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.