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

I started out beekeeping on my own just the way I learned growing up. With foundation. I had heard the old saws:

1) “It takes twenty pounds of honey to make a pound of wax.”

2) “You can’t extract if you don’t have foundation”.

3) “You will end up with a hive full of drones”.

4) “The bees like foundation better”.

5) and my favorite “There are no wild (feral) swarms anymore”.

Guess what gentle reader, you could fertilize a square mile with that crap. This is pure propaganda, most of it silly, when you actually think about it. All designed to sell foundation and chemicals Monsanto Style.

1) You hear this a lot, but where is the science to back it up? Actual observation indicates bees will build and fill empty frames with just starter strips faster than refilling empty foundation. The empty gaps in the hive throw the bees into a production frenzy.

2) You can extract AND you can also cut and crush, which is much more practical for a small scale beekeeper. Given the value of wax these days you might prefer to cut and crush even on a large scale commercial operation. Not to mention extractors are really expensive!

3) A hive full of drones would die off in a season and that clearly isn’t happening with feral swarms.

4) This is so silly it beggars the imagination. Why would bees like something artificial and full of chemicals better than what they make themselves? Foundation is made from the worst grade of available wax, stuff that is too nasty and too contaminated with chemicals to make any other beeswax products with. Contaminated foundation is also linked to poor Drone and Queen fertility.

5) This is just an outright lie. I find feral hives all the time. I can’t be the only one who notices wild hives everywhere. Feral hives I have personally observed to last multiple seasons without any human intervention.

The conventional beekeeper from whom I purchased my first swarm kept telling me about all these chemicals I needed to dump into the hive if I didn’t want my bees to die. I wasn’t really happy with this process, but she was insistent if I didn’t use chemicals, soon I wouldn’t have bees. After a disappointing first year where the bees filled the first box but wouldn’t move into the supers, or second box full of empty foundation, I started reading.

I found out that a brave and scattered few were out there raising bees without chemicals. These pioneers reported their hives were thriving when chemical intensive hives were dying at every turn. What were they doing different? Aside from refusing to put chemicals in their hives, they were taking the foundation out of their hives. Bees raised on natural comb were mite free. They were more productive. They exhibited hygienic behaviors which purge the hive of pests. They were cheap to raise. This sounded like the beekeeping of my childhood only without the foundation!

So how did I convert to foundationless hives? Two frames at a time.

I pulled two frames from the brood chamber and moved them up into the empty box above which the hive had previously ignored. I replaced them with new empty foundationless frames with two tongue depressors jammed into the foundation groove (seen as a dark strip in the comb at the top of the first photo). I didn’t bother to coat them with wax, nor was there any glue involved. Bees make a much stronger attachment on their own than melted wax will provide. The starter strip is there only to suggest to them the place to get started.

I placed the new frames in between two old frames, and because I only opened up two gaps in the brood chamber, the bees had to build straight to match the filled frames on either side. I also needed to level the hive very carefully, side to side, so the bees festooning on the empty frames to outline the new comb would hang straight down. A slight slope toward the front keeps water out of the hive and does not interfere with this behavior.

This killed two birds with one stone. The bees crossed the gap into the upper box and started filling it with honey. They had to go up to care for the brood which had been moved up there, and once the gap was crossed they stayed. They also started new brood in the two empty gaps below.

After that the process was easy. Every time I opened the hive, I moved old frames with foundation up and stuck new foundationless frames in the bottom box. The goal is for the whole hive to be foundation free but at the very least all brood areas (usually the bottom two boxes) need to be without foundation.

Next time: More about what happens next to get the foundation completely out of the hive, regression (what the heck is that?), and Langstroth vs Top Bar.



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Backyard Ecosystem began as an expression of my determination to make a difference in our own backyard. Literally and metaphorically making a difference at the micro level of my yard and to operate at macro level of treating the entire planet as something I am an integral part of and whose destiny is shaped everyday by what I do in my corner of the world.

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