Foundationless Beekeeping: How to convert to natural beekeeping! Part II

Happy bees on natural comb.

The continuing process for changing over to foundationless hives is very simple.  Keep adding new frames to the center of the bottom box two at a time. When you add a new pair, move a pair of old contaminated foundation based frames up to the second box.

Each time, you should place the new pair of foundationless empty frames as close to the center as possible, but with at least one full frame separating the new empty frames. This will help keep the bees from getting too creative and encourage them to build the new comb parallel with the older comb.

I assume you have two deeps which is a pretty standard set up (but not exactly ideal, see next post). You will need to remove frames from the outside of the top deep and harvest the honey or wax. There should be no brood in the outside frames. Even if there is only a little honey, take the frames out  and harvest the honey and wax anyway. The goal is to get rid of the frames with foundation.

Fresh foundationless frames go in the center of the bottom box slowly pushing outwards. This means successive generations of smaller workers are building the new comb in the heart of the brood chamber.

Old foundation based frames are moved up to the center of the second box and the outside frames in the top box are removed from the hive and harvested.

Repeat every time the bees have nearly filled the last two foundationless frames you put in the bottom box.

Eventually, you will have the entire bottom box full of of foundationless comb drawn by the bees and packed full of brood, pollen, and honey.

When the bottom box is all foundationless, keep going, moving the oldest foundationless frames out of the bottom box. The oldest ones should be on the outside but if you number the frames as you put them in, it will help you keep track.

When the top box is all foundationless you can start the process in any supers you have. Add super frames to the center. Remove from the outside or move them up and out through two supers. This should be much easier since there will not be any brood in the supers.

If you haven’t already, get rid of your queen excluder. The queen should be allowed to move anywhere in the hive she wants. You can kill her by restricting her, especially in winter. If there is a frame of brood somewhere unexpected, leave it in the hive. The hive knows what it is doing. Don’t try to over control them. Long term, most new brood will probably be raised near the center of the bottom box. This is why we want the freshest smallest comb built there by the most recent generation of workers.

The goal is to move all the foundation out of the hive and harvest the honey and wax. Once it is gone, you have only pure wax and pure honey in the hive.

What is regression? Regression is what is happening when a new generation of brood raised on foundationless comb builds a new set of foundationless comb, and raises an even smaller generation of brood. Each successive set of comb will be slightly smaller than the one before, and the workers raised will be closer to the natural size found in a wild hive. Over time you are restoring the workers to their natural size. The mite resistant size. The faster, more efficient size. Don’t worry about this too much. Keep moving fresh frames into the brood chamber over a couple of years and you will regress your bees automatically.

Next time: Langstroth vs Top Bar and The best compromise in hive construction.

Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That's how we're gonna be -- cool. Critical is fine, but if you're rude, we'll delete your stuff. Please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name and do not put your website in the comment text, as both come off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch and Tim Ferris for the inspiration)
  • Dirtfarmer101

    I have been foundationless for two years. I enjoy watching my smaller, quicker bees work without the mites. I never loose a hive in winter.  I don’t spend money on chemicals and somebody’s contaminated wax. My honey is now chemical free.  The bees draw comb quicker now. I started beekeeping in 1973. What a waste–all those years doing it wrong.

  • Jessi McCarty

    Ok so far i love this website i have been intrested in beekeeping since i was 11 now 14 ive got a hive thats only a year old it has some foundation in brood chambers and none in the one super, i was wondering before i start up with a swarm or something else, idk really know how im acually get the bees but got a hive :) is it ok to take the foundation out before i place them in??? Thanks

  • Kevin

    We all do the best we can, just paying close attention to results will debunk most of the stuff we have been told, often passed on very sincerely, but ultimately in the service of selling something that you and the bees don’t need. I am glad to hear you have been have good results. Please feel free to pass on any photos or video you have. We will certainly credit you if we are able to use it in a post.

  • Kevin

    Hi Jessi,
    If you are adding a new swarm to an existing hive with old comb I would remove it. Harvest any honey, melt the wax, and put starter strips in the frames but no foundation. This will let your bees draw new fresh comb and be much happier and healthier. Keep us posted on how it goes and send us some photos of your progress.

  • Vganak

    Thanks. I’m so grateful for your hard work and interesting writing about it. My family has kept bees for generations. I’m still in the ‘mulling’ stage. Whatever I do I’m determined to go natural.

  • Vganak

    Hello dirtfarmer. It’s great to hear of your successes. It inspires dummies like me to try to follow in footsteps of pioneers, actually, like you! Have a great year!

