So exactly what is natural comb anyway?

Old Comb

What is natural comb? What is foundation? What do you mean by foundationless? It is apparent there is a lot of confusion out there surrounding this. I think this post will make things crystal clear!

Most chemically managed hives are full of nasty old comb drawn over foundation by a hive of bees in the late 1950s. This is the equivalent of offering a new swarm a walk-up tenement that hasn’t seen a cleaning crew since Ike was president. The comb is so hard the bees can’t work it to meet their current needs. It is full of pathogens, chemicals, mold spores. It is time for the beehive version of urban renovation.

Here is a photo of a standard Langstroth frame with new foundation. The hive is just starting to build on it. This is better right?

Langstroth frame with new foundation

Wrong. The foundation was made by melting down old, heavily contaminated wax deemed too nasty to make into other wax products. All those old pathogens, chemicals, and mold spores are still there. It just looks cleaner. The foundation was designed in an era obsessed with bigger is better. No, not the eighties, the 1800’s. It forces the bees to build cells which are too large. This means eggs laid in these cells stay in longer, growing into large, slow Workers who fall prey to mites who think they are Drones. Bad, bad, and more bad.

Here is a photo of a standard Langstroth frame with new foundation. The hive has started building their own Natural Comb off to the side.

Here is a photo of a standard Langstroth frame with new foundation. The hive has started building their own Natural Comb off to the side.

Why didn’t they use the foundation? Because bees hate foundation. If you give them a hive half empty and half foundation they will ignore the foundation and fill the other side full of natural comb. They often do this according to a plan only they understand and in a way which makes it impossible to harvest without destroying the hive. In this case, the bees actually built this comb in between two empty frames of foundation.

So what can we do to make the bees happy and make it easier for us to harvest the honey and remove old comb to make way for beautiful, fresh, clean wax? Easy! We use standard Langstroth frames without the foundation and a starter strip to provide a suggestion to the bees as to where to get started.

You can see the starter strip here. The strip is a pair of tongue depressors matched up and jammed into the groove intended for the foundation to pop into. I never coat the starter strip with wax because the bees can form a much stronger attachment with fresh wax on wood than to melted wax.

You can see the starter strip here

You can see the bees are festooning on the frame to sketch out the area where they want to start making comb. Some of the festooning bees are clinging to the bottom of the frame because I handled the frame a little too roughly and they dropped. Originally they hung almost to the bottom.

Here you can see a fresh new natural comb started and already partially filled with honey.

Here you can see a fresh new natural comb started and already partially filled with honey

Here you can see they have almost filled the frame.

Here you can see they have almost filled the frame

Here the frame is nearly full of comb, brood, and honey the bees produced. The lovely pure white wax is exactly what you want to see in a natural comb hive.

Here the frame is nearly full of comb, brood, and honey the bees produced

Much like the original photograph with one critical difference. The wax in this photo is fresh clean natural comb built to bee specifications. Zero chemical contamination. Zero pathogens. Zero mold spores. No residual fallout from the Trinity Tests! Just happy bees and a happy productive beekeeper.

And as far as harvesting goes? You have all options available – cut and crush, whole comb, and extraction.

70 Comments on “So exactly what is natural comb anyway?

  1.  Great site! I’m looking to get into beekeeping and was wondering if it would be possible to start a new hive without foundations. Any thoughts?

    • Hi Steve,
      Yes you can start a hive without foundation and you should. It will help your bees be happier and healthier as discussed in detail in many of the posts here on backyard ecosystem. For your new packages you just want to make sure you level the hive very very carefully with a very slight slope toward the front. You may also want to consider setting the hive up with a top entrance. I have done this by simply using a small block of wood to prop open the top, but if you hives are further away than your backyard you will want to come up with a more secure setup. Shims sold for leveling cabinetry or door installation should do the trick.


    • Hi Steve,
      It is the best way to go about things. Just keep things level an let the bees be bees!

      • I’m about to put a super on my Langstroth box and want to use foundationless frames. In the pictures it looks like you use a tongue depressor in the top bar groove as a guide. Is that what you recommend when starting out?

        • That is exactly what I did. You can do that if it works for your frames. I have seen a paint stirring stick used very successfully as well.

