beekeeping equipment how to

How to make starter strips

Starter strips can be used in nearly any type of hive. They are used in place of foundation in hives where you do not want to introduce chemical contamination from commercial foundation.

The purpose of starter strips is to get the bees to build comb in straight parallel lines. Bees need only a small amount of encouragement to make beekeeper-friendly comb. They are much easier to convince than you might think—nothing like teenagers.

There are dozens of videos available online of beekeepers melting wax, soaking slats of wood in water, painting multiple layers of hot wax on wet wood, peeling the wax sheets loose, cutting them in ribbons, waxing them onto top bars and on and on. All types of devices have been jury-rigged to contain and deliver hot wax, jigs have been developed to hold the frames, and salves have been concocted for beekeepers to sooth the inevitable burns. Oh my, oh my. If I had to do all that I would quit beekeeping and become a pastry chef.

In nature, bees build parallel combs in places unprepared with hot-wax and paintbrush, and I urge you to let your bees do the same. Here are four of my favorite ways to make un-waxed starter strips.[list icon=”check”]

  • Fill the slot in your top bar with popsicle sticks (also called “craft sticks”). You simply turn them on their sides and glue them in. The sticks form a ridge that serves as a guideline for the comb-building bees. (If you really want to, you can “glue” them in with beeswax. But an environmentally-friendly household glue is a lot easier and won’t melt and release on a hot day.)
  • A similar ridge can be made by using wedged top bars. You just detach the wedge, turn it on its side, and nail it in place.
  • You can use old frames where the foundation has been cut out. The attachment points of the old comb tell the bees where to begin building new comb.
  • If you put an empty frame between two existing combs, the bees don’t need any other help. They will build the comb right where you want it–parallel to the two existing combs and equidistant from each.
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If you decide to use a wooden strip, be sure to go all the way to the ends of each frame with the strip. If you discontinue the ridge line too soon, the bees may curve the ends of the comb into an arc.



  • I have a collection of unused paint stirrer sticks that fit nicely into grooved top bars. I glued a bunch in as starter strips when I started transitioning to foundationless last summer. It suddenly occurs to me that I am not 100% certain that they go to the very, very edge of the frame. I wonder what kind of shenanigans I have promoted.

    • I’m thinking a two- or three-inch gap would be too much. Less than inch probably would be fine. But if for some reason the combs curve around so much that they are hard to get out of the hive, you can bend them back into a straight line on a hot day.

  • I had about an inch gap at the end some of my starter strips last year (my first time making them). No problems. The combs were beautiful.

    I used corrugated plastic but cutting it was a headache. It’s popsicle sticks for me for now on. I have a tiny little brush that makes painting on melted beeswax a cinch, so I might put some in with wax and some without to see what happens.

    Ain’t no way I’ll ever wax a piece of wet wood, cut the wax off with a razor blade and so on. I’m sure that method works fine, but I think it’s just reinventing the wheel.

    In other news, 40 cm of snow in my neck of the woods today. Uugh.

  • I picked up some popsicle sticks, but they’re too small. They fall right into the groove and disappear. Maybe I have frames with extra deep and extra wide grooves. That, or I somehow picked up miniature craft sticks. For it to work with my frames, I would need sticks at least twice as thick as the ones I have, and probably three times as high so they poke up over the grooves. Strange.

    • Phillip,

      You must have really deep grooves if the sticks disappear. My grooves are 7 mm deep and my sticks are 10 mm wide.

      As for the width, I’m using wedged top bars so I pull off the wedge then cinch it up tight to the popsicle stick and nail the wedge in place. Before I pull off the wedges the space is about 3 mm wide and the sticks are about 2 mm thick. If I weren’t using wedges, I’d probably use beeswax to seal them in place. But your slots sound really wide–as in multiples of the sticks.

      One of my readers is using paint stir sticks as starters. Would that work?

  • “One of my readers is using paint stir sticks as starters. Would that work?”

    I think those are about the right thickness. I may try that if I can get free or cheap stir sticks. The grooves in my frames are definitely thick. I may use corrugated plastic again if I have to. We’re having a silly election in Canada now, so there’s no shortage of corrugated plastic signs around.

  • I am just starting beekeeping and I must be really stupid because the inside dimensions of my hives are app. 15 x 18.1/5 inches and all the Popsicle sticks I ever saw that were long enough to go 15 inches across were being used by Andre the giant.

    I’ve made a super myself and put in trim to hold the starter strips so what is wrong with just cutting thin strips of wood 15 inches long and placing them across the gap at the appropriate spacing?

    Am I missing something?

    • Barry,

      Thin strips of wood will work just fine. Popsicle sticks are placed end-to-end. You get a scalloped thing going where the rounded ends come together, but it works. Lots of people don’t have a way to cut thin strips of wood, so the popsicle sticks provide a workable alternative.

      Tell Andre the Giant he should share.

  • I reread the prior instructions and I think I now get what they are saying. I just haven’t seen the inside of the hive very well yet since it is cold and I didn’t want to kill off the bees by opening it up for too long.

    So—–never mind!

  • If each time you are at a Lowes or a other place that sells paint you ask for a couple stir sticks they will just give them too you. Ask for a bunch and they may refuse, but a few each time you happen by and you should end up with more than enough in no time.

  • I am a beekeeper in South Africa and have been using nylon strapping as starter strips for about a year now. Works very well!

  • I just take 2 pieces of deep pure beeswax foundation, cut it into enough strips for 10 frames. Take each strip and hem the edge (fold it back on itself) shove the hemmed edge into the slot.

  • I use paint stir sticks, I’ve glued in, and/or used tiny carpet tacks to wedge… brush with wax, and alternate with foundation every other frame. Works like a charm.

  • An addendum to Phillips comment above. I tried this on my grooved top frame and one stick was too thin so I placed two together side by side and tapped them in place with a small hammer. It worked like a charm. When you get to the end you will obviously have to cut two to the correct length to fit the length of the space that is left.

    If the small ones don’t stick down far enough then try the big popsicle sticks alone and then two together. You should be able to find a combination that works. I already had foundation for that frame and didn’t need the starter strip and I had a heck of a time getting it back out. I was wedged in so tight it definitely did not need glue.

  • Hi,

    Thanks so much for this post. I just purchased a top-bar hive, and I needed to get comb guides for the top bars. Luckily I have a lot of those popsicle sticks lying around!

    It’s my first time using a top bar so I’m excited about it and totally clueless! My other hives are rose hives, so go foundationless every other frame or so and don’t use a queen excluder, but I’m really looking forward to getting this new top bar hive up and running

    Anyways, thanks again for this post it’s helped a beginner out a lot!

    All the best

  • Hi Rusty,
    I enjoy your blog and column in ABJ very much, kudos!
    I hope to try doing cut comb next spring without using foundation. I have new shallow supers and frames. Other than the starter strips is there any thing that should be done or helps make the bees draw out nice straight and flat comb?

    • Dave,

      I like to push the frames tightly together and put a spacer on one end. If there’s too much space between any two frames, the comb can get wavy.

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