Foundation vs. Foundationless Beekeeping (What You Need to Know!)

foundation vs foundationless beekeeping

Beekeeping is a personal journey.

Eventually, you’ll find methods and strategies that suit your needs. 

The decision to use foundation or foundationless frames is something you’ll hear debated at any beekeeping association 🙂

But what is the difference, and what are the pros and cons of each choice?

Find out more below!

Foundation Vs. Foundationless Beekeeping – Which Is Best?

Foundation beekeeping is easier for the beekeeper but is less natural for the bees and increases beekeeping costs. Foundationless is more challenging to manage as a beekeeper, but it is more natural for the bees and reduces cost. Most beekeepers adopt a hybrid approach to these beekeeping strategies.

All beekeeping practices have advantages and disadvantages, including foundation or foundationless frames.

The key to making the right choice is understanding each practice and then deciding which option fits best with your beekeeping style, goals, and the market that buys your products (if you sell your produce).

Some beekeepers don’t opt for a single path of foundation or foundationless beekeeping but mix these two practices in their apiary to get the benefits of both options.

I’ll help you can decide whether to try both options or choose one method and run with it 🙂

What Is Foundation In A Beehive?

what is foundation in a beehive

Foundation is a sheet with a hexagonal imprint fitted to a beehive frame upon which the bees draw out comb for brood, honey, and pollen storage.

This is another aspect where beekeepers have a choice. You can opt for a plastic or wax foundation; each has advantages and challenges.

The foundation’s purpose in a bee hive frame is to encourage the bees to build straight comb, reducing burr comb between frames. The straight comb makes it easier for the beekeeper to remove frames from the hive for inspection without them becoming stuck because of burr comb and cross comb.

Foundations also make it easier to harvest honey using a centrifugal extractor. This is because the foundation keeps the comb intact on the frame when the honey is spun out.

The frame with the comb still on it can be placed back into the hive, and the bees can fill the frame with honey again quicker since they do not have to rebuild the comb.

What Is A Foundationless Frame?

what is a foundationless frame

In its simplest form, a foundationless frame is an empty frame where the bees are not given a foundation structure for building a comb. 

The bees are free to draw the comb anyway they want to, which in most cases is straight down in the frame… 

But not always 🙂

Some foundationless frames have wires positioned across the inside to make the comb more durable. This method helps to prevent the comb from disintegrating during honey extraction.

Some beekeepers mix foundation and foundationless frames in the same hives! For example, the frames in the brood chamber can be foundationless. In contrast, the frames used in the honey super can be foundation frames to make harvesting and re-using the frames easier.

example foundationless beekeeping

Some honey frames are specially designed with rectangular compartments for the harvesting of comb honey

Here’s a somewhat extreme example 🙂 (Amazon)

“Comb honey” is where both the honey and comb are cut out of the frame. The comb-filled honey is then packaged and sold to the consumer. Some consumers prefer to buy their honey packaged in this way since there is no way the honey can be adulterated by adding syrups to it.

Differences Between Foundation And Foundationless Frames

The main difference between foundation and foundationless frames is the groove machined into the foundation frame’s top and bottom bars. This groove accepts the foundation sheets and secures them into the frame. 

Foundationless frame sidebars or end bars usually have holes drilled in them for wires to be strung across the frame to hold the comb in place until the bees can secure the comb on at least three sides.

Foundation frames can be used as foundationless frames by using the same structure but without a foundation. If you want to use wire in the frame, drilling the required holes in the sidebars is simple!

Will Bees Build Comb On An Empty Frame?

Yes, bees will build on an empty frame, but there is no guarantee that they will build straight comb or within the confines of the structure.

Bees are accustomed to making any gap or cavity suitable for their home. They can build comb almost anywhere from the inside of tractor tires to pool pump housings!

The purpose of frames in beehives is to make managing bees easier for the beekeeper. 

Bees may even build cross comb in the hive, which spans several frames horizontally, rather than building vertically within a frame.

When you use foundationless frames, you must check the bees are building comb correctly and take steps to correct any errant comb to make your life easier for inspections and harvesting.

