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Foundation vs Foundationless Beekeeping

Foundation vs Foundationless Beekeeping

There is a lot of debate when it comes to the issue of foundation vs foundationless beekeeping, but which is best?

Up until the mid-1800s, beekeepers always permitted bees to build natural comb and the concept of the foundation was unheard of. When honey grew into an industry all its own, beekeepers found ways to hurry along with the honey-making process for larger-scale operations. Foundation relieves the bees of some of the exhausting work of constructing the comb, which gives them more energy for foraging and making honey.  

So, foundation or foundationless- the choice is yours! There are some distinctions that may compel beekeepers one way or another, but you be the judge.

Foundation vs Foundationless Beekeeping: The Key Difference

Foundation refers to a waxy layer with a pressed pattern that mimics the hexagonal cells made by bees. The foundation is just that- a foundation for the bees to begin building comb straight and even.

Without foundation, beekeepers must check the hive frequently to ensure the bees are not building cross comb, which creates a mess. Plus, too much interference from the beekeeper could compromise the well-being of the bees.

Size of Cells

When left to do their thing, worker bees build honeycomb with cells that are around 5mm in diameter.

Foundation is uniform which is something the bees replicate quite closely, following the same size and shape that natural honeycomb has had since the beginning of time. Some beekeepers prefer to leave hive management and cell size up to nature whenever possible- even if it results in some crisscrossing or messy comb at times.

Frames with Foundation

If you give the bees the option of building their honeycomb on a foundationless frame or a frame with a foundation, the bees will build on the foundationless frame first.

Therefore, the argument for the foundation being easier for bees is quite moot. They perform the task by doing something known as festooning, which is essentially how bees build a scaffold of sorts to build their comb.

When you give bees frames with foundation, it kind of throws them off their game. While it seems like it would save a lot of time for the busy bees, it slows them down in a way.

Festooning involves building comb on two sides, so actually, a foundation layer would interfere and pose an obstacle in this process.

In this way, honeybees may expend more effort and energy in making comb on frames with foundation rather than those that are foundationless.

Maintain the Apiary

If you are going to establish new colonies of bees in foundationless hives, plan on visiting the hive every three days. The reason that you must check it often is to prevent and resolve cross comb. Cross comb can become a messy issue. Again, cross comb may be considered to be one of the drawbacks of foundationless hives, in some opinion.

A bee sat on a flower collecting nectar

Decontaminate the Wax

Beekeepers coat their frames with beeswax to encourage bees to continue building on foundations. When you purchase a foundation from retail venues, it could be full of toxins and chemicals that you do not want in a new hive or vulnerable colony.

The beeswax helps to purify and rid the pollutants from the comb. Likewise, wax moths will feed on old honeycomb that is not fit for much else.  

This allows room in the hive for new, fresh comb produced by the colony. It is a symbiotic relationship and a win-win situation for both the moth and the bees.

Control the Comb

When you start a frame with a foundation, it provides a template and a road map for the bees. They are busy enough, but they could go a bit off course and create cross comb, which can make a big mess for the beekeeper trying to harvest it later.

As mentioned, if you are going foundationless, plan to monitor the comb production through the early stages of the process vigilantly.

This ensures it is being built along the frames and bars, straight, which is the cleanest and easiest way to harvest it later on.

If you notice irregularities early enough, the wax is still pliable and moldable. If there is a severe case of cross comb, you may need to cut out the comb and secure it with something like an elastic band or zip tie. After the bees continue to build, you can remove the band or tie from the frame.

If you use frames without foundation, look for those that are designed with guides that help bees figure out the straight way to build comb. There is a top bar for festooning, too, so the bees can resume their tactic of building comb on two sides at the same time.

Foundationless frames or frames with foundation- there are some compelling reasons for both. The question that beekeepers should ask is what their goal is, and what they are willing to put into their apiary. Visit or talk with beekeeping enthusiasts online or in internet forums to learn more about the best beekeeping practices for your distinct apiary.

Harvest the Honey

It is quite easy to harvest your honey from the natural honeycomb. You simply remove the honey frames, gently brush off the bees, and put them in a covered bucket to be taken away from the hive. Once you are away from the hive, you can cut your comb out of the frame.

This is when you can strain the comb, also, into a container. By removing the liquid honey from the comb, you are left with beeswax- a valuable commodity.

Beekeepers often try to harvest from foundationless frames with an extractor, but there are some issues with this method. First, you must go slowly or risk the integrity of your beeswax. Also, honey extractors are expensive and not necessarily prudent for beekeeping hobbyists or novices.

Foundation can make it easier to maintain a hive and make less work for the bees, but is it what is best? An argument could be made for foundation versus foundationless beekeeping; consider this information to choose the best approach and practices for your apiary.