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Beekeeping Basics – Foundation vs Foundationless Beekeeping

For years, beekeeping has been impacted in various ways driven by technological advances and research findings. One such development in beekeeping is the use of foundation comb. Beekeepers have the choice to use foundation in their beehives or not to. The factors that determine whether you will use foundation in your hive rest solely with you. In this article we’ll look at foundation vs foundationless beekeeping. We’re going to take a look at the use of foundation in beehives, and reasons fronted by some beekeepers that advise you not to use foundation.

What is Foundation?

Foundation wax is also called honeycomb base in some areas. It is a plate usually made of wax and offers bees a foundation on which they will build their honeycomb. Foundation is argued to be one of the most important modern beekeeping inventions. Traditionally, foundation has been made of wax, thus the common name – wax foundation. In recent years however, beekeepers have seen plastic foundation enter the market. And it is very likely too that foundation will be made of different materials in the future.

Wax or plastic foundation is fitted into a groove found on most beehive frames. Langstroth beehives are the ones most likely to have foundation since their frames allow for the easy use of foundation. Beehives that do not employ frames in their true sense can be quite troublesome when working with foundation. These alternative beehive designs may use foundation in small strips as starters. The bees then build their own comb onto the starter strips. Plastic frames may have foundation being contiguous with the frame.

Plastic foundation is arguably stronger than wax foundation. It is claimed to be easier to install as well. In recent years, different colors of foundation have been made available to beekeepers. You have the option of black foundation for use in brood chambers. The black gives nice contrast against the white of bee eggs allowing you to see them with greater clarity and ease. White foundation works great for use in honey supers. Plastic foundation works with wooden frames and a grooved top bar. A thin layer of wax is generally added onto plastic foundation since bees will not draw comb over plastic. Beekeepers may then opt to add another thin layer of wax once they get their foundation plates.

Using Wax Foundation in Your Beekeeping

Beekeepers using foundation in their hives have two methods they can use to install it. They may use foundation alone on the frames, or add wires to the frame. Wiring frames adds strength to the foundation and ensures comb does not sag even in hot weather. Foundation without wires may also suffer blowouts during extraction, especially if it is wax foundation.

A Bit of History

The history of wax foundation starts in 1857 with Johannes Mehring’s invention. Mehring’s foundation only had the bottom of cells while modern wax foundation has both base and cell foundation. Wax foundations were made using presses. The presses were made of wood and have changed over time to be made of plaster, cement, and then metal which is seen in use up to date. Samuel Wagner is credited with inventing the modern wax foundation and their presses. He worked on some wax foundation rollers but never got to perfect them. Various inventors have tried developing wax foundation rollers with the most successful being Edward Weed from Detroit. In 1895, he invented rollers that produced a continuous roll of wax foundation.

Advantages of Using Foundation

  1. Frames that use wax foundation gives your bees a guide to build straight comb. In beehives where foundation is not used, there is higher risk of cross-comb being built. The comb could also run outside the frame and make frame removal a difficult task. Beginners and amateur beekeepers especially, should not be burdened with cross comb early on in their beekeeping journey.
  2. Comb built on foundation is often stronger. This is because wires are usually embedded in foundation. Centrifuge extraction with a frame that has foundation installed on it is easier and has less damage to the comb than seen in foundationless frames. It keeps the frame intact and ready for use as soon as you return it to the beehive.
  3. The use of foundation allows for easier hive inspections and gives your bees a head-start in building comb. On the average deep brood box frames, bees may take up to 2 years to fill the frame with comb. With foundation, bees will have drawn comb over the frame in the first year.
  4. The single biggest advantage of foundation is allowing the beekeeper to produce bees that are of a preferred size. In commercial beekeeping, larger worker bees mean better foraging power. The cells that bees build on foundation are larger even for honey storage. Some beekeepers opt for smaller-sized bees that get out of their cells quickly as a means of mite control.