  • Kevin

    Hi Vganak,
    Where are your family keeping bees, and where are you thinking about keeping bees? I think natural is the only way to go, at least if you would still like to have bees after a season or two. Keep us posted, would love to hear how it turns our for you.

  • Linda Marcella

    I am so glad to have found you. I too live much like you and your wife do. I so love living close to the earth and strive to be even closer. I have six hives now, two of which I obtained from a longtime beekeeper. The frames have plastic foundation and the wax is disgustingly black. After reading lots of stuff from everywhere and most often at odds with one another I decided to do what I thought made sense in nature. I have been trading out the old frames with new foundationless ones. Some I put in with a starter strip and some just a bead of wax to use as a starter strip. Although I have printed out several of your pages to read again I did not see how or if you give them anything to start from. Also, how do you harvest using foundationless? Do you crush and strain or do you use an extractor?

    When I was at a beekeeper supply house yesterday I read in a book that the bees would not readily regress unless the queen was from a small cell hive. The explanation was that she would be too large to fit her abdomen in the smaller cells and that it would take several generations or requeening to get smaller bees and thus smaller cells. What are your thoughts? I thought i would just go foundationless and if i was to crush and strain thru several generations that each times they would produce smaller and smaller cells.

    Thanks for taking the time to share. I so appreciate the internet to be able to connect with others who have the same interests.

    Linda Marcella
    Upstate NY

  • http://www.backyardecosystem.com/ Kevin

    Hi Linda, we are glad you found us too.
    If you read this post 
    http://www.backyardecosystem.com/backwards-beekeeping/so-exactly-natural-comb-anyway/  and look at the third and fourth photographs. I think you will see exactly what we do to give the bees a starting location. We use Cut and Crush to harvest. Cut and Crush is simple and fast and gives us both wax and honey. Since we do not want to return used wax to the hive there is no point in having and extractor. I wouldn’t obsess about regression too much. Just keep adding fresh frames to the center of the brood chamber two at a time and move old ones up and out. The bees can work it out. They really don’t need us.-Kevin

  • http://www.backyardecosystem.com/ Kevin

    Hi there Vganak,
    You are most welcome. I would say, stop mulling and get a hive!
    -Kevin

  • Joe English

    Hi Kevin!

    I love this site! Everything Im just making a start with is here explained for me to crack on with. Great to get my kids involved with too. Just one question though……how long does it take a colony to draw out comb on a foundationless frame?? I don’t want to go opening the hive every five minutes to see when I can stick a new empty frame in.
    Cheers,
    Joe

  • http://www.backyardecosystem.com/ Kevin

    Hi Joe!
    Unfortunately the answer is “It depends”. Size of your colony, what they have available, how much they get going. I just keep sticking two fresh ones in every time they can use them, while pulling out two of the oldest. If they are cooking along, I try to check every week. If not once a month might do it. Mostly depends on how busy I am and how active they seem.

  • http://www.backyardecosystem.com/ Kevin

    Yes, you should start new hives without foundation. Foundation should be melted down to make candles or something else useful, it is not useful in a hive.
    check out this post for details.
    http://www.backyardecosystem.com/backwards-beekeeping/so-exactly-natural-comb-anyway/

  • http://www.backyardecosystem.com/ Kevin

    So good to hear that others are learning that simpler is better, and that we need to let bees be bees.

  • http://www.backyardecosystem.com/ Kevin

    vganak, did you ever get a hive started?

  • ChadnStephanie Crain Bowling

    We have been trying to to go foundationless for the past few months. It’s been a little discouraging because the bees have been making a complete mess of the frames. We’ve had to throw out so much of their comb because it was all over the place. I think we may have tried to do it too much at once. Do you use the starter strip of foundation? We haven’t, just the wooden strip, but, I’m starting to wonder if we need to.

  • http://www.backyardecosystem.com/ Kevin@BackyardEcosystem

    I have always just used a pair of tongue depressors jammed into the grove (or stuck in with a little wax or propolis). I do encourage starting small. If you are currently running foundation just convert it two frames at a time like I suggested in Part I. If you are starting a new hive with a swarm and don’t have a couple of frames you can pull from another hive to use as spacers then you might want to uses a couple of frames with foundation as spacers. It is only the first frames on the first hive that is hard to start, once you have a couple of filled frames then you are golden.

  • ChadnStephanie Crain Bowling

    Thanks! We’ve been using popsicle sticks, so I guess we just need to take your advice. I think we had them do a few really good so we just went all out putting supers with all empty frames. Tomorrow I’m going to have to get out there and do what you suggested. :)

  • http://www.backyardecosystem.com/ Kevin@BackyardEcosystem

    Let us know how it goes and get some photographs if you can.

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