3 reasons to go foundationless in your Langstroth beehive

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3 reasons to go foundationless in your langstroth beehiveWhen 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.


foundationless bee-frame

I run wire through the frame to give the comb support, then paint a strip of wax onto the wooden lip to encourage the bees to build where I want them to.

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.

Natural cell-size

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.

foundationless comb

This is the foundationless comb that the girls are currently building–when they are finished with it, they will have filled the frame completely.

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.

In conclusion

foundationless bee-frame

Here they’ve very nearly filled the entire frame with their own combs.

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?

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About Samantha Burns

Maine blogger, beekeeper and farmer. Follow along with my many misadventures in the pursuit of a more sustainable life. Find out how I am advocating for local food in my community and working to promote pollinator conservation here in the state of Maine. Every day is an adventure!

14 thoughts on “3 reasons to go foundationless in your Langstroth beehive

  1. jeanette

    The varroa mites need longer to develop so they prefer to lay their eggs in drone cells, since the drones take longer to develop than the workers. With the natural sized cells the bees are smaller and develop faster (including the drones), not giving the varroa mites the time they need to grow before the baby bee is out and the cell gets cleaned out. Not a guarantee, but every bit helps! We’re on our 4th year with bees, we started with foundation, but don’t plan on replacing them when they wear out, we’ll move on to foundation less. Thanks for sharing your experience with foundation less frames.

    1. Samantha Burns Post author

      In the battle against Varroa, you are absolutely right that every little bit helps! Thanks for your input! 😀

      1. Keith wike

        Best article I’ve seen so far on the foundations with great illustrations. I’m just getting started and am planning on making my own hive. The foundation was one thing I was hung up on, so now foundationless is the way to go. Thanks.

  2. matt heritage

    Im confused… if they started larger cell size hundreds of years ago to try to combat mites… it means that mites were a problem in the smaller cells (before the switch to larger)…. One of the reasons I see cited all the time for going back small is to combat mites… what gives?

    1. Samantha Burns Post author

      Well, they were a different variety of mite back then–now we have the Varroa “destructor”–a whole new kettle of “worms”.

  3. Matt Heritage

    Ok that makes sense. Thanks a lot for the response. I ask because Im starting two hives this spring (my first) and Im super excited. I’ve been reading everything I can find and Ive decided to start with 1/2 foundation and 1/2 foundationless (lang hives) so I can work to 100% foundationeless as time goes on. I love the idea of letting the bee’s be bee’s. Im trying for a good mix of production (lang hives) and natural behavior (foundationless/rose method) hoping for healthy bee’s and decent production (arent we all? lol)

  4. Michelle Brown

    We were going to build top bar hives this year. You said that these foundation-less langstroth hives are just as easy to extract honey from as the foundation ones – do you spin them? Is there another method of extraction you use? We were planning to do the method of cutting the comb and crushing it – we’ll use the wax for candles and things. Could we spin the top bars too?

    I had never heard of going foundationless with langstroth, and we chose top bar for the natural cell size and ease of construction. Do you prefer langstroth over top bar for a reason if you are going foundationless anyway?

    Awesome article! I wish we lived closer and could attend some of your bee classes!

    1. Samantha Burns Post author

      Thanks Michelle! I guess the main reason I went with the Langstroth was because I was given a Lang-hive to get started with. I haven’t delved into TBH mainly because no one in my area has had success with them, and also because I know that it is the bees instinct to move vertically upwards through the hive during the winter. They can eat themselves into a corner during the long cold months, and even if there is honey at the other end–they can starve because they won’t break that broodnest to go get food when it is cold.

      That being said, I haven’t actually tried TBH.

      Yes I spin my foundationless combs to extract–I wire the frames to give the combs extra support (2 wires horizontally across). I have never heard of anyone spinning the combs from TBH–I think because of the design of it–it is not very conducive to spinning–there just isn’t anything to support those combs (which are very heavy when full of honey). Folks who do TBH cut-and-crush, which works fine, you’ll get plenty of wax for projects–but wax is a valuable commodity for bees–it takes them a lot of energy to produce it and then to build the combs; I personally prefer to be able to reuse the combs. I still get quite a bit of wax.

      There you have it! My two-cents worth! lol 😀 There is no right or wrong way to keep bees, and I wish you the best of luck in your beekeeping endeavors.

  5. Tim E

    Interesting piece Samantha, I use Zest Hives so know exactly where you are coming from. Lovely clean wax, no chemicals, no more buying in wax sheets. Its amazing how quickly they build the comb.

  6. Pingback: Bee Keeping – a matter of opinion – Part 3 | Stone Hill Ridge

  7. Mary B.

    Thank you for this! I am a beginning beek who inherited my nephew’s three Langsthroth hives. I have some foundation on hand, but it’s plastic and I would prefer to go au naturel. I think I will try both and see how it works out.

    1. Samantha Burns Post author

      I’m so glad my article was helpful to you Mary! Good luck with your new-to-you beehives!


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