The Foundations of Managed Bees

This Bee Babble was started on October 25 2020. It needs a little more work before I am happy with it. When complete, this grey text will disappear.

This goes out to Norma who is going to be starting some Langstroth hives in the spring. Her question: “What kind of foundation do you recommend that I use in my hives, and why?”

Well … as with all things beekeeping … it depends. There you go, dear Norma. That was the fastest Bee Babble I have ever written. 🙂

The real answer is that there are three major styles of foundation to choose from. Within each there are several choices as well. This will be an attempt to review what I have learned about foundation over the past few years.

What is Foundation?

Let’s start at the beginning. In their natural state, making their nests in trees and hollow cavities, bees don’t use foundation. They are perfectly capable of drawing out beautiful sheets of honeycomb with interlocked hexagonal cells on alternate sides. I recommend that everyone spend a little time staring at a piece of honeycomb and marvel at the craftsmanship of this material. They build it using nothing but their mandibles and forelegs as tools, and tiny chips of wax as their building materials.

Here is an image of natural comb from an article in Science News : Humans have been using bees for at least 9,000 years.

Managed bee hives must have removable combs. This is the law in the United States in order to manage pests and diseases in the hive. The bees don’t care much about what size or shape boxes you give them. Read Tom Seeley’s scientific work on bees in nature for more details about his studies of what bees look for when choosing a new nesting site. With Langstroth hives, we try to provide them with a nesting site that is acceptable, if not ideal (from the bees’ perspective). The other objectives are to facilitate our responsibility to keep the bees healthy and to make extracting the surplus honey from the hive.

Langstroth hives include frames in which the bees will build their combs. The frames are one of several standard sizes, so they should be interchangeable in different positions of the same-sized hive box, whether in the same hive, or another hive. Looking down on the top of a Langstroth frame the dimensions of the length and width should be 19 inches long and 1 1/16 inches wide. The depth of the hive is the only dimension that varies.

Langstroth hives include frames in which the bees will build their combs. The frames are one of several standard sizes, so they should be interchangeable in different positions of the same-sized hive box, whether in the same hive, or another hive. Looking down on the top of a Langstroth frame the dimensions of the length and width should be 19 inches long and 1 1/16 inches wide. The depth of the hive is the only dimension that varies.

The foundation is a relatively thin sheet of rigid material that we place inside the frame. The sheet is stamped with a raised hexagonal pattern that looks like a cross-section of the honeycomb. When foundation with a pattern is there, the bees use that as a guide for the size and shape of the cells that they draw out in the comb.

For whatever historical reason, the bees’ process of making honeycomb is called “drawing out” the comb. When a frame has nothing but foundation in it (or nothing) it is called “undrawn comb.” When it is completely drawn out, we call it a frame with “drawn comb.” If the comb is not drawn all the way out, I call it “partially drawn comb.” The bees must have cells at least partially drawn to begin to store honey or pollen in them. The cells need to be fully drawn before they can be used for brood rearing. You will see that the bees do not draw out all the comb in one frame before starting on another one. That would be very nice for the beekeeper … but that is not what they do.

Drawn comb is one of the most precious resources that an established beekeeper has, and it is important to care for it and keep it from getting damaged by pests when it is stored. That is for a different article.

Types of Foundation

There are three general ways to set up new frames for a beehive to be drawn out. You can provide a frame with plastic foundation, stamped with a hexagonal pattern. You can provide a frame with wax foundation, stamped with a hexagonal pattern. The third alternative is to provide no foundation and let the bees make their own foundation. I call frames that are introduced thusly as “foundationless” and I call the comb that is made with no foundation as “natural comb.”

The end result, when the honeycomb is drawn out, is the same in all three cases. If there is foundation, the size of the cells will be the “diameter” of the pattern that is stamped on it. If there is no foundation, the bees will draw out the cells in a size that they instinctively need.  This is not a hard and fast rule … the bees are successful at making drone-sized comb on foundation that is stamped with a pattern of worker-sized cells.

Wax Foundation

Wax foundation is made by taking beeswax, rolling it flat, and then stamping it with a honeycomb pattern. This is done by machine by providers of beekeeping supplies. It is possible to buy a press for making sheets of your own foundation from your own surplus wax, although this may be cost-prohibitive in equipment and effort for a backyard beekeeper. The advantage would be that you know where your wax came from. Below is a very short video of a wax pressing and stamping machine. It is in Chinese, but you can see how the machine works.

Wax foundation can be purchased in sizes that correspond to standard Langstroth frame sizes: Deep, Medium and Shallow. The size of the foundation sheet will be smaller than the frame dimensions.