Caution Against Plastic Foundation

A case against plastic foundation is made by a large section of beekeepers. If you must use foundation, is it not better to use wax foundation? Plastic is durable and versatile, but it is not the best material to use in beekeeping. The materials that bees use naturally are wood, wax and propolis to build structures. Nectar and pollen are used as food. Plastic is a synthetic material derived from petroleum. Plastic is not friendly to the environment and bees do not take to it easily. It is why plastic beekeeping equipment that goes into hives is often coated with beeswax.

Disadvantages of Using Foundation

  1. The use of foundation in beekeeping comes with a number of challenges. It requires beekeepers to part with some cash. In bootstrapping beekeeping where budgets are tight, this additional expenditure may not go down well. It could lead to inadequate resources to purchase more useful equipment or tools for beekeepers.
  2. A second problem encountered by beekeepers using foundation is the possible presence of chemicals and pollutants in their honey. Foundation wax is commercially made from beeswax obtained from a variety of beekeepers. With no known history of these beekeepers, you may get foundation produced from wax that was made by bees exposed to pesticides and other chemicals. Bees are argued to be the mops of the environment. If you use wax from such bees that have collected chemicals, you will have chemicals in your honey and beehive products too. Beekeepers are encouraged to practice natural, organic beekeeping as much as possible. If you cannot use your own wax to make foundation, do not risk using wax that will contaminate your hive with unknown chemicals.
  3. The natural cell size made by bees is not uniform. Wax foundation gives you a uniform standardized size of cell throughout the hive. Bees either adapt to your foundation or end up having their different bee types being of one size. Beekeepers interested in natural beekeeping are increasingly unhappy about this. Queen cells, worker cells and drone cells are not of the same size in a natural beehive setting. Using foundation in your beehive deprives bees of their natural sizes and may cause excessive production of one type of bee in your hive. You will be very unhappy with this if it leads to excessive production of drones, or no drones being bred in the hive at all.
  4. The spread of Varroa Destructor mites around the world does not help the case for foundation beekeeping. Beekeepers increasingly believe that using natural cell size helps in the fight against mites and some other pests of honeybees. You may consider cutting out drone cells as part of your integrated pest management plan.
  5. In beekeeping, you may target a number of products not limited to honey, wax and bee sales to beekeepers staring new hives. Some beekeepers may practice beekeeping for its environmental conservation and plant pollination purposes too. With wax being one of your desired beehive products, you need to cut out comb after harvesting honey. Foundation makes this a daunting task for you as wax foundation requires strengthening using wires in the frame. These may be single wires or cross wires. The wires result in wax being cut out in small squares and rectangles instead of large sheets.

Foundation vs Foundationless Beekeeping

Who can go Foundationless?

With varying objectives by individual beekeepers, the use of wax foundation in beehives is suitable for some apiaries, while not being the best for others. Your beekeeping will be positively impacted by being practiced without use of foundation frames if it meets certain criteria. The factors to consider while deciding if you should use foundation or not include:

  1. Inclination towards natural beekeeping. If you weigh natural beekeeping heavily in your priorities as a beekeeper, going foundationless is good for you.
  2. Beekeepers with an inclination to sell package bees and queens should go foundationless. It allows a good mix of bees to be reared in the hive, and in large numbers too. With foundation frames, you may have an imbalance in the types of bees produced in your hives. This works against you when you are selling off some bees. With foundationless beekeeping, you will have a good mix of bee types in your hives and be able to sell package bees that include all bee types.
  3. Wax as a beehive product. If you are not looking for wax as a beehive product, you can go foundationless. This is because you will need to use wired frames.
  4. Comfort with wired frames. In beekeeping, you will inevitably want to harvest honey. When you are practicing foundationless beekeeping, wired frames are your best bet for honey harvesting that does not break apart already drawn comb. Making comb is not an easy process for bees. On some frames, it may take more than a year before comb is fully drawn onto a frame. It is negative to take this comb and tear it apart, only to have bees repeat the process of drawing comb again.

Is Foundation Suitable for your Beehive?

