Foundationless Frames (Foundationless Beekeeping Basics)

Foundationless frames

Langstroth hives frames are movable structures where honey bees build wax comb. Beekeepers insert plastic or wax foundations into frames, providing a base for bees to begin work.

However, beekeeping frames do not require foundation. Bees in the wild build comb without the need for any foundation.

Foundationless frames are beehive frames with only a top bar starter strip for bees to begin drawing wax. Without a base, foundationless frames provide a more natural building space where bees can determine cell sizes on their own. However, foundationless frames require proper setup and handling to avoid potential problems.

We recommend you start beekeeping with foundation in Langstroth hives. Foundationless frames are more likely to lead to cross-combing or other issues you may need to fix.

As you gain more beekeeping experience and comfort working with bees, you may want to try foundationless beekeeping.

This article discusses foundationless frames in detail to help guide you.

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Foundationless frames

What Are Foundationless Frames?

Foundationless frames are standard Langstroth frames without any added plastic or beeswax foundation. While many, probably most, beekeepers use foundation, its use is not required.

Some other beekeeping hives (Warré and Top Bar) do not use frames or foundation. Instead, they use bars with a beveled edge for the bees to begin comb building.

See our article Beehive Frames And Foundation (A Beginner’s Guide) for a detailed discussion about various frame formats and types of foundation.

Making Foundationless Frames

Despite the lack of plastic or beeswax sheets, making foundationless frames requires a little effort.

Foundationless Frame Components

We recommend the following frame components for foundationless beekeeping:

  • Grooved top bar,
  • Side bars with holes for deep frames,
  • Side bars with holes for medium frames which will be in a centrifugal extractor,
  • Side bars without holes (optional) for frames not centrifugally extracted,
  • A starter strip glued into the top bar groove,
  • Grooved bottom bar.

Starter Strips For Foundationless Frames

Bees build comb vertically, usually from the top down. While they may attach comb to a flat top bar, a starter strip works better for foundationless frames. The starter strip mimics the beveled edge used in top bar hive beekeeping and serves as a comb guide.

Starter strips about ¼” – ½” wide can be wood or a piece of foundation glued into the top bar groove. (Optionally, make strips more secure with some tacks as we do.)

Common wood starter strips are popsicle sticks or tongue depressors. We use paint stirrers cut in half lengthwise as they are longer than those other options. (We may use a whole stirrer on deep frames providing a wider strip for attachment.)

Some beekeepers recommend waxing a wood starter strip. We have never done that, and the bees seem to accept it as is.

Instead of wood, a strip of plastic or wax foundation works well.

Alternatively, cut the drawn comb out of an old foundationless frame except for a few rows at the top to effectively make wax starter strips.

Do Foundationless Frames Need Wire?

Foundationless combs are very fragile before they are attached to at least three sides of the frame. Unattached wax easily falls out of a rotating frame, particularly on a hot day.

Deep foundationless brood frames represent a considerable risk due to their weight so they should be wired.

Tip: When inspecting foundationless frames, rotate only side to side (not top to bottom) unless the wax is securely attached to the frame. Carelessly flipping frame may cause combs to fall out.

Wired foundationless frames provide multiple attachment points as bees build comb downward, making the wax more secure. Thus, foundationless brood frames are safer to manipulate when wired.

The need for wire is why we recommend side bars with holes for deep foundationless frames.

Medium and shallow foundationless frames carry much less wax weight than deep frames. Therefore, these combs should attach to multiple locations with less area to cover quickly.

You can always cut out comb honey or extract liquid without an extractor by crush and strain methods. However, if you plan on extracting honey from foundationless frames mechanically, wire lowers the chance of wax blowing out of the frame from the centrifugal force.

Why Use Foundationless Frames? Pros And Cons Of Foundationless Beekeeping

Whether or not to use foundation is a source of disagreement among some beekeepers. Weigh the pros and cons of going without foundation in deciding if foundationless beekeeping for you.

Advantages Of Foundationless Frames

Foundationless Frames Are More Natural

Foundation artificially determines cell sizes which may affect the size of the bees in your hive.[1]

Without foundation, bees build comb and determine cell sizes naturally; the bees decide where in the hive to put drone brood, worker brood, and honey.[2]

Foundationless Lowers The Cost Of Beekeeping

Foundation costs add up as you expand your apiary. Foundationless frames can lower the cost of beekeeping.

