When I first began keeping bees, I managed my hives in the mainstream fashion. I fed them sugar-syrup, I painted my boxes, and I used foundation in my frames. As I’ve learned more about bees and how to take care of them, some of my methods have changed. I’m much more reluctant to feed my bees sugar, I stopped painting my hive equipment, and I no longer buy foundation to use in my frames.
Going foundation-less in the Langstroth hive is somewhat controversial. Many beekeepers prefer to buy or make the sheets of wax foundation to install in their frames, holding fast to the idea that using foundation speeds up the comb-building process, thinking that they won’t be able to extract if they’re not using foundation, that you will end up with a hive full of drones or that the bees like the foundation better. Yet beekeepers employing the Top-Bar Hives have been going foundation-less for years with nothing but success.
There are three main reasons to go without foundation: to avoid using foundation contaminated with pesticides, to allow natural cell-size within the hive, and to reduce inputs and expenses to their beekeeping venture.
Avoid contaminated foundation
Recent studies indicate that high levels of chemical pesticides are stored in the comb and even in the beeswax foundation of honeybee hives. Since bees are effectively nature’s dust-mops, they pick up any insecticide or herbicide within the foraging radius of their colony. Even beekeeper applied chemicals will be retained in the wax.
A beekeeper may choose to fore-go treatments in his or her hive, however they cannot control what the bees bring back with them from their foragings. It is that precise reason that organic certification is so difficult to obtain for honey–unlike other livestock that a farmer can contain within fences, bees will travel between 2 and 4 miles in search of food, and even further if need be.
What’s more, commercial foundations are typically made from recycled wax, which can contain high levels of pesticide contaminations as well.
Standard foundation forces the bees to build cells at 5.4mm, in order to produce larger bees. However bees will naturally build their cells to a size between 4.6mm and 5.1mm depending on what they intend to use it for.
It was about a hundred years ago that beekeepers started installing the larger-celled foundation in order to combat mites. They thought that bigger bees would be beneficial for a variety of reasons–from theoretically stronger immune systems to supposed increased production. Now beekeepers are experimenting with small-cell foundation–same story, different type of mite.
FYI–small cell does not equal “natural” cell.
There is some speculation about natural cell-sizes aiding beekeepers in the fight against the varroa mite, though to my knowledge that has not been scientifically verified.
There are some who believe that allowing the bees to make their own comb will result in healthier bees, which makes some sense to me, since natural comb naturally means fewer introduced chemical pesticides, which can only mean healthier bees–but again, there is no scientific proof that I am aware of.
What we do know is that bees have been making comb on their own for thousands of years. They know how to do it, and they will do it however they see fit, so why not let them?
Reduce inputs & expenses
Sustainable farming methods strive to lower costs by reducing inputs from off site. By re-using or re-purposing materials already on the farm, or by using less, we can spend less.
Skipping the foundation and allowing the bees to build their own wax saves quite a chunk of money–between the cost of the wax itself, along with the cost of the gas to go pick up or ship the wax foundations.
Foundationless frames are not really any more fragile than those bearing foundation–so contrary to popular misconception, it is still possible to extract honey from them. You should be especially gentle when extracting from newer wax–and I’ve become accustomed to wiring my frames to give them additional support–foundation or no.
I don’t know that it takes any longer for the bees to construct comb on the foundationless frames than it does for them to build it on the wax or plastic foundations, but what I do know is that if you’re truly committed to reducing pesticide exposure for the bees in your hives–to creating a healthier environment for your girls–it’s worth the wait.
What about you? Have you tried going foundationless? What did you think? Did it work out for you?
More resources for you:
A SARE Study of Foundationless Comb Management and Small Cell Foundation – from Rosecomb Apiaries.
High Levels of Miticides and Agrochemicals in North American Apiaries: Implications for Honeybee Health – this is an overview of a study done.
How much pesticide in commercial foundation – from the Honeybee Suite.
Foundationless beekeeping in a Langstroth hive – also from the Honeybee Suite.
Foundationless Beekeeping – from the Northwest District Beekeeper’s Association.
Natural Cell Size – from Bush Farms & beekeeper/author Michael Bush.
Foundationless Beekeeping: How to convert to natural beekeeping – from the Backyard Ecosystem blog and website.