My experiments in making and using foundation free frames in ‘national’ hives.
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I have been experimenting, for a few years, with foundation free frames, in national hives, initially because I was worried about the sources of wax used to make foundation. What I wanted was for the bees to make their own wax, with the added bonus that it would represent a big saving on costs.
Through using foundation free frames I have found other advantages, and this article presents my learning so far, which is by no means complete. The experiments are on-going.
9 Reasons For Using Foundation Free Frames
I have come up with 9 so far, but let me know if you think of any more.
1 – Safety
“Your wax is surely the safest!”
Where does the wax in sheets of foundation come from? Nobody knows, but we are assured that it comes from ‘a reliable source’. What does this mean? What is a reliable source? There isn’t one as far as I’m concerned, and it’s certainly not in Africa, or on any other continent. I don’t even like mixing frames between my own hives. So making your own comb is by far the safest way to ensure, or minimise imported problems and cross contamination (chemical, bacteriological, viral, etc.).
2 – Cost
“Save money, make your own”
Why buy beeswax when you own thousands of the creatures who actually make it? I’ll be honest this was a major attraction to me, and in Yorkshire, where I live, it is sufficient to mention only this fact to get the immediate attention of other beekeepers.
3 – Faff
“Time consuming, tedious and faffy”
Putting foundation into frames is time consuming, tedious and faffy, what with all that trimming, bending and cursing. The wax sheet catches on the sides, or on unseen gimp pins accidentally hammered through the wood at the bottom (when you’ve done so many frames that you stop paying attention). Then there’s the ‘freshening up’ of last years left over foundation with a hot air gun, blow torch, or hot greenhouse.
Removing old comb is also time consuming, tedious and faffy, because you sometimes need to partially dismantle the frame, or engage in endless scraping, with a variety of tools, to ensure nothing can obstruct the entry of a new sheet of foundation into the runners.
A foundation free frame remains intact during re-cycling and requires a minimum of effort to remove the wax.
4 – Quality assured
“Home grown, free range and organic”
Making your own beeswax is like growing your own vegetables, it gives you confidence in the quality of the product, and an enormous sense of satisfaction.
Bees don’t like the metal wire in wired foundation, it annoys them, and they often skip cells with wire in them creating a ‘W’ shape of unoccupied cells in brood frames. If wire isn’t properly embedded into the wax the bees will chew holes in the foundation and use the wax elsewhere.
You cannot use wired foundation for ‘cut comb’ honey, no matter how perfectly they draw it, or how nice it looks.
5 – Premium quality
“Premium quality, all the time, no extra expense”
Leading on from point 4 is the use of beeswax in making cosmetics and creams. I wanted to be sure that the wax I used for this purpose was premium quality, safe, and fresh.
I only used fresh cappings from honey supers to ensure quality but now, if I need to, I can harvest a full foundation free frame super frame just for its wax.
6 – Worker cells
Research has shown that workers raised in natural, or free formed cells, hatch out two days earlier, and are bigger, than those reared in cells of a size which is artificially determined by the pattern on the foundation (and by a German bloke called Johannes Mehring in 1857). Over a season this represents a significant difference in worker numbers.
The bees make the cells in foundation free frames as they need them, where they want them, and to the sizes they think best (for workers or drones). I’d rather trust the bees with this decision.
Foundation free brood super full of brood
7 – Drone cells
“Quality drones, fit for purpose”
Another influencing factor in my adoption of foundation free frames was the nature of drone cells I found on frames with foundation. We force the bees to make endless worker cells down a sheet of foundation. Consequently the bees are left with no option but to make drone cells by either extending worker cells to make small drones (‘bumpy brood’), or by building a big waxy blob of drone cells on the bottom of a frame. This uses up a lot of resources, makes inspections harder, and damage to brood more likely.
Victorian beekeepers seemed to go out of their way to eradicate drones viewing them as useless parasites in a colony. This attitude seems to linger today as no provision is made to accommodate drones and the bees are then forced into makeshift measures outlined above, measures which are often done at the last minute by the bees, or as a last resort.
In foundation free frames the bees make as many drone cells as they like, and within the frame, making inspections easier, and ensuring drones are properly developed. Remember that drones are 50% of your breeding stock and their quality should be equal to that of the queen. Would you be happy with a queen crammed into a cell which was too small for her?
I wanted the bees to have the choice (to be happy). Inevitably they take the opportunity to create a patch of drone cells in some of the foundation free frames, and sometimes they will fill a whole frame, but interestingly they don’t often fill them with drones. Their instinct seems to be to make drone cells, not drones, and then they leave them until they need them, so that they are instantly available once the decision to make drones has been made. I have never seen all drone cells in use at once, some of them are never used, or are filled with stores.
When drones are not required, during winter, the unoccupied drone cells are filled with stores, and are then instantly available for use as drone cells next season. There’s no need to rebuild the big blobby lump of wax and the partly developed drone larvae that you messily scraped off the bottom of the bottom of the frame (as you pulled faces at the bursting white larvae).
Beekeepers of past generations have been obsessed with eradicating “lazy drones” and seemed convinced that, given the choice, a colony would fill a hive with them. Why would they? In my opinion good drones, and plentiful drones, are essential for healthy mating, the queen is only half the equation, and just look at the effort people put into making good Queens. Don’t we need good, strong, healthy drones too, to make sure are queens are properly mated? How many times do we hear that a queen was not properly mated?
The pictures below show nice clean frames of drone cells with perfect drones. No need to make do with extended worker cells (bumpy brood) or big waxy lumps on the bottom of brood frames.
A nice clean brood frame of drone cells, easy to lift in and out.
…… and the same on a brood super (brood and a half configuration)
8 – Queen cells
“Natural queen cells”
Fully drawn frames force the bees to build hook shaped queen cells between frames, or to hang them from the bottom of the frame. Often these are braced to the opposite frame, or to the one below, and are torn when we remove the frame for inspection, or squashed when we put them back. It’s a very unsatisfactory situation.
One unexpected bonus of my experiments was that, if you make sure the bees have a foundation free frame or two whenever they want to build queen cells, they will begin to draw the frame and then sometimes hang queen cells directly from its lower edge, just as they do in the wild. This makes the queen cells easy to spot, and to remove, should you wish to transfer queen cells to another hive.
It’s a lovely sight.
A frame with a string of perfectly formed, vertical queen cells hanging from comb, is very beautiful and slides in and out easily, without contact with another frame.
9 – Cut comb
Maximise the profit from your product!
Foundation free super frames, with two bamboo skewer dividers, make excellent cut comb. Usually producers of cut comb buy especially thin foundation made for the purpose. Why bother with all that expense when the bees will do it themselves, for free, in foundation free frames? You have the choice then, whether to spin out the honey, or make cut comb.
Super frame being filled with stores
A foundation free honey super frame, with two stiffeners, perfect for cut comb, if you prefer..
My Experiments – the learning curve!
I experimented with a series of different frames because I didn’t have the experience to predict what would happen. I started with broad starter strips along the top edge, then reduced to narrow starter strips, and eventually I ran molten wax into the top corner of the frame, and finally I opted for no wax at all, then I added a bamboo kebab skewer stiffener.
Below are a few examples of experiments:
A narrow starter strip
A starter strip with stiffener
I was delighted to discover that the bees were quite happy with an empty wooden frame, with no wax at all, and that the addition of a simple, cheap, bamboos kebab skewer stiffener made things good for the beekeeper too.
Held up to the sunlight you can see the stiffener inside the wax.
Here are a few examples of 14 x 12 frames I made:
foundation free 14 x 12 frames, about to go into the hive
Some bees will build so as to make full contact with the bottom of the frame, and some will leave a bee sized gap. Without a skewer support stick the frames with a gap are difficult to inspect when new as the wax is liable to deform because the wax is soft, so the single kebab skewer provides all the support necessary until the wax matures.
The gap at the bottom makes a favourite place for the queen to hide, but an easy place to inspect, and to find her.
Some bees like to leave a gap between the comb and frame.
Building around the supports
Some bees will totally ignore the bamboo stiffener making perfectly flat frames identical to frames with foundation in them, but others will pull the comb in towards the stiffener creating a pillow like effect.
Also some bees will build either side of the skewer simultaneously whilst others will start at one side and move across the frame. There are pictures below which demonstrate this.
How the magic happens!
It begins, usually at one side of the frame, but not always.
The growing comb is about to make contact with the stiffener.
Sometimes the bees start at one end and work along, and sometimes they start either side of the stiffener, like this:
These bees have chosen to work on both sides at the same time, and join up later.
A fully drawn, and occupied brood frame. You can still see a bit of the stiffener. Despite not being attached at the bottom this mature brood comb can be flipped during inspections.
A freshly drawn foundation free brood frame is filled with capped honey, as it is being drawn.
A word of warning!
If you kit out a complete brood box only with foundation free frames then there is a 50/50 chance that the bees will go the wrong way, building across the frames, at an angle, over several frames, or maybe all of them, making it impossible to inspect without lots of cutting and damage. This often happens in top bar, and in Warre hives, and is a nightmare to recover. To resolve such a situation involves slicing through comb and brood with an old bread knife, a heart breaking experience. During my early experiments complete brood boxes were given foundation free frames, and occasionally with the following results, which I call ‘criss-cross’ comb (I know, it’s not very original).
Side view of ‘criss-cross’ comb on national frames
….. and seen from below, locking all the frames together into one big lump.
This block of frames above is 3 frames deep. It was originally 7 frames thick. I had tried replacing one frame at a time, one for one, but even with wired foundation filled frames they faithfully recreated what was there before, amazing but frustrating, and then I had to go through all that cutting and wincing again. Eventually I discovered that removing the end frame and shuffling the rest along to the end wall gradually reduced the problem, but it took forever, and I had to make a lifting tool to break the block of frames free, away from the runners in one lump, before shuffling them along.
My home-made multi-frame lifting tool, now thankfully obsolete.
The solution to avoiding criss-cross comb!
The way to avoid this situation is to put foundation free frames inbetween frames of foundation, or inbetween frames of drawn comb, and then the bees build parallel with the two ‘guide’ frames alongside. I rarely get any problems now, perhaps a little brace comb now and then.
An empty foundation free frame is placed between foundation frames or drawn comb
VIDEO – This is a short video clip (Taken from the video ‘A swarm Arrives At A Bait Hive-video B) showing the frame arrangement of a bait hive using foundation free frames:
I start with two or three foundation free frames per brood box, then gradually replace the older comb with foundation free frames once the new frames are drawn. So replacing your old frames is a gradual process, which may take two, three or even four seasons to complete, depending on the colony and when you introduce them.
Another consideration is when you will start to replace your old frames with foundation free ones.
It is harder for the bees to draw a foundation free frame than one with foundation, because it uses more wax. So foundation free frames, given to a colony at the back end of a season, makes it hard work for them, and is not recommended, if the remaining foraging time is critical then they need that time to collect and to cap stores, not to build new comb. At the beginning of a season is best, and of course a new swarm will make short work of them.
By regularly putting empty frames between the freshly drawn frames of a new swarm you can get 4 or 5 foundation free frames introduced in the first season.
Alternative Inspection Technique
My foundation free frames are marked (with a drawing pin on top, at one end) so that, when I first started the experiments, I knew when to use a different inspection technique. I was worried that, without the wire, new comb would distort if I held the frames horizontally.
So instead of flipping frames in the air I rest a frame corner on the edge of the hive, or on top of the frames, and gently spin it. Although this takes a few seconds longer there are advantages.
This technique does not put strain on the arms, shoulders and back. I particularly, noticed because I have damaged shoulders from multiple dislocations, and I found inspections were a lot more enjoyable, and pain free.
I have actually adopted the ‘corner rest and spin’ technique with all brood frames, because it ultimately results in much less fatigue and back ache, and therefore more enjoyable bee keeping.
Wax matures with age. It starts out soft and bendy and gradually becomes more brittle. Once a foundation free frame has matured you can flip it just like any other and I am not so bothered about marking foundation free frames any more because I am confident in their strength, and have built up the experience to know when to be careful.
In the honey spinner
I have spun both brood and super frames with no problems.
I have used foundation free supers, with good results.
In honey super frames I have used two stiffeners to ensure no distortion during spinning but you can make do with one if you take it steady. One of the advantages of two stiffeners is that the partitions make perfect shapes, and thickness, for ‘cut comb’, a way to extract the premium price for your product.
I have tended to use two stiffeners in my honey super frames and a single stiffener in the super frames which are destined to be used as brood supers but, to be honest, there’s no reason to use two stiffeners unless you want three lovely squares of cut comb.
I originally prioritised the replacing of my brood frames with foundation free frames but then, after great success with them, have followed on by replacing the super frames too.I originally prioritised the replacing of my brood frames with foundation free frames but then, after great success with them, have followed on by replacing the super frames too.
In this example the bees began in the middle, alongside the single stiffener
An example where the bees started to draw the frame on both sides of a single stiffener
The single stiffener is hardly visible.
A batch of single stiffener, super frames being made.
A double stiffener example, nicely drawn
Capped stores begin to accumulate in a frame with two stiffeners
Below is a photograph of a good result. The reverse side is continuous, as if it was a foundation filled frame but the side viewed here is indented at the supports, creating this lovely ‘pillow’ effect and making the comb perfect for ‘cut comb’ use. This frame was an early test frame and was put through my spinner. It suffered no damage, or deformation, and was put back on the hive. It’s still in use after 5 seasons.
A foundation free honey super frame, perfect for ‘cut comb’
VIDEO – Demonstrating various examples of foundation free brood and super frames in use in my ‘brood and a half’ national hives:
Making Foundation Free Frames
All you need is a drill, cheap kebab skewers, and appropriate sized drill bits. The rest is easy. There’s a supporting video on the subject of constructing foundation free frames below.
Drilling holes: The diameter of bamboo skewers in a pack varies and so one drill will not do for all. Consequently I have 2mm, 2.5 mm and 3 mm drills for all eventualities. I aim for a tight fit but only achieve this half the time. It doesn’t matter as you can ‘glue’ the skewers in place with a dab of melted wax, or just select the skewers which are a tight fit and use the remainder for kebabs.
VIDEO – Making foundation free frames and some examples of frames in use (because we all love to see bees running around).
Give them a try and let me know how you get on.