Even with beekeepers going foundationless, there are those who would be better suited by using wax foundation in their beekeeping. The attributes that determine suitability of foundation in your beehive(s) include:

  1. Level of experience. Amateur and beginner beekeepers are advised to stick to foundation in their beekeeping. This is because they have less experience dealing with cross comb. In your first two years of beekeeping, it is best you stick to foundation in your beehive frames. Over time, you may remove the foundation and go to foundationless beekeeping.
  2. Beekeepers with honey as a high priority in their list of beehive products. With foundation, you are able to determine the cell size. This works well for honey supers. The size of cell for your honey supers should be the largest you can get. With a good queen excluder, you will have fewer larger cells full of honey to harvest. It gives you more honey, and makes work easier for bees in the hive.
  3. If you can make your own wax foundation, from your own beehive wax that you are sure is not full of harmful chemicals and pollutants. With a major argument against foundation being the untraceability of wax, experienced beekeepers with adequate stocks of wax may make their own foundation. Since they are sure of the ‘cleanliness’ of their wax, the foundation will not have much impact on their beekeeping in the way of introducing unwanted compounds in the beehive.
  4. Beekeepers with large budgets and deep pockets to draw from can have different sizes of foundation for their frames. This allows you to have drone foundation and worker bee foundation frames. If you can afford it, and manage it well, you will have a good mix of drones and worker bees in your hive at all times. All types of bees have vital roles to play in a beehive.

Transitioning to Foundationless Beekeeping

If so desired, beginner beekeepers with foundation in their hives may gradually move to foundationless beekeeping. In your first year of beekeeping however, you should have foundation frames in all your beehive boxes. They save you from having to deal with cross comb that you have little experience with. Bees draw straight comb over frames that have wax foundation installed on them.

In your second year of beekeeping, remove alternating frames with foundation and replace them with those without foundation. This ensures your bees draw straight comb with no fuss. You may mark the frames with foundation so that you can easily identify them in future. In your third year, or when bees have drawn comb on the frames without foundation, remove the remaining half of frames with foundation. The straight comb already drawn on the first set of foundationless frames serves as a guide for your bees to also draw straight comb on the second set of foundationless frames.

The frames that you use in replacing foundation frames may be wired. Deep brood box frames may be cross wired. Medium and shallow boxes can have wires running in one direction only, preferably horizontally from right to left. There are many uses for your frames that have foundation on them. Once you take them out from your hive, you may use them in splitting hives in future, or in your honey supers.

Wiring Frames

A middle ground between foundation and foundationless hives is the wiring of frames. You may read up our guide on how to wire frames for your apiary. Wired frames usually have bees draw comb around the wires. It embeds the wires naturally into comb over time. A wired frame with comb drawn over it is strong and will not have comb crumbling once it is removed from the beehive or during honey extraction with rotary extractors. The one downside of wired frames is their interference with harvesting of wax as a beehive product. To get around this, you could have some frames not wired. You could also make peace with the fact that your wax will not be harvested in large chunks but rather in small pieces. Even in small pieces, it is wax that can be used for any purpose that beekeepers want.

A Consideration for Foundation

In deciding whether to use foundation in your beehive frames or not, consider that foundation adds some strength to your frames. Wiring frames and then embedding the wires in wax foundation gives frames and comb superior strength and a solidness that is unrivaled. Imagine how disheartening it would be to pull a frame from your hive one day, and have the comb all fall out in chinks that hurt bees. Would it not kill your beekeeping spirit if such chunks killed your queen bee? Bees work hard to build comb, using resources that are not easy to find and collect. Beekeepers using foundation and wiring their frames avoid such mishaps and make life easier for their bees.

A Final Word

Beekeepers have to make a choice between using foundation in their entire beekeeping operation, using a mix of foundation and foundationless frames, or going fully foundationless. Each of these options has its advantages and disadvantages. Beekeepers must carefully analyze the benefits of using foundation before adopting it to their beehives. They must also be willing to face the risks of not using foundation early in their beehives. Beginner beekeepers and the more experienced ones too find it easy to work with wired frames. Wired frames are the best bet for beekeepers who do not want to use foundation in their beehives. They give the strength seen in frames installed with foundation while not attracting the negatives of using commercially purchased wax foundation.

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