          • I’m curious if you have any thoughts about using eucalyptus in hive construction? I have two varieties of euc and wonder if anyone has experience with using these aromatic woods with bees? they are strong, durable, resistant to wood boring insects and rot. Mostly I see hives made of pine or fir.

          • I have no experience with eucalyptus Kiaweking. Check around with other beekeepers in areas where Eucalyptus is common and see if they use them, and if they do, how do they stand up to the local climate, especially without painting. I prefer cypress hive bodies for exactly that reason.

          • hi there,a new bee from New Zealand here,,just further to using Eucalyptus, I’m about to build a top bar hive and will try that timber,i use it in my pig hut flooring as it seems to be a natural deterent to lice and ticks ,ie sucking insects,so I’m hoping if the bees are settled it may be another free tool to keep varroa numbers to numbers that won’t need chemical applications,will let you know how we get on,thanks for the site and all the info made available and happy new year to all from us here in the greatest part of the world,cheers simon

          • Welcome to Backyard Ecosystem Simon.
            Let us know how the Eucalyptus stands up to your climate. Did you paint or did you leave the boxes unpainted as I recomend? The best thing you can do for mites is to run foundationless as I describe above. Let us know how it goes.


        • Yes! I jam the tongue depressor into the groove, the frames I use a pair stuck in together were perfect. If your frames have a slightly wider grove just used some stray wax or propolis as a an adhesive. You just need it to hang in there long enough for the bees to get started. They will have it glued down stronger than anything you could do in record time.

  2. How beautiful! I am interested in knowing how you would start addt’l hives foundationless? My thoughts are this: I am now starting to do cutouts so I ASSUME that they might be small or smaller cell foundation so I would secure the cutout brood into frames and addt’l frames would be foundationless. The start a new hive with a nuc I would add foundationless frames to the starter box and proceed from there. Do you see anything wrong with this thought process?

    Also, I know you do not believe in feeding sugar. Do you add or use anything that can help the bees along in building comb? I’m in the mountains of upstate NY. I’m not sure that there is a lot of foraging area around. It is mostly forests of pine trees. Any thoughts?

    Thanks for sharing.

    • That is exactly what I have done in the past Linda. Start them in a Nuc with foundationless frames. When the Nuc is nearly full I move them to a hive and interspace to filled frames with fresh empty frames. I don’t think I have photographs of this anywhere but I have secured cut out brood into frames with sisal twine, the bees just remove it after they get the cutout comb secured in the frame. You can help out by taking it out next time you inspect, if the tied in comb looks secure. There is more there for the bees to harvest than you think Linda. The bees look places you would never think of. Don’t sweat it too much. If you have feral hives, and I am sure you do, your hive can make it too. One thing you can do to help your bees through a dearth is to stop fighting the dandelions in your backyard/beeyard. Dandelions by themselves can help the bees get through the tough times. You can also plant some sage, false oregano, and other plants with tiny compound flowers that flower for extended periods. Finally make sure there is a good source of fresh water with rocks to prevent drowning. If the bees have readily available water, they can spend more time hunting for food.

  3. Thanks, Kevin. I intend to start several more hives in the spring and will do just that. I have a friend who wants me to put several more hives on his property and that is exactly how I will start them. I’m hoping too to take some cutouts to make several more hives. Shouldn’t that be easier since they will be feral hives and may have started regressing themselves? Also, do you think it is worth of expense of purchasing queens bred on small cells? I was thinking that that might be a good business to start since I think many are getting the message that large cells bring more problems than they return in surplus honey.

    • Hi Linda,
      Read the new post that is going up today about getting bees for starting out. I wouldn’t worry about regression. That is going to happen automatically as you rotate the frames out of the hive the way I have recommended in other posts. Feral bees are always better in my opinion (see the new post).

  4. I was always told the comb would fall apart during extraction if spinning. What extraction method should be used?

    • A cheap, easy to do, crush and strain method. You can find bucket strainer systems online or make one pretty easily; a lot cheaper and easier than an extractor and your get your combs out on a regular basis. You also then have your wax easily separated for rendering. For backyard and hobby beekeepers, it’s much easier and cheaper (and healthier). Hope this helps.

      • Would you please explain the crush and strain method. is it just as the name implied?

