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One of the big debates in beekeeping is whether or not to use foundation.  Each method of beekeeping has it’s advantages and disadvantages, so it’s best to do your research before deciding on what is right for you. Read on for all the details on foundation vs foundationless beekeeping.

What is Foundation?

Foundation is a sheet made of plastic or wax that is placed in the middle of the frame.  Foundation forms the base of one honeycomb, therefore giving the bees a guide on which to build the rest of their comb.  It looks like a flat sheet with a hexagonal pattern molded into it.  

Plastic Foundation

Plastic foundation is usually made with polypropylene and then coated with beeswax in order to encourage them to build comb.  This foundation comes in different colors – black, white, and yellow.  Black is recommended for new beekeepers because the dark color helps in spotting eggs.  White foundation is good for seeing honey stores.  

Installing plastic foundation is easy.  Unlike wax foundation, no wiring is required for installation.  All you have to do is snap the foundation sheet into a groove on the frame.  Some plastic frames even already have the foundation molded into it.  

An advantage of plastic foundation is that it is quite strong.  It holds up well during honey extraction and does not sag or warp in warm temperatures.  Plastic foundation is also good for pest control.  Hive beetles that burrow through comb are not able to burrow through plastic.  Cross comb removal is easy with plastic foundation, as you don’t need to worry about damaging delicate wax foundation.  

Wax Foundation

Wax foundation is made completely of beeswax.  It should be used with wooden wired frames.  The wire in the frame gives strength and support to the wax foundation.  This will help when the comb becomes heavy or when the weather is hot.  The wire also helps to keep the foundation attached to the frame during the honey extraction process.  

Bees take to wax foundation better than plastic foundation.  It’s a good, natural way to get bees to draw comb.  Some beekeepers do not like the chemicals that may be in plastic foundation and prefer the natural method of using wax.  

For those who harvest beeswax, the yield of wax is much higher when using wax foundation.  In addition to making beeswax products, you can melt down all of the foundation and comb to make more wax foundation.  If you plan on selling fresh comb honey you must use wax foundation.  

Benefits of Foundation

  • Straight comb – Comb built on foundation is always straight.  Foundation offers less risk of cross comb being built.
  • Less drone comb – Foundation comb produces mostly worker brood and not many drones. 
  • Harvesting honey – Comb built on foundation is strong enough to use a honey extractor and intact comb can be reused.
  • Comes in different colors – Black foundation is useful to new beekeepers because it is easier to see tiny eggs.  

Disadvantages of Foundation

  • Cell size – When building comb naturally, worker bee cell size averages 4.9 mm in diameter, while conventional foundation measures 5.4 mm in diameter.  While some beekeepers think bigger worker bees are better, others believe that larger bees have a shorter life span.
  • Cell pattern – In natural comb, cells are not uniformly sized.  Using foundation forces bees to make cells all of the same size.
  • Chemicals – Some beekeepers worry that the materials used in foundation could possibly lead to chemicals or pollutants in their honey.
  • Foundationless hives can be difficult for new beekeepers.

What is Foundationless Beekeeping?

Foudnationless beekeeping utilizes a frame, but no foundation.  Therefore, the bees are able to build comb sizes as they please. 

Benefits of Foundationless Beekeeping

  • Natural beekeeping – Can keep bees as they do in nature.
  • Chemical free – You don’t have to worry about chemicals or pollutants being leeched into honey.
  • Beeswax- Foundationless beekeeping offers higher beeswax yield.
  • Can produce cut comb honey.  Comb honey is a specialty that can be sold for a good price.  

Disadvantages of Foundationless Beekeeping

  • Comb management – In foundationless beekeeping comb management is important because the bees may not build straight comb.  If cross comb is being built, the beekeeper must push the comb back into place.
  • Cannot use honey extractor – Foundationless frames are more fragile than wired foundation frames, so you may have to use the crush and strain method of harvesting honey.  
  • May not be suitable for new beekeepers. Novice beekeepers that do not have experience with cross comb may have difficulty with foundationless beekeeping.

Foundation vs Foundationless Beekeeping

When choosing whether to use foundation or go foundationless, you should first think about the type of beehive you plan on using.  While top bar hives are primarily foundationless, Langstroth hives usually utilize foundation. 

If you would prefer a more natural method of beekeeping and do not want plastic in your hive, you would likely enjoy foundationless beekeeping over using foundation.  

You should also consider how you want to extract honey when deciding on foundation vs foundationless beekeeping.  If you plan on using a honey extractor, or plan on harvesting a lot of honey, you should use foundation.  If you are harvesting smaller amounts of honey the crush and strain method would work for you and therefore you can go foundationless.  

While going foundationless isn’t usually recommended for new beekeepers, you can start out with foundation and transition to foundationless later on. To do this you can remove foundation from alternating frames in your hive.  This will help the bees to continue to draw straight comb.  The following year you can remove the remaining foundation frames and allow the bees to draw comb.  

Summary

Foundation is an insert made of plastic or wax that is placed into a beekeeping frame.  The foundation allows bees to build comb in a straight and stable manner.  Foundationless beekeeping lets bees build comb on the frame naturally, without a guide.  When choosing foundation vs foundationless beekeeping, consider your type of beehive and preferred method of honey extraction.  

Holly

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