As of this writing, the average foundation cost is around $1.60 per sheet. So for a 10-frame, 5-box Langstroth hive (2 deep plus 3 honey supers), foundation will cost about $80 (50 frames x $1.60).

While foundation can last several years (particularly plastic foundation), it needs periodic replacement.

Varroa Mite Control?

Foundationless beekeeping is perceived to lower mite populations. [2] With bees making smaller, natural cell sizes, varroa may not reproduce as effectively as they do in larger cells.

However, there is evidence that drone populations are more prominent in foundationless hives. Drone-sized cells may encourage varroa mite growth.

The science of controlling mites with smaller cell sizes seems unsettled. However, you can try it and see if it works for you.

Comb Honey

Foundationless frames without wires make comb honey easy to extract from a hive.

See our article about comb honey for information on how to eat this great hive product.

Harvesting Raw Honey From Foundationless Frames

Disadvantages Of Foundationless Frames

Foundationless Frames Require Level Hives

Leveling hives on even ground can be difficult. We have seen hives tilt slightly after leveling when one end of a stand becomes heavier than the other end.

If hives are not level, the combs may not stay within the frame as bees build it. Outside of the frame, comb can make a mess in your hive if not caught, and fixed, in timely manner.

Cross Combing Issues

Foundation encourages bees to build comb in a straight line. Without foundation, bees may go off in unusual directions building wonky comb. You may open a hive and find some comb crossing several frames instead of within a single frame. Again, it can be a mess to fix if not caught promptly.

Placing frames of drawn comb between empty foundationless frames may limit cross combing issues.

Lack Of Foundation May Take Bees Longer To Draw Comb

Foundation provides a base and midsection for the construction of honeycomb. Some beekeepers claim it takes longer for bees to draw out a frame without foundation fully.

We have not done any “scientific” analysis in our hives, but it seems that bees started drawing quickly without foundation. Acceptance of plastic is never an issue in foundationless frames.

Fixing comb on foundationless frame
Fixing comb on foundationless frame
Bees drawing comb on foundationless frame
Bees drawing comb on foundationless frame

Extracting Honey From Foundationless Frames

Can you spin foundationless frames?

Spinning frames at high speed is an efficient method of honey extraction. Any frame can blow out during a spin. However, extracting honey from foundationless frames increases the risk of failure. Wiring foundationless frames helps mitigate that risk.

Higher Drone Populations

If controlling drone brood is part of your mite mitigation plan, bees may thwart your efforts by producing more drones without foundation. Balance this against the fact that you are letting the bees do what they think is best for the colony (a bee colony is a pretty intelligent superorganism).

A superorganism is “an organized society (as of a social insect) that functions as an organic whole.”

Merriam-Webster

How Do You Use Foundationless Frames?

Account for some of the factors mentioned above (hive leveling, cross combing, etc.) and use foundationless frames just as you would frames with foundation.

We have done some mixing of frames with foundation and foundationless frames.

For example, you will receive deep frames with foundation when acquiring a nuc. We place those in the brood box and often put foundationless medium frames above it.

If we are short on drawn comb to help keep bees on a straight line, we alternate frames with foundation and frames without it.

Another option is to use foundationless frames in brood chambers to raise natural sized bees, but use foundation in honey supers for ease of extraction.

Beginning Beekeepers And Foundationless Frames

We recommend that beginning beekeepers start with foundation. There is enough to learn when starting out, and dealing with cross comb is a headache you do not need.

Later on, you can transition to or experiment with foundationless frames as we did. Our hives are now a mix of foundation and foundationless.

Changing to Foundationless Frames

Conclusion

A sheets of foundation is commonly used in a Langstroth frame as a base for bees to draw comb. However, frames do not require foundation.

Foundationless frames create a more natural environment for bee colonies to decide how to draw comb. However, foundationless frames have both advantages and disadvantages to be considered.

The most significant advantage of foundationless beekeeping is the cost savings. A higher probability of cross comb is a major disadvantage.

While foundationless beekeeping is not for everyone, we suggest that new beekeepers try it out after some experience.


[1] Comb Management Part 2: Comb Size by Garett Slater for Bee Informed Partnership

[2] Natural Cell Size – Michael Bush at Bush Farms

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