Foundationless frames

I don’t use foundation in my frames as I prefer to let my bees build their own comb. There are a number of reasons for this.

Firstly, the combs are essentially the bees’ internal organs, where they raise their young, store their food, rest, groom, and carry out their communications. Sheets of foundation (beeswax with cell-shaped indentations for the bees to build from) are completely uniform, whereas when we look at free comb built by bees, it is far less regular. Maybe this is simply a quirk to do with the space they fill, but I’m not sure that striving for uniformity in nature is ever a good thing.

Secondly, the bees can decide what comb to build: drone, worker, or storage. Brood comb always has an even cell size, whereas honey/storage comb can be a bit less exact as it doesn’t need to nurture the precious larvae. Here are some pictures of natural brood comb:

You can see how even the cells are, and the glistening pupal cases left behind by the bees when they hatch. It is dark, and smells slightly musty or musky rather than sweet and fresh. This is all worker brood (so the females who make up the bulk of the population in the colony). Here is a photo of comb where there is a mixture of drone (male) and worker (female) brood. The drones are much larger than the workers, reflected in the size of the cells:

We admire the engineering and execution of the comb building – and rightly so, but look closely and you’ll see that the construction is quite uneven in places.

Here is some storage comb:

This is pale, sweet-smelling, and has no shiny pupal cases. The cell depth is probably twice that of brood comb.

Look at the edges of the comb, the “selvedge”:

This is the point from which the bees build from, and they will join it to the bars at the base of the frame, leaving gaps where necessary to allow the reverberations of the “comb-wide web”, as Jürgen Tautz calls it in his excellent book, The Buzz About Bees. It is my favourite resource about honeybees and a valuable addition to anyone’s reference library if they are wanting to know how bees organise themselves, and the fascinating complexity of the superorganism.

So, back to the frames. Here is how to put together a British Standard Hoffman brood frame:

Remember to push your 11 frames tightly together in the brood box so the all-important bee space between the frames remains accurate, and to use a spirit level when positioning your hive to ensure it is level, as the bees build down vertically, and gravity doesn’t lie.

Instead of using a tiny strip of foundation, you can use a wooden lolly stick dipped in beeswax to secure it and encourage the bees to build down from that point.

3 Replies to “Foundationless frames”

  1. Love the lollipop stick dipped in wax. Much better I should think than the small pieces of foundation, as I found mine often became misshapen in the empty frames before the bees could get to them and sometimes fell off.

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