out with plastic foundation as it’s far easier to use and store than beeswax foundation.
You can always switch to foundationless down the road if you want to try it. If you make the move, consider all medium boxes (if you haven’t already). The need to wire deep frames adds unnecessary work.
If you go foundationless make sure your hives are level and you inspect them regularly for cross-combing problems.
Whichever way you go just have fun with it!
An unusual potential issue with plastic frames and foundations involves a bacterial infection known as foulbrood (also called American Foulbrood or AFB). Michigan State University has published and an extensive page about AFB that is worth reading.
If you discover AFB in your colony, you’ll need to burn the entire hive and colony to avoid spreading the disease. Plastic foundation and frames should not be burned to avoid releasing toxic fumes and must be sterilized by other methods.