        • That’s right. I use top bar hives (Kenyan and Warre) and foundationless Langs. In each case I take the bar (or the frame) cut the entire comb out/off and into a bucket that’s lined with cheese cloth or a sieve and has holes drilled through the bottom. That bucket is resting on top of another one below that has a honey gate attached and a hole cut out of the top lid (so the top one can drain). I cut all of my combs, smash them up with a big spoon, cover the bucket and let it sit on my deck on a warm day for 36 hours. Then I have strained honey in the bottom, and wax in the top that I can then render. If you scroll down a little, Michael Bush talks about it here: There are some you tube videos of variations on it, but most of them seem needlessly involved to me. Here is a strainer system for sale, but if you are only harvesting one or two frames/bars, mason jars could work as well.

          • I always do cut and crush just as you have described Bethk, That way I get to harvest both honey and wax and old wax is being rotated out of the hive. Up and out, Up and out!

    • You were told incorrectly Membrick, by someone who has obviously never tried it. Natural foundationless comb is stronger than melted wax foundation will ever be, even with those silly wires threaded through. You can extract foundationless comb just fine. Having said that, I always do cut and crush as Beethk described below. One of the goals is to get the old wax out of the hive so that the bees keep drawing fresh clean wax for new brood and stores. Cut and crush is easy, quick, and gets you both wax and honey to use.

    • The flat wood stick doctors used to use to examine your tongue, asking you to say “Ahhh.”

      • Sotutto has it Ruben. You can find them at hobby or craft stores. You can also ask an elementary school art teacher where to get them in bulk. Basicly a triple wide wooden popsicle stick.

    • Exactly Joe. Except this is done with standard equipment everyone has available, and no danger of a catastrophic cascading collapse (say that three times fast) if you open the hive on a day that is a little too warm. Every frame is still a frame so that it is super strong self contained unit the instant the bees finish filling it with wax. Much stronger than any amount of wire or printed foundation can ever be. Since a filled foundationless frame is a pure drawn wax and raw wood construction it is incredibly strong since no artificial weak points have been introduced by the beekeeper in the form of melted wax. The wax the bees draw is much stronger than wax that has been melted and formed into foundation.

  5. This is neat. Will have to give it a try next season. I don’t like stringing frames anyways!

    • Thank you for the kind comment Melissa. Simple is better, and the bees clearly like foundationless frames.

  6. Hi Kevin, I’d like to elaborate on the processing of wax for foundation. This applies only to ONE major supply house in the US, not saying which. They know full well that the wax they receive from participating beekeepers is nasty with chemicals. To mitigate this somewhat they process the wax with DE (diatomaceous earth) and filter it to remove some if not most chemical residues. Does it work? I’m not sure, I’ll be sending foundation to a lab for analysis.

    You may ask, why bother? Bees don’t like foundation, right? Well, I remove a lot of bees, hundreds of removals a year and some of those bees are bought by commercial beekeepers, who invariably request foundation. I’ll be buying small cell foundation but I too am unconvinced it is great for bees because it plainly isn’t. However, foundation does have it’s uses, like homing swarms and developing brood nests efficiently. All of it is debatable, but i thought i’d put the information out there.

    • Hi Schizno, The methods of commercial beekeepers clearly have to change. That is what got us to the horrible place where were are now. Lack of cover crops, GMO plants, and nerve gas based insecticides applied to everything by the long ton aren’t helping either. Any foundation is bad foundation. it is all contaminated, it is just a matter of how badly, bleaching it to pretty it up isn’t really changing that.

      I sold four hives in hours on craigslist at a premium price because they had been converted to foundationless frames. I am willing to bet that you can sell as may swarms as you can catch if you advertise that they are are a cut out feral hives (survivor genetics) and are in a foundationless nuc on either Deep or Medium frames (I would recommend medium). Try it with your next swam. It is a selling point when you are dealing with any beekeeper that will still be in business in another four years.

      • Oh I couldn’t agree more, but I am pleasantly surprised I can sell feral bees to commercial beeks. Most of them want nothing to do with wild genetics. Baby steps, man, baby steps…

        • Even the commercial beekeepers a slowly waking up. It only takes a decade at above 30% losses. My only question is why would you sell a feral swarm to a commercial beekeeper who will never pay a cent more than the going commodity price when you can get a better price for bees that have proven survivor genes, and are are on fresh clean wax?

