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Converting Langstroth frames to foundationless

There are several ways to convert your Langstroth frames to foundationless frames. The basic problem with any foundationless system—including top-bar hives—is to get the bees to build comb the way you want it. The way you want it is simple: one comb per frame, each parallel to the other, so that you can inspect and manipulate individual frames.

Now, try to convince your bees of that. Here are some ways:

No matter which system you use, be sure to go all the way to the ends of each frame. If you discontinue the ridge or wax line too soon, the bees may curve the ends of the comb into an arc.

If you start a new hive with all foundationless frames, it is a good idea to check on it periodically to make sure the comb is going in the right direction. If you catch a crossover early enough (before it becomes hard and brittle) you can sometimes gently detach the miscreant part and bend it back in place.

Converting to foundationless is actually easier than starting from scratch. The easiest conversion technique is to alternate drawn frames with foundationless frames. The bees will draw the new comb parallel to the existing comb in order to maintain the proper bee space. With this method you don’t even have to make ridges or wax lines. (If you have used Randy Oliver’s drone trapping frames, you have seen how well this works.)

When you use foundationless frames, the bees will eventually connect the comb to the side and bottom bars as well, which will actually give you enough stability to use an extractor. However, extracting in this way should be limited to medium- or shallow-depth frames.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Clockwise: beeswax in a top bar, popsicle sticks forming a ridge, a drone trap with no foundation in lower portion, a wedge turned sideways forming a ridge. Photos by the author.

Comments

Henry Laughlin
Reply

Do you have a recommended source from where I can buy top bar frames for my Langstroth brood chamber. I would like to make them foundationless. Thoughts?

Henry Laughlin

Rusty
Reply

I think any standard Langstroth frame would work. You can use the whole frame or just the top portion. If you use the whole frame the bees are less likely to connect it to the sides of the brood box.

Phillip
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Note that not all standard Langstroth top bars will hold the craft sticks. I tried it, but the groove in my top bars is too wide. I had to use a strip of corrugated plastic instead.

Jason
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I just made up a bunch of foundationless Langstroth frames and I used paint stirring sticks to fit into the groove of the top bar. They are free at Home Depot, Lowes and other stores. I also cut them exactly in half length wise, that way I can get more out of each paint stick, and it leaves about 1/4″ hanging down out of the groove. Will be placing them into the hives soon!!

Rusty
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Paint sticks probably work well because they are a bit thicker than popsicle sticks.

Suzanna
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I’m getting my first bees this year in 5 frame nucs on deeps. I’ve been reading about the benefits of foundationless frames and am trying to decide whether to tackle this as a beginner. Since my bees will arrive already established on large cell frames with foundation, I’ll have to transition them to foundationless. Do they need to be regressed to a smaller cell size foundation first, or will they eventually make the smaller cells on their own?

Rusty
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Suzanna,

It sounds like you’ve done your homework. I wish I knew as much when I first started. To change your bees to foundationless you do not have to regress them first. Once you provide them with empty frames, they will build the comb size they are comfortable with. At first the cells will be very similar to the cells they grew up in, but as the generations pass, the cell size will revert back to what is natural for the bees. Regression is important when you try to force your bