Often new beekeepers struggle to decide what type of frame to use in their beehive: frames with foundation and foundationless frames. Those establishing a Top-Bar or Warre hive use foundationless frames by default. These types of beehives use single bars as a base for the colony to build combs on. On the other hand, both types of frames can be used in a rectangular Langstroth hive.
Foundationless frames require additional work that their counterpart, frames with a foundation, do not. They are not often recommended for a beginner because they can be frustrating to establish for reasons that will be discussed. However, if a new beekeeper is patient and willing to troubleshoot as the season progresses, they may be worth the additional work as they are a more natural way to allow a colony to build comb.
Foundationless frames allow bees to choose the size of the cells used to construct their combs. Essentially, the bees build their own foundation first, then construct their hive to meet their needs. This allows bees to respond and adapt more instinctively to changes in their environment as their colony grows. In addition to being more natural, the use of this type of frame avoids introducing unwanted chemicals to the comb that many frames with foundation may contain.
Frames For A Rectangular Beehive
To understand what a foundationless frame is, it helps to understand what a frame and foundation are. Both types of frame give the bees a structure to build their comb on. They also provide the beekeeper a means to extract that comb from the hive. Regardless of the type, the frame for a rectangular hive looks like a picture frame without the picture.
Frames for a rectangular beehive can be purchased pre-assembled, ready to assemble, both new and used. It is also possible to use plans found online to build frames from scratch. Pre-assembled frames may be advisable for new beekeepers as they are guaranteed to fit in the beehive.
The purpose of using a foundationless frame is to have the bees construct their own foundation. This gives bees the freedom to construct cells of different sizes. This is advantageous because the different types of bees within the colony require different sized cells to mature in. By giving the colony the freedom to determine the comb size, the bees can construct comb based on their current needs.
Bees may construct comb on the foundationless frames as fast, if not faster, so their progress will not be hindered by their use. Another advantage of using foundationless frames is queens may lay eggs on the bee constructed foundation first rather than on man-made foundation. Finally, their use avoids the use of commercial wax, which man-made foundations may contain, that could contain unnecessary chemicals such as pesticides.
Like a frame with a foundation, the foundationless frame looks like a picture frame. However, there is no picture-like foundation. Instead, there is a small piece of wood at the top referred to as a “starter” to tell the bees where to begin construction of their comb. While not necessary, extra support for the comb can be provided by stringing fishing line between the sides of the frame.
Setting Your Frames Up
Setting up a foundationless frame only requires a bit more effort than a foundation frame, which is easily outweighed by the benefits. The sidebars need a few small holes drilled in them to use when stringing a few lengths fishing line across the frame. Stringing this line provides the comb support when the bees integrate the material when they build their comb.
It is important to place a small starter strip in the grove at the top of the frame to guide the construction of the comb. This can be made out of a popsicle stick or tongue depressor if it is not already present on the frame. The starter strip can then be coated with a bit of fresh wax from another hive. The starter strip encouraged the bees to build the comb at the top of the frame and work downward.
A hive should be leveled before inserting the frames. This decreased the risk of problems, especially brace comb formation, in the long run. Doing this promoted building of the comb within the frame because bees build comb vertically. With the frames straight up and down, gravity forced the bees to build the comb straight.
1. Formation of Brace (or Cross) Comb
Brace or cross comb is comb drawn by the bees, so it does not follow the alignment of the frames. This makes it difficult to remove frames for inspection or to extract honey. Leveling the hive reduces the chance of this occurring from the start.
Brace comb can also be a problem if frames in the box below do not align with the frames in the box above. This may cause bees to bridge the difference in alignment with brace comb. To avoid this, make sure the frames lined up with the frames in the box above.
Bees prefer to build their comb parallel to other flat surfaces. Taking advantage of this by alternating a few frames with a foundation with the foundationless frames is another potential solution to brace comb formation. This placement will guide the bees in the construction of their comb.
However, the use of alternating frame types should not be used with a nuc (nucleus hive) because it will split up the brood nest and could cause bee loss. If this is the only hive, this method is not recommended.
2. Bees Chewing Through Fishing Line
Bees can chew through the fishing line meant to support newly drawn comb. If this occurs, the bees tend to damage the bottom strand of a deep or brood frame. The consensus is the comb is still structurally sound. However, it is still something to keep in mind when extracting frames for inspection.
3. Production of Too Many Drones
Frames with foundation come in different sizes. These are used to control the number of each type of bee produced. With the freedom of cell size choice the bees experience with a foundationless frame, control is handed over to the colony. This will need to be accounted for by an established swarm control method.
Initially, the increase in drone population can be a concern. The longer gestation period of the drones could potentially lead to mites in a hive. This is because they are a potential, well-protected food source when trapped in their cell.
One way the drone population can be controlled is by placing the combs containing maturing drones in the upper box. Because this box is usually sealed, it is important to release the matured drones occasionally so they would not die in the upper box. Because this is a known potential issue, a sealable opening can be drilled into the top box and plugged with a stopper. Establishment of proper management techniques made the additional drones more of a benefit than a problem.
Purchasing foundationless frames new costs between $1.75 and $2.60 per frame. The primary factors that determine cost are: if the frames require assembly; if the supplies necessary for assembly are included; and the number purchased per package. The frames are sold in packages of 8 or 10, depending on the manufacturer.
There is also the potential to build your own frames or re-purpose used frames, as Langstroth frames and boxes have standard sizes. However, this may make starting your new hive out more complicated than necessary. Retailers often sell boxes as well, so you can be certain the frames will fit in your beehive.
Foundationless frames can also be used with foundations. You don't need to buy entirely new frames if you change the method you would like to use. This is important to note if you change your mind or need to use a foundation to reduce brace comb. Foundations range from around $4 for wax coated plastic foundation to about $15 for beeswax foundations and nearly $20 for drone frames.
Ease of Use **
Assembly Time ****
Design Flexibility *****
- More cost effective
- The comb is drawn more quickly
- More natural than the use of foundations
- Avoid the chemicals commercial foundations may contain
- It may produce extra drones
- Queens seem to prefer the foundationless comb
- Works well in bait hives
- Requires extra assembly
- The potential for brace comb formation
- May need to be more careful extracting combs
- Risk foundation collapse
- Need to inspect comb construction more frequently
- Steam wax extractor decreases tension on the lines strung between the sides of the frame
A frame with a foundation has a flat, rectangular piece of wax or plastic coated in wax. This fits in the frame much like a picture fits in a frame. It is called the foundation because the surface is pressed with a honeycomb shape that defines the shape of the comb the bees will build. Like building a house on a foundation, bees are limited to only building cells the size of those given by the foundation.A frame with a foundation has a flat, rectangular piece of wax or plastic coated in wax. This fits in the frame much like a picture fits in a frame. It is called the foundation because the surface is pressed with a honeycomb shape that defines the shape of the comb the bees will build. Like building a house on a foundation, bees are limited to only building cells the size of those given by the foundation.
Ease of Use *****
Assembly Time *****
Design Flexibility *
- No extra assembly
- Minimizes the chance of brace comb formation
- Unlikely to have foundation collapse
- Less frequent inspection required
- More expensive
- May contain unwanted chemicals
- The colony cannot dictate the size of cells
- Restrains colony expansion to specific bee types
- The comb may be drawn slowly
The freedom to choose foundationless over a frame with a foundation can become a moot point, depending on the type of beehive. Two common types of beehives, Top Bar and Warre, use a bar for a frame, making them always foundationless. However, a Langstroth beehive can be outfitted with either frame type. It also enables reversion to frames with a foundation if anything goes south.
Choosing foundationless frames can be quite educational. It can come with the otherwise avoidable stress brought on by wondering if the bees will draw their comb properly. As a precaution, it is recommended the colony is inspected every three days when using foundationless frames. This allows the formation of any brace comb to be caught before it makes the frames impossible to pull from the hive.
Unfortunately, the extra time limits a beekeepers ability to go away for more than a day or two at a time, unless they have dependable help. It also may keep a new beekeeper from learning about the bees in the lower pressure experience the use of frames with foundations may have provided. While this prospect may not be bothersome, it is something to keep in mind when considering what frame type to use.
Additionally, the extra considerations during set-up were tedious. You must make sure the surface hives are placed on are level. It can also be frustrating to get the boxes lined up just right.
Greater than the drawbacks can be the peace of mind knowing the honey produced was made without avoidable exposure to pesticides. Given the struggles bee colonies have been facing recently, striving to do what one can to provide their colony with the most natural life possible is its own peace of mind. Beekeepers are responsible for protecting one of nature's most important pollinators. Without healthy bees, the environment cannot thrive.
As a final verdict, foundationless frames receive a four out of five for the ambitious beginner or a solid five for the more experienced beekeeper.