          • Great question, well first thing is I am awash in feral bees, I do over a hundred feral collections in a year and I’m just getting started, next year will be better than 200. Not all of them are on “fresh clean wax”, I do a lot of cut outs and while those are on natural cell, swarms are not. It’s a matter of supply and demand, would you sell to the treatment free commercial honey producer that comes to your house to pick up bees, or go through the laborious process of packaging and shipping bees of unknown temperament to people for thousands of miles around? My guy pays 80% of what most people pay for a package, I simply house swarms into nucs on foundation, he picks them up. I think he wants them on foundation to use as the broodnest and for the ability to move hives without collapsing comb.

            I do sell to local beeks, urban beekeepers etc for roughly the price of bred bees, so it does work out; I still get those feral genetics out into legitimate markets and I get paid roughly what I’d call a fair price. Remember, I’m getting paid to remove bees and I also get to sell them, so it’s a win for me in the long run. I simply don’t have time to process package bees, maybe in 7-9 years when I transition into full time honey production and queen rearing…

          • I hear you, glad to hear that there is that much work available for you.

            Where are you that you get that many swarms a year?

            Just for the record, foundationless comb built in a langstroth frame should hold up to a move just as well if not better than frames with foundation. Commercial foundation is a weak spot in comb since is it processed from melted wax. Using the word foundation is a misnomer in this context since bee drawn wax is much stronger than melted wax.

          • I’m in LA, I am a professional bee remover and work is available about 10/12 months of the year. I don’t do just swarms but also trap outs and cut outs, and the bulk of my money is doing cut outs.

            Bees building on foundationless typically anchor on the top of the bar and occasionally putting in some anchor comb on the sides, leaving 3/4 of the comb mostly unattached. When lifting foundationless comb it’s necessary to twist and turn the frame upside down to avoid breaking off the comb that is lightly attached.

            Foundation goes from end to end and is anchored off on all sides, and is slotted in channels in the frame to hold it in place. Further, foundation is wired in, adding stability. Foundation-built comb can be twisted and turned fairly cavalierly without risking breaking. In fact, it is damn hard to remove from frames, considering all of the above. Just saying’. Try putting your foundationless frames through an extractor and you’ll see what I mean.

            I’ve begun using fishing line in the wire guides on frames for my foundationless bees (which is currently all of them, though many won’t be wired), running it in place of stainless wire. The bees can build right around the fishing line, and it’s easy and clean to use. Specifically I’m using it in hives that I know i’ll be transporting, such as my nuc observation hive I’ll be taking to classes next year. I’m betting that it will increase the stability of comb for travel.

          • This has been a great conversation. I may have to create a whole new post from it. Thanks for providing thoughtful responses to my responses.

            I used to worry about holding foundationless frames straight up and down, and I still mostly do because I got in the habit. But I have forgotten often enough and never experienced a disaster.

            If you look at the final four photographs on this post you will see four frames that I held dead level at least once. Once the bees hit the bottom of the frame just a tiny bit more than in the second photograph I don’t even worry at all.

            I personally wouldn’t use the fishing line (or wire either) because I am going to use a hot knife to cut the entire comb out when I do cut and crush to harvest.

            Something I apparently haven’t communicated clearly enough is that it is very very very important that you do not reuse wax. This is why I recommend cut and crush over extraction. If you extract you might be tempted to put the used wax back in the hive instead of harvesting it.

            If you really must extract you will find that it works just fine with a foundationless frame as long as the comb has hit the bottom and the sides. By the time you have capped honey only a tiny bit at each bottom corner is likely to remain open, perhaps just enough to poke an ungloved finger through. The bees seem to like leaving that open, but sometimes they finish it off as well.

            I also recommend that you use all mediums and rotate individual frames up and out through the entire hive which means that a given frame has been used several times by the bees before harvest. First primarily for brood and then later as the frames move through the hive for stores. The frame then moves out of the hive for harvest, then finally it is returned with just a starter strip again to the brood nest so that it can be rebuilt with fresh clean wax.

          • I’m using fishing line in my observation hive as an experiment to see if it aids in bumpy travel. I don’t really intend to use those frames for harvest, but as educational tools. I label my wired frames as such. I’m betting it’s entirely possible to cut and pull the fishing line right out of a full frame of honey to enable crush and strain. The fishing line can’t really be built ON but AROUND. We’ll see, I suppose.

