Foundationless beekeeping in a Langstroth hive

Foundationless beekeeping is considered “radical” by some, but top-bar hive (TBH) beekeepers have been doing it for years. The idea is simple. Instead of providing pre-formed and stamped commercial foundation to your bees—you allow them to build their own.

There are some real advantages to going foundationless. The most popular reason is that commercial foundation is made from recycled wax. Various researchers have tested commercial foundation and found that it is frequently high in pesticides—especially the beekeeper-applied acaricides, coumaphos and fluvalinate. These residues are not good for the bees nor are they good for people. By going foundationless you can avoid this exposure.

Another popular reason is cell size. The commercially stamped foundations are of a larger cell size than those found in nature. At one point beekeepers thought bigger bees were better bees but that has not actually been proven. On the other hand, some people think that smaller cells produce fewer mites, but as far as I can tell, that hasn’t been proven either. What is clear, however, is that bees left on their own will build smaller cells. So why not let them?

A third reason is drone production. Colonies on foundation build approximately 5-10% of the cells for drone production, while bees on self-designed comb will build up to 20% of the cells for drones. Although high drone production is generally seen as a negative—drones require a lot of energy but don’t produce anything—recently a lack of high-quality drones for mating has been named as a possible reason for lack of vigor in honey bee colonies.

A fourth reason for foundationless is that bees seem to build comb faster when they are not constrained by preformed cells. Based on my own experience this seems to be true, although I’ve never measured it.

The biggest downside to foundationless is that it is a little harder to get the bees to place the comb squarely in the frames. Unless you give them a guide of some sort they will build them crosswise or catty-corner. This is not difficult to overcome, however, as any TBH beekeeper can tell you.

Extracting can be more difficult, especially if the bees haven’t connected all four sides of the comb to the frame. For strength reasons, foundationless beekeepers usually go with mediums rather than deeps for anything they want to place into an extractor.

A third downside is that the beekeeper must change his way of handling frames. Frames where the comb is connected only at the top have to be held vertically or rotated like a ship’s wheel. They can’t be flipped over sideways because the weight of the comb may cause them to break from the frame. Again, by watching a TBH beekeeper manipulate his frames, you can quickly learn how to do this.

In a subsequent post I will explain how to easily convert a Langstroth-style hive to foundationless and review some of the management techniques that are used.

Rusty

Comments

jess
Reply

i am really excited to read about this. i am interested in foundationless frames, but i have a lot of the conventional reservations and i am concerned about converting them. my hives are pretty new, though, so i am in a position to add a bunch of foundationless stuff if i go in that direction… Do you keep TBH? The new president of the oly bee club says he wants to convert everyone to TBH’s but the teacher of the beginner beekeeper class seems to be opposed to them. Should be interesting!

Rusty
Reply

Hi Jess

Yes, I have both types. I would say I’m slightly in favor of Langstroths, but I have nothing against tbh. I think it’s all what you’re used to. I think tbh are more bee-friendly in many ways. I’ve been thinking about writing more about tbh because a lot of my readers use them and I get a lot of e-mail questions about them. Many old-time beekeepers are really opposed to them, but I’ve never heard a good reason why.

I’m not a person who thinks there is just one way to do things, but I guess you know that by now.

jess
Reply

I did suspect that about you. I would be excited to read more about your adventures with TBHs, too. The person who teaches the class I take didn’t say that he was vehemently opposed to them (he never really takes that kind of a stand on things) but his position was that the TBH originated in Kenya, which has a very different climate from the US (especially our part of the US) and that bees move UP when they are clustered, not sideways. if the food stores require them to move sidewise, they will starve in the winter more often. I haven’t seen that theory anywhere else, and I have never seen data on percentage of TBHs that successfully overwinter relative to Langstroths or any of the other types of hives.

Rusty
Reply

I’ve never heard that theory either, but it makes a lot of sense to me. Even in a Langstroth, bees can starve when the honey is a frame or two to the left or right of the cluster. I haven’t had that happen in a top bar, but sometimes I move combs of honey closer to the cluster. If it’s above 40 degrees, I don’t mind going in for a minute or two. Really good theory, though.

Sarah
Reply

My friend has a Langstroth hive and the bees reversed themselves: the brood is on top, honey on bottom. They lived through the winter, too. I believe the bees know what they are doing and can adapt to different hive styles.

jess
Reply

it makes sense to me too, i have heard of hives that starved in a situation like you described, so it seems logical. i know that things that seem logical are not always true, but it’s good enough until proven otherwise i guess.

