It’s going on 5 years now that I’ve been using foundationless frames in my Langstroth hives, and I’ve come to swear by the method. Mainstream beekeeping dictates the use of foundation in hive frames to provide a structure for the bees to build their combs upon. However, I’ve found 3 reasons to contradict that way of thinking.
I admit that going foundation-less in the Langstroth hive is somewhat controversial. Old-school beekeepers believe that using foundation speeds up the comb-building process, or that you won’t be able to extract if you’re not using foundation. You hear people say that you’ll 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, and I myself have been using this method in the Runamuk apiary going on 5 years now.
With all of this in mind, I’ve compiled 3 solid reasons to skip the foundation in your Langstroth hives.
#1. 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 foraging. 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 contamination as well.
#2. 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.
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?
#3. Save Money
I fully admit that money was a driving factor in my switch to foundationless frames. Beekeeping is an expensive venture, and my mission to utilize this niche to build my income from farming required me to consider alternative methods. Reducing expenses by skipping the foundation has allowed me to continue to grow my business, even on a bootstrap budget.
What’s more, sustainable farming methods strive to lower costs by reducing inputs from off site. Buying in, or even using my own wax to make foundation takes a lot of resources, and by skipping the foundation and allowing the bees to build their own combs I am able to save both time and money.
Try It Yourself!
Over the last few years I’ve found that it doesn’t take the bees any longer to construct comb on the foundationless frames than it does for them to build it on the wax or plastic foundations. I also discovered that foundationless frames are not really any more fragile than those bearing foundation. It is still possible to extract honey from them, but you should be especially gentle when extracting from combs less than 1 year old.
For the first couple of years going foundationless, I wired all my frames to give them additional support, but then I stopped wiring the deep frames used in the brood nest since those do not typically go through the extractor anyway. Now I don’t even wire my honey frames and I’ve found that once the bees have filled the entire frame with comb, it’s generally sturdy enough to withstand the extracting process without the extra support.
So much of what honeybees are exposed to is unavoidable that I feel really good about reducing pesticide levels in my hives and creating a healthier environment for my girls, even if it is only on a small level. But you don’t have to take my word for it; try it yourself and see what you think of foundationless frames in your Langstroth hive.
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