  • Deep: sheets that are 8 1/2″ to 8 3/8″ in depth, to fit deep frames, which are 19″ x 1 1/16″ x 9 1/8″ (length x width x depth). There is some small variation in the length of the sheets sold (16 1/2″ to 16 7/8″) that has to do with what style of foundation and what style of frame you will use.
  • Medium: sheets that are 5 5/8″ in depth to fit medium frames, which are 19″ x 1 1/16″ x 6 1/4″.
  • Shallow: sheets that are 4 3/4″ to 4 7/8″ in depth to fit shallow frames, which are 19″ x 1 1/16″ x 5 3/8″.

These numbers come from one of my equipment suppliers, Mann-Lake, and there is some variation in sheet depth and length sold. It is important to be sure that you get foundation that is the correct size for the frames that you will use.

There are several different styles of wax foundation and your choice of which style of foundation to purchase. Refer to the the Mann-Lake page for more details. Other suppliers may have different sizes or styles

  • Wax foundation with vertical wires and hooks
  • Wax foundation with vertical wires without hooks
  • Wax foundation without wires, intended for raising brood (“brood foundation” on the Mann-Lake page)
  • Wax foundation without wires, intended for human consumption as comb honey (“thin surplus foundation”)

There is one more dimension, just to confuse things, which is cell size. For worker brood, the “standard” size for worker brood is 5.4 mm between parallel walls of the cell. There is a school of beekeepers who believe that bees are more successful and are better at resisting Varroa mites in “small cell” foundation, which is 4.9 mm between parallel walls of the cell. There are other vendors who sell foundation that is stamped with a different cell size. I am not going to get into this debate.

One advantage to using wax foundation is that it is made from the material that honey bees make and use to build their combs. They tend to start drawing out comb faster on wax foundation than on plastic foundation. Once they get started, they are building on top of their own beeswax, so it events out.

If you are opposed to putting plastic in your bee hives, whether for environmental reasons, or because you believe that plastic is chemically harmful to honey bees or humans, then you certainly want to use wax or natural foundation. This rapidly descends into a discussion that is religious instead of based on verifiable facts, so I will just leave this to your own preference. There is no argument that beeswax foundation is more natural than plastic foundation.

Another advantage to wax foundation is that when you recycle / reclaim your old brood wax, you don’t have any scraping to do to separate the wax from the foundation. If you have a solar wax melter, you just throw the whole frame in and all the wax and the foundation will melt off. You can then remove the wires (if any) and insert a new sheet of foundation and put that frame back into use. If you use a hot water bath to melt and render your wax, you just break off or the comb in pieces from the frame with a hive tool or knife.

Disadvantages to wax foundation over plastic:

  • Wax foundation is more fragile and subject to damage by temperature changes. Most suppliers of wax foundation only ship it to you at your own risk. Be careful about ordering wax foundation in very hot seasons and regions or you might be buying wax soup.
  • Where does that wax come from? Many beekeepers sell their surplus wax, including the stuff that they scrape off their old frames. All this wax from other hives might contain pesticide or other chemical residue, possibly pathogens … depending on how it was rendered and processed. Scientific studies of what is found in wax foundation are disturbing, including measurable levels of chemicals that the beekeepers swear that they have never put in their hives. It is very unlikely (inconceivable) that wax foundation suppliers run all the beeswax that they sell through a diffraction column to separate out all the chemical impurities before they roll it, stamp it and sell it to you as foundation sheets.
  • I have not (yet) found a supplier of pre-assembled frames that already have wax foundation installed. You will have to add to your time and work budget: building the frames; inserting the foundation; cross-wiring or pinning the foundation horizontally. If you pre-install your foundation before you need it, you need to be very careful how you store those frames to avoid damage to the foundation. The safe tactic is to order only as much foundation as you will need in the relatively near future and insert the sheets into frames as you need them, perhaps with a few spares on hand. However, this puts you at risk of having foundation shipped at a time of year when it may be too hot to safely ship it.
  • Comb that is built on wax foundation is more fragile and subject to “blow outs” when extracting by machine. It takes longer to extract from comb built on wax foundation because you can’t just crank the extracter at full speed right away.
  • Occasionally the foundation falls apart before it gets drawn out and you have a mess. I find this to be more of a problem when I use “surplus foundation” to make comb honey. Sometimes the bees decide to take the wax from the foundation and use it elsewhere in the hive.
  • If you drop a frame of comb that was drawn on wax foundation you might end up with the combs breaking out. Cross-wiring helps with this but a frame of comb on plastic will always be sturdier.
  • Different styles of foundation require different styles of frame. You have to make sure that the foundation you want to use matches the frames that you have and vice-versa. The more you standardize your frames, boxes and foundation, the easier your beekeeping will be. When you need another frame ASAP is not the time to realize that you have a stack of frames and a box of foundation that are not compatible.

Plastic Foundation

Plastic foundation is a sheet of molded plastic that has a honeycomb pattern stamped into it. The raised walls of the honeycomb pattern give the bees a template that they use to draw out their cells in that shape and size.

