Natural Bees Comb Building: Boon or Bust?
Foundation-free Beehive Types Avoid Pesticides
Story and Photos By Laura Tyler, Colorado
The construction of natural bee’s comb is a wonder to behold. Festooning bees clasp legs to form hanging chains, a behavior many beekeepers describe as measuring, and set to work building hexagonal cells using wax flakes they excrete from abdominal glands and shape with their jaws. Each bee appears to work independently, yet somehow cells built by many bees working on different areas of comb come together seamlessly. It is astonishing. And when you consider that natural bee’s comb has the added benefit of being free of the pesticide residues found in manufactured foundation, it’s no wonder that interest in foundation-free beekeeping is on the rise, especially among small-scale beekeepers seeking to minimize pesticides in the hive. Yet foundation-free comb is a challenge to work with. It takes attention and an experienced hand to manage it successfully. Do you have what it takes to go foundation-free in your Top Bar beehive or Langstroth setup? And if you do, will it benefit your bees?
The first step you can take toward reducing contaminants in your hive is to simply cull old pathogen-laden comb and replace it with empty frames, whatever style you have on hand, for the bees to draw anew. Do this in the spring before your bee population peaks, and when they are primed to build new comb. Avoid taking bee’s comb containing eggs or young brood. Once comb culling becomes a habit, you are one small step away from transitioning to foundation-free beekeeping. If you keep bees in Langstroth equipment, inserting foundation-free frames into your culling routine is one way to go foundation-free gradually. You can also start new colonies on foundation-free frames. We started adding foundation-free frames to colonies at my apiary eight years ago and are currently using three different frame styles: traditional brood frames with foundation and two styles of foundation-free frames, T-frames and V-frames.
Two Langstroth-Compatible, Foundation-Free Frame Styles
We use two styles of foundation-free frames at my apiary, T-frames and V-frames.
We build T-frames using commercially milled frame parts. If you were building a typical Langstroth frame, the “T” strip you see underlining the top bar in this photo would be rotated 90 degrees and used to hold the top edge of a sheet of foundation securely in place. Eliminate the foundation, turn the strip 90 degrees and you have created a great starting point from which the bees can string their first arcs of comb.
Our V-frames are homemade frames milled from two-by-fours using a table saw. The top bar of the frame in this photo is shaped like a shallow V. The bees will build comb starting at the low point of the V and draw it down. It is unnecessary to add beeswax, either strips of foundation or a melted strip of wax, to either of these frame styles. The bees will use the structure of the frame as their guide.
Pros and Cons
Foundation-free beekeeping, as lovely as it may appear, isn’t for everyone raising honey bees. Here are some of its benefits and drawbacks.
• Foundation-free bee’s comb is pesticide free. “All foundation beeswax pressed into sheets and used as templates for comb construction sampled from North America is uniformly contaminated,” according to Pesticides and Honey Bee Toxicity. This scientific paper published in 2010 listed many beekeeper-applied pesticides (used to control varroa and other pests) as contaminants and cast confusion on the role of pesticides in bee population decline. Going foundation-free removes these contaminants from your beekeeping equation, giving you a clean slate on which to start your bees.
• Savings of cost and time. Going foundation-free eliminates the recurring expense of beeswax foundation and allows you to skip a step or two when preparing new frames for your colonies.
• Good for bee health? While I’m not aware of any studies that explore the relationship between natural bee’s comb building and bee health, biodynamic beekeeper Gunther Hauk mused on the subject in his 2002 book, Toward Saving the Honeybee: “Just as we derive our strength to a great degree from the health and stability of our bones (for walking, jumping, running, lifting, etc.), so does the bee derive her strength to raise healthy offspring from the substance the bee has ‘sacrificed’ from her own body, this precious wax.”
• Foundation-free comb is fun to watch. As someone who enjoys early spring beekeeping tasks including comb management, the opportunity to watch natural bee’s comb being built by bees adds a layer of depth and interest to my work with them. I enjoy observing the bees’ creativity and seeing the greater variety of forms they come up with when left to their own devices as opposed to working on foundation. Watching bees make natural comb makes beekeeping even more interesting to me.
• Foundation-free comb requires extra management. While bees have the potential to build squirrelly comb on any style of frame, the potential for off-center, undulating bee’s comb of varied widths is greater when you go foundation-free. You need to be prepared to go into your hives every week when bees are laying down natural comb to keep an eye on things and keep frames movable. What you don’t want to have happen is for the bees to build cross comb or other shapes that render frames unmovable.
• Foundation-free comb is fragile. Naturally drawn bee’s comb has a fluid quality when warm. When naturally drawn comb is heavy with brood or honey you cannot ever position its wide surface parallel to the ground or gravity will pull it down. To inspect both sides of a foundation-free comb you cannot flip the comb up and down like a visor as you may be used to doing with a conventional comb. Instead of flipping, you must master a swooping motion where you rotate the bee’s comb like the hands on a clock dial, or around like a carousel.
• Foundation-free comb slows hive management down. If your handling isn’t practiced and you don’t have time to manage bee’s comb construction, foundation-free beekeeping will present new inconveniences that make it feel challenging to get in and out of the colony, thereby discouraging your engagement with your bees. If you get yourself into a situation where entering your colonies feels overwhelming because of comb issues, then natural comb building is not for you. You must keep your bees in a state where you are comfortable engaging with them at any time.
Is Natural, Foundation-Free Beekeeping Right for Your Langstroth Colony?
If you are a beginner, probably not. But if you are an experienced beekeeper who enjoys getting in there with your bees and doing comb management, it may add something wonderful to your beekeeping experience.
After several years of foundation-free beekeeping my husband, who is my beekeeping partner, and I are assessing. Has it helped our bees? And if so, how? This is hard for us to judge because we haven’t approached our natural bees’ comb building experiments scientifically. We both enjoy the peace of mind we get from eliminating one potential hazard, contaminated foundation, from our colonies. Since overseeing comb and new brood production is one of my favorite beekeeping tasks, I am happy to continue working with foundation-free bee’s comb, even it means more work. My husband, who values speed in the hive, is less enamored of the process than I am, and is lobbying for us to go back to conventional bee comb with foundation. What we have decided for the moment is to continue using both the foundation and foundation-free comb depending on short-term needs. Fortunately, the two frame styles are interchangeable. The only drawback to using both styles at once is remembering to be consistently careful when handling them.
While I am always interested in new ways to improve things for my bees, I’m not under any illusion that management decisions, like whether or not to use foundation or go foundation-free, have a tremendous impact on them. There may be effects, but they are subtle. Alas, it is the widespread incidence of pesticides in the environment that presents the biggest challenge to all pollinators, not just honeybees. It doesn’t matter what new handling techniques I introduce, if the larger environment is hostile to my bees well-being, they will suffer. The trick for concerned beekeepers is to remain engaged on two levels, looking inward at what we personally can do for our bees, and looking outward at what we can do politically in the larger world to also support them. While the inward stuff may give us a satisfactory feeling of being in control of something, a feeling we don’t always get to experience in the wider world, it is not a substitute for engagement in the political sphere, which we must attend to as well.
Have you worked with natural bee’s comb? Do prefer foundations or foundation-free?
Originally published in Countryside January/February 2017 and regularly vetted for accuracy.