            I already run all mediums and the majority of my hives are 8 frames, although I have a couple experimentation nuc hives using deep frames, and one with foundation. I don’t use extractors, yet. When I become a sideliner that will change. I’m looking for foundation that suits my needs, specifically being 4.9 mm cells and lab tested for extremely low to no contamination. I don’t have any hives that use foundation except for my one experiment nuc, and most of my guided frames use wedge tops that have been “painted” with my own organic wax.

            I practice Ultimate Brood Nest Management.

            It has been nice talking with you! If you start a new post on it I’d be happy to see it.


          • This week I just rescued two hives out of a build we were renovating. It was suggested that I take some of their comb and string it into a langstrom frame.These bees were in a very natural wild area. the one hive had lighter colored comb and the other was real dark and kinda nasty. The two hives were seperated by a 2 by 6 in the same wall with seperate entrances. Just curious, what do you charge for removing a hive from a structure not counting the reconstruction? I’m near San Jose so the rate may be similar to LA..

          • Hi Bob, I wonder if the dark one was just a much older hive or a reoccupied hive. Did someone take photos of your cut out in process?

          • Also, I love the Fallout caps as buttons on the side! So cool, I’d like those for my site 🙂

  7. So how do you extract then? Always crush and strain or can you still extract natural comb by spinning?

    • Hi Denise, You can put it in an extractor just like any other finished and capped frame of honey. Uncap with a hot knife and extract. Having said that, it is silly to extract when you can cut and crush. If you want your bees to thrive it is an absolute imperative that you do not reuse wax. Let the bees draw fresh clean wax in the frame after cutting it out.

  8. Excellent article! As a first year beekeeper, I have been looking for ways to convert to foundationless. The tongue depressor trick alone is worth a ton to me! Looking forward to trying this method next Spring!! Thank you 🙂

    • Welcome Eliazara, and thank you for your kind words. Take photos of your progress and report back to us. We would love to hear how it goes.

  9. Kevin, thank you for your wonderful website! I have just ordered 5 packages of bees I will pick up in the spring from a beekeeping operation in my state. I am working with another local beekeeper who keeps 15 hives on my farm because of my blackberries and cover crops. He uses plastic foundation, and I expressed to him my desire to use empty frames and he said it was not feasible or cost effective. We sell this honey along with my produce, and it’s how I make a living. So my question is:

    How does using natural comb affect the rate/frequency of harvest? Will cutting out all the comb at once leave the bees starving? Or do you only cut some at a time? How long does it take the bees to draw out new comb?

    Thank you very much for any info you can provide!

    • Kevin thanks so much for getting back to me! I would by no means consider our operation “commercial.” The honey is all sold locally through word of mouth and farmers markets, I do not currently sell retail/wholesale nor do I intend to (unless it is through a local shop perhaps). I neglected to mention that my permaculture farm is entirely chemical free, I got into farming not for the money, but because I, like you recognize the predicament of our food supply in this country. I stumbled upon your website after meeting with another semi-local beekeeper who was treating his hives with chemicals, and feeding his bees with sugar cut with dollar store fruit punch, and flour as a pollen substitute. I thought “there has got to be a better way.” I am located in Putnam County, Ga near Lake Oconee. If you are within driving distance I would be very interested in seeing your hives. I will continue to read and re-read your informative posts as I prepare to pickup my bees in April. Thanks for being the best resource on natural beekeeping I’ve found to date.

      • Thank you Chris for your more than kind comments. Right now I am confined to helping others with their hives. We are starting a round the world sailing trip and multi year environmental art project in June. You can find more about this at and
        If I had realized we were going to be in Charlotte NC this long I would have set up new hives the instant I got here. One of the things I would like to do as we travel is visit other beekeepers worldwide and learn from and photograph them. So stay tuned.
        And thanks for the additional information about your setup, experience, and farm I will edit the post to reflect it.

  10. I am a novice beekeeper. Built two hives and installed packages 12 days ago. After reading posts I was convinced to start without foundation and let the bees do it their way. I opened the hives for the first time today and at first I was thrilled to see that they were creating beautiful comb. But they are building it everywhere! It is so thick that no matter how careful I was, I broke some when I pulled some of the frames to check them. I was devastated and don’t want to make this mistake again. I am looking for any advice you can give. Thank you!