Do not confuse plastic foundation inserted into wooden frames with plastic frames. I have no experience with plastic frames and I have little interest in experimenting with them.

Advantages to plastic foundation:

  • It is durable and lasts for a very long time. Your sheets of plastic foundation might outlive your wooden frames
  • When you are ready to recycle your comb, you can scrape off the wax combs quickly and the foundation is readily available
  • Theoretically, your plastic foundation can be scrubbed clean and disinfected before reinserting it into a hive to be drawn out again
  • Very few “blow outs” with plastic foundation in extractors, even when run at high speed
  • Undrawn frames can be tossed about … well, until you start breaking the frames. Probably always good to be respectful of your frames
  • If you are in a hurry you can order pre-built frames with plastic foundation already inserted. You can even buy a painted box with frames, ready to go. During the nectar flow, if you run out of supers, you don’t want to lose days of honey production (and chance a swarm) if your hives run out of space. If your lead time includes building the boxes, painting the boxes, building the frames, inserting the wax foundation, wiring or pinning the foundation, waiting for the paint and the glue to dry, etc … you have to plan for a few days at least after your shipment arrives.
  • You are not introducing any mysterious foreign substances into your hive. Yes … you are putting a big sheet of plastic in there, but you can be fairly sure that it does not contain pesticides or other unknown chemical residues. Oh, but see below. I am wrong about this one.

Several disadvantages to plastic foundation have been described in the previous section.

The biggest disadvantage to plastic foundation is that sometimes the bees don’t start to draw it out as quickly as they do with beeswax foundation. You can mitigate this by painting your plastic foundation with your own beeswax before putting them into the hives. Whenever I describe this process, someone says to me “But my plastic foundation already has a wax coating, or a double wax coating, from the factory.”  Yup, it sure does, and now that I think about it, that blows away any argument about wax impurities unless you buy plastic foundation that is not coated with commercial wax.

Natural Foundation

You can give the bees empty frames and they will build beautiful comb from the beeswax that they make. They don’t need foundation to guide them. Some beekeepers give them starter strips at the top of the frame to get them started and hopefully drawing the comb out straight. It takes some extra work to get the bees to draw out natural comb that is aligned with the frame. This is especially true if your hives are not perfectly level.

Many of the disadvantages of wax foundation are also present with natural foundation.

The bees also don’t draw out natural comb in perfectly vertical and horizontally aligned sheets … the cracks in the frames mean nothing to you. If you give the bees a box of empty frames, you will end up with a box of “crazy comb” and those frames will not be removable. I have done this by accident, and it is a disaster. If you want to start replacing your drawn comb with naturally drawn comb, The best tactic is to insert one frame with no foundation, or just a starter strip at the top. You will insert that frame between two frames that are fully drawn comb. It does not matter whether the frames on either side are capped honey frames or brood frames or anything else … just be sure that the surrounding frames are fully drawn. This ensures that the new combs in your frame will be straight and will not encroach under other frames.

One disadvantage of providing the bees with an empty frame and having them draw it out is that often the bees will default to fixing “bee space violations” by drawing out drone-sized comb. However, if the colony needs worker brood space, they will draw out worker-sized comb. You will need to monitor what kind of comb that you end up with in each frame. If they make a frame of drone comb, you will need to have a good frame marking and management plan so that you don’t end up with a hive with too much drone brood, which can become a “mite bomb” if you allow it all to emerge.

One big advantage is that there is no doubt that the wax that is in your comb is pure beeswax that has not been treated with pesticides or acaricides by another beekeeper.

If you are using natural comb for frames that you will use as supers, from which to extract honey, you can pre-wire or pre-pin the empty frames to give the combs some structural stability in an extractor. They will still be fragile and will need handling with care, but this will help.

Which is Best?

All joking aside, what you choose must be based on a combination of factors that are specific to your beekeeping plans. Some of these are:

  • Your feelings about the use of plastic in the hive
  • Whether you will be extracting from those frames and how you will extract
  • Are there cases where you will want to harvest queen cells from your brood comb
  • Are you going to harvest comb honey from those frames
  • What are your environmental conditions for storage

To Complete This Article

What Does Rob Do?

One reason that I started replacing some of my brood frames with wax foundation is because it is possible to cut queen cells from wax foundation and raise them elsewhere. If you want to make good use of extra queen cells from a frame of swarm cells, wax foundation is the way to go. It is very difficult (not impossible) to cut plastic foundation around a queen cell to raise it elsewhere. The back of the queen cell is attached to the foundation, so scraping the queen cell off without damaging it is usually unsuccessful.

Colored Plastic Foundation

Other Sources on This Topic

This Bee Babble was started on October 25 2020. It needs a little more work before I am happy with it. When complete, this grey text will disappear.

Warning : This pages are part of my ‘Bee Babble’ series. The content is intended for a specific audience and is subject to my disclaimer

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