Rusty
Reply

Hi Jess,

Here’s an update. I read yesterday that horizontal hives have been used in Scandinavia for years and they have no problem with the bees moving horizontally during winter. However, the bees won’t change direction. So the beekeepers make sure the cluster is at one end at the beginning of winter, and they will work their way along the honey supply. If, however, you start them in the middle of the hive, they will work in one direction only, then starve because they will not reverse and go to the other end.

Sergey
Reply

My observation is that bees trained for Lang hive have difficulties to adapt in Kenyan hive. They are very conservative and I even suspect that some genetics play a role. I was trying to “convert” Lang bee-hive into Kenyan and it just does not work – they refuses to occupy roomy and beautiful horizontal apartments. Finally, they swarmed without any reason (a lot of space in horizontal hive) and the rest is slowly declining. The problem is that it is difficult to move frames between Lang and Kenyan, so I could not add the frame of brood to declining hive… Please, pray with me, they will survive. I had a similar problem with catch swarm – they left Kenyan hive…

Based on this experience, I am giving up with Kenyan hive. Instead, I am modifying the Lang to be more top-bars friendly. The idea is to be compatible with classical Lang hardware and at the same time be able to use similar to Kenyan top-bars.

jess
Reply

Now, that is entirely logical, is consistent with everything we know about bee behavior, and it makes sense that the bees would instinctively move in only one direction. But, uhm, maybe I am going to sound like an idiot with this question but how the heck to you convince a cluster of bees to be any place in particular? or do you just rearrange the food stores to be where you need them to be (like, on the left side of the hive)

Jeff
Reply

Hi Rusty,

We are planning to try foundationless langs in 2012, and we are trying to decide whether to use deeps or mediums for the honey supers. We have a good idea about the potential drawbacks & benefits of both types, but I am wondering what your thoughts on the matter are?

Preferably we will use deeps because it would be much more economical for us, and allow us more flexibility having all of our boxes the same size. However, we’d like to hear how you or other beekeepers have fared using foundationless deeps in the honey supers before we make a final decision, just in case there are good reasons to go with mediums instead.

Rusty
Reply

Jeff,

I have deeps, mediums, shallows, and section supers, all of which make for an impossible mess. No matter what I’m trying to do, I don’t have enough of the right size frames, or I don’t have enough with me, or they’re not put together. The mix of equipment sizes is my biggest beekeeping nightmare. The one consolation I have is that I have lots of experience to write about, both good and bad.

If I had to do it over again, I would probably stick with deeps for brood boxes and section supers for all the honey. My section supers are shallower than shallows (you follow?) but they can hold either section boxes or frames. I like that option since I produce mostly section honey, but sometimes I like to have a few frames for extracting.

I would never go with deeps for honey simply because they’re too heavy for me. As I say I do use deeps for brood and when I move them around I need help or empty boxes so I can remove part of the weight. But I don’t imagine you have that problem.

The one thing you don’t mention is extracting. If you are going to use an extractor, I think foundationless deeps would be tough simply because they might not hold up well to centrifugal force. The larger the surface area per frame, the more strength you’re going to need. I think you would need to wire substantially, maybe up and down, across the width, and criss-cross. Even with a lot of wire you won’t be able to use a centrifugal extractor until the combs are well anchored to the sides and bottom of the frames. This will take a lot longer with deeps than with mediums or shallows. And if they don’t get anchored by fall, but they are otherwise full, what will you do with them?

But if your not planning to extract, none of that would matter.

Does anyone else have thoughts on this?

Sergey
Reply

I think foundationless frame for deeps would be too heavy with honey and comb may break apart. I would go with mediums. I posted a long “essay” on foundationless approach on Beesource, but could not find it to copy it here. The bottom line was that the major complaint for foundationless frames is that honeycomb sometime is not parallel and has crossings, which makes extraction difficult. It’s only true if you are using centrifugal extractor for frames. If you are using crush and strain approach – then there is no problem – you just crush everything and let it drip! Very simple. It is scalable – one may use a barrel and corresponding size mesh bag… If somebody wants a “mechanization”, it is very easy to develop a centrifugal device for crushed honeycomb.