Will Bees Draw Comb On Plastic Foundation?

Bees will draw comb on plastic foundation sheets, but they sometimes need encouragement to do so, and the comb is not always uniform.

A tactic used by beekeepers to get the bees to accept the plastic foundation is to cover the sheet with a thin layer of beeswax.

This step masks the plastic foundation from the bees, and they are more likely to build a well-constructed comb.

Pros And Cons Of Foundation Vs. Foundationless Beekeeping

There are good and bad aspects to foundationless and foundation-based beekeeping. Each beekeeper must evaluate these aspects and decide which option, or combination, suits their beekeeping needs.

Foundation beekeeping:

ProsCons
Less natural beekeeping method.
Increases beekeeping costs.
Easier for faster centrifugal honey extraction.
The cell size can be managed to reduce drone cell numbers
Bees can re-fill the comb faster for a second harvest
Easier for frame removal due to less cross comb and bur comb.
No wires are necessary to secure the foundation in the frame.
Better mite control due to fewer drones in the colony.Uniform cells can encourage mite infestation
Even comb construction maximizes the honey yield from each frame.
The pros and cons of foundation beekeeping

Foundationless beekeeping:

ProsCons
A more natural approach to beekeeping
Lowers the costs of beekeeping.
Easier to harvest comb honey.Harder to extract honey in a centrifugal extractor.
Bees can build whatever size comb cells they want.
Bees must rebuild the comb before they can re-fill it with honey.
More incidence of burr comb and cross comb.
Requires wires to stabilize the comb on the frame for honey extraction.
Varying cell sizes can reduce mite infestation.Larger numbers of drones can encourage mite infestation
Uneven comb construction can result in lower honey yields per frame.

The pros and cons of foundationless beekeeping

So Should You Go Foundationless?

Whether to go foundationless or not with your beekeeping is entirely personal. However, my recommendation for beginners is to start with foundation beekeeping, which makes standard beekeeping tasks easier.

Once you have gained some experience with your bees, begin experimenting with foundationless frames

A mixed approach is the best beekeeping strategy, in my experience. 

I use foundation frames in honey supers and foundationless frames in the brood chamber.

The foundationless approach in the brood chamber allows the bees the freedom to build whatever size comb they need for the colony’s requirements 🙂

How About Foundation Starter Strips

foundation starter strips vs full wax sheets

Foundation strips give the bees a starting point and encourage them to build straight within the confines of the frame without dictating the size of the cells.

I generally use foundation starter strips made from beeswax in brood frames which help to minimize cross comb but give the bees freedom to build whatever size comb and cells they need.

Foundation strips do not work well in honey frames (in other words, the frames inside a super) as the strips do not provide sufficient support to keep the comb intact when extracting honey in a centrifugal extractor.

FAQ

I’m sure many new beekeepers have some additional queries regarding this aspect of beekeeping, which I have tried to answer here to give as complete an overview of foundation vs. foundationless beekeeping as possible.

Can You Mix Foundation And Foundationless Frames?

Yes, you can certainly mix foundationless and foundation beekeeping, even within the same hive! This gives you the benefits of both worlds, and the two methods complement each other well.

For example, placing alternate foundation and foundationless frames in a honey super can limit the occurrence of cross comb, and you can harvest both comb honey and liquid honey. 

Brilliant 🙂

Another alternative is to use foundationless frames in the brood chamber and foundation frames in the honey supers like myself. This simplifies extraction and increases the efficiency of honey production.

Can You Convert Foundation Frames To Foundationless?

Yes, foundation frames can be converted to foundationless quite easily. Remove the foundation from the frame, and you essentially have a foundationless frame!

You can drill some small holes in the sidebars of the frame to accommodate fitting wires to the structure for additional support for the comb.

Conclusion

Most beekeepers use a mix of foundationless and foundation beekeeping, but no right and wrong method prescribes which is best. What matters is which method is best for your chosen way of caring for your bees and beekeeping goals.

Try both methods and see which works best for you! My bets are on you becoming a beekeeper that uses a mixed approach 🙂

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