    • Hi Kim,
      What are you using for starter strips?
      Did you carefully level the hive? This is super important.
      Short version is save what you can, tie in any that is broken off that can be tied in, and alternate filled or partly filled frames with empties to provide training wheels so they can get them lined up right.

  11. Thanks for wery illustrative instructions. I am attempting to start foundationless frames with two new hives, using f-style frames that have a wedge on top exactly for this purpose. I am encounterinng an odd problem – bees are building new comb from bottom-up. From the middle of the frame and very good comb but as it grows gravity does not help, just opposite and the comb sheat distorts as it grows… Both hives do this though one have made one frame in a “right” way- top to bottom…

    • That is wild, I haven’t experienced this, nor have I heard about happening (other than an odd one off in one frame here and there). Is there a way you could re engineer some of your frames to use the tongue depressor starter spot? I really think it helps because it is thin, central, and pokes down a bit. They just naturally start festooning off of it when they want to sketch out a new frame. Get some photos if you can and let us know how it goes.

      • Hi Kevin,
        My husband and I are new to bee keeping and we have a problem I’m having a hard time finding an answer to. We have two hives and they have looked really good, full of honey about a month ago, of course not enough for us to take due to it’s their first year and ours. So last night we opened the hives and one of them is in trouble. The top frame has honey in it, looks a little different, but the bottom two supers are a dark amber colored comb with nothing in them, we’ll not much anyway. Does this sound familiar to you. We didn’t use any chemicals. We planted some herbs for them hoping they would take care of themselves. I know probably nieve, learning curve? I am just wanting to know if you know of a way we might could save them.

        • Hi Steffanie, and welcome to BackyardEcosystem!
          Tell me a little more about your set up.
          How may boxes do you have and what size?
          Are you running the frames foundationless?
          Where are you and what is your weather/season like right now? Is lots of stuff blooming or is it a bit thin?

          • We have three supers per hive. I guess a basic size langstroth hive. Our frames do have foundation. NW Arkansas, we have had a mild summer this year for our area, temps about 90 average. Blooms are here, not as many as spring time, but still pretty decent. Also, we bought nucs from a local known bee man, if that matters.

          • Any ideas or thoughts about what it could be or what we could do?

          • If you have brood and/or eggs I would try replacing two or three of the old frames with foundationless frames as I describe in this post. The open space should get the bees going. As they start backfilling keep inserting new empty foundationless frames and rotating out frames with foundation as I have described in detail in other posts about converting to foundationless.
            If you do not have brood and/or eggs and you don’t have queen cells then you may have have lost a queen. Take a frame with new eggs from you other hive and pop it into this one. The hive will use one of the eggs to make an emergency queen. You can requeen with a queen cell from the other hive next swarm season.
            Best of luck, take photos and get back to us no matter what happens.

          • Thank you so much. We will try that and take some pics.

          • We went in tonight to try to fix it and wow were they mad tonight. I did however get some pics though. We needed up having to pack up and go before we could fix it. Can’t figure out how to post the pics.

  12. Hi Kevin, just finished reading the above post and I was so glad I stumbled upon your site. I will be a newbie beekeeper the end of March 2015. I have joined a bee group and have discovered lots of practical advice but also lots of personal opinions. I have read that to get the bees to properly fill out a frame, you should alternate a foundation frame with a foundationless frame. I truly do not want to introduce some other beekeeper’s toxin laced wax foundations into my supers. I want to be absolutely sure that it is okay to just use empty frames (wedge top that I will turn down). I understand that the super needs to be level side to side. Am I on the right track?.

  13. Hi Kevin;
    Thank you for the wonderful site. I am planning on going foundation less with my new hives this year. I have a question ,though. I lost a hive last year (my first year in beekeeping) and have a lot of foundation drawn out and full of pollen. Should I use this together with my foundation less, or is there another way to feed the bees the pollen?

    • You can slot it in every other frame in the new hive, this will help them keep the foundationless frames straight, then rotate them up and out as soon as the foundationless frames are nearly full.
      Do you know why you lost the previous hive? You might not want to reuse the comb if it is contaminated.

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