With my one strong hive and another declining, I got 4 foundationless frames of honey every month (SoCal); crush them and let it drip overnight under the press (actually, the rock); remove honey; add water to the rest – it is a base for honey-vine; filter the wax, melt it – it is a Christmas candles for the whole family. From 4 frames I have 5 kg honey, 0.3 kg wax and 2 gallons of honey-vine. When I took frames, I took every other frame – it helps bees to be a parallel (even it is not necessary) – I have perfect straight comb without any foundation. Such “checkerboarding” has additional advantage – it keeps bees from swarming (so far).

I saw “Japanese” style bee-hive – they let bees create the honeycomb diagonal in the box without ANY frames. Then they cut between the boxes using a string. I did not see their extraction technique, but it should be similar to crush and strain since the comb is attached to the box, it needs to be broken to be removed … So, for amateur bee-enthusiast, many beekeeping dogmas are just unnecessary and confusing – there are easy ways to do the same in “at home” conditions. Sergey

Rusty
Reply

Sergey,

“For amateur bee-enthusiast, many beekeeping dogmas are just unnecessary and confusing.” Exactly what I keep saying!

navi
Reply

Rusty and Jeff,

I went foundationless but ended up going all medium supers. That would include the brood chamber etc. I know all the parts and pieces will match. It boiled down to simplicity. Fortunately the bees didn’t seem to mind or they were too kind to insult my decision making process.

Jeff
Reply

Thanks for the replies Rusty and Navi.

We would not be doing any extracting, our plan is to cut-out as much comb honey as we can, and then crush & strain the remainder. To be able to get the comb honey we would like to avoid wiring the honey frames.

Using mediums for the honey supers sounds like a better way to go since the comb would be more stable, and many people have had success using them. The reason we are considering using the deeps is that we can get the boxes for almost free, whereas we would have to buy the mediums at market prices. As well, we would likely also need to buy a larger number of frames to fill the medium boxes since there would be more of them (eg. 2 medium honey supers on a hive instead of one deep, or 3:2, you get the idea), and we also like the idea of having all our boxes the same size for flexibility reasons.

If using mediums makes way more sense, then that is the way we will go. But, if others have had success using foundationless deeps in their honey supers then we’ll give that a try. We’re really trying to gauge whether or not there are any hidden costs that we haven’t considered to using the “free” deep boxes.

Bill Castro
Reply

Foundationless extracts just fine…combs must be cool and started at slower speeds for longer duration but work just fine.

Rusty
Reply

Bill,

I’m curious: have you extracted deeps? Are they wired? Also, are all four sides anchored to the frame by the bees?

I’m just cross-checking here because I don’t want to tell anyone the wrong thing. This is something I’ve never done on my own.

Rondi Anderson
Reply

To Jeff, you could always cut down the deeps to a medium if you have the time and equipment.

My question is how does one transition from the deep broods to a smaller size? I am considering going to all shallows.

Phillip
Reply

I would love to go all mediums. A deep not even full with honey is too heavy for my special lady friend to carry. We did a hive inspection recently and she nearly dropped a deep full of honey and bees on the ground after hefting it for maybe 10 seconds. A medium full of honey is still heavy, but as brood boxes they wouldn’t be as bad.

Chuck
Reply

Ever tried the Warre method? All boxes are the same, the hive is easy to build yourselves, its a tbh system stacked vertically and foundationless tho there are frame adapts. if you like. You can find plans and Warre’s book for free = http://thebeespace.net/warre-hive/.

Mark Milotay
Reply

I have been trying to figure out what factors will cause the bees to pick a specific orientation for the comb they make. My first TBH they produced comb in nice straight lines, the next one which is over 1.5 metres and angled a bit differently than the first one has been brutal for them producing comb across several bars. I am wondering if it is in response to the orientation to the sun, or magnetic lines or….. Any insight would be greatly appreciated.

Rusty
Reply

Mark,

I have never heard about anything like that. I find that if the bee space is correct, and if they have nicely defined starter strips or wax beads, they do just fine. Anyone else have a theory?

David Youngberg
Reply

I plan on starting my first hive next spring. In researching which type to start with I found the top bar and liked it because I like the idea of comb honey. Reading on your site I found two articles about using foundationless Langstroth frames. For the less-than-novice beginner, which would you suggest between those two types? Is there a third option I should consider? Thank you very much for your help!
David
Centerville, Utah

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