3 Reasons To Go Foundationless In Your Langstroth Beehive

3 Reasons To Go Foundationless In Your Langstroth Beehive

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.

foundationless langstroth hives
The Runamuk Apiary at Hyl-Tun Farm in Starks, Maine. August 2017.

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

foundationless bee-frame
I sometimes run wire through the honey frames to give the comb added support.

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

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

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

foundationless honeybee comb
Every frame is a work of art and a feat in architecture!

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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Runamuk Apiaries in Maine has 3 solid reasons to consider going foundationless in your Langstroth hives; check it out!


    1. Samantha Burns

      It really doesn’t take them any longer to build from zero. If there’s plenty of nectar available, or if you’re feeding sugar-syrup, they can draw out a frame in 3 days.

  1. Anne Elvidge

    Than you for the information. I have just begun with one dadant hive this year…..chosen because that is what nearly everybody has here in France and I wanted to have easy access to supplies. Can I use wired foundationless frames in this. I would like to think the bees have as good a life as possible and I am not bothered about getting much honey. My aim is to eventually have 2 or 3 hives of happy healthy bees to increase bee population. I just find them fascinating, awesome creatures.

    1. Samantha Burns

      Hi Anne! Thanks for stopping by. I think you can certainly go foundationless in that hive. It’s using frames much like the Langstroth hives, so you should see the same kind of “beehavior” I find in my foundationless hives. Good luck on your beekeeping journey!

  2. 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. Ricky Pack

        Samantha. I want to use starter strips. I have seen some foundationless frames that were not totally filled meaning less surplus. I believe that 1″ starter strips would produce full frames and brood. What do you think? Thank you!

      2. Samantha Burns

        Hi Ricky!

        I haven’t tried the starter strips. My experience has been that if the bees don’t completely fill a frame with comb in the first year, they finish the job in the second year. I still extract honey from combs that don’t entirely fill the frame, and while I have to be a little more careful with those combs, I am still able to take the honey.

        Lol, I tried painting a bead of wax on the underside of the top bar when I first started doing foundation-less combs, but the bees usually tore it away and rebuilt with their own wax, so I decided to save my time and wax. All I do now is tack a wedge to the top bar and let the bees do the rest!

    1. Ricky Pack

      So you must be using frames with wedges? Have you had any dealings with Russian bees? If so can you give me some pointers? I have researched Russian bees and have found very little an none of it matched to the other articles. There aren’t any books on keeping Russian bees.

      1. Samantha Burns

        Yes to the frames with wedges. I bought in some Russian queens a couple of years ago to add those genetics to my apiary stock. I haven’t found dealing with these bees any different from any other strain of bee. Russians are reputed to be a bit more aggressive than some other breeds, but other than perhaps dressing a little more defensively and being conscious of weather and handling when working those hives, it should be the same management as any other bee.

      2. PokémonsterSteve

        I have only ever kept Russian bees, and the foundationless frames I’ve kept tend to be drones in early spring and normal worker size cells later. If I’m doing my job, I’m a queen slayer at least every other year, maintaining the genetic line and ensuring that each new split gets a new queen. Italian bees certainly have their place, but too many people keep them for no other reason than that’s what their granddaddies used to keep. It wouldn’t matter if I had my own Island, but I can’t raise my own splits without requeening because of them.

        The biggest hive I had used to pop me in the face a few times almost every visit, but all the other ones I could pull boxes and frames and not get stung once using only a smoker for personal protection equipment. If I ever tear them open in the cold, the dark, and/or the rain, I deserve all the stings I get.

        ‘Remember doing that for a research project one time where we were prohibited from using a smoker, under bad conditions. Undergrad interns were screaming, crying, and running away.

        Anyway I’m considering cutting my own top bars with a wedge-shaped underside that I don’t need to glue.

        I’d like to have multiple sites so I can have a growth site, a production site, and perhaps even a queen rearing site.

        If I can’t get into school for regenerative medicine, I think I’ll pursue my beekeeping hobby to the nth degree.

        In any case, may that nephew beek of yours rest in peace, Mary B.

  3. 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.

  4. 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

      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. 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)

  6. 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?

  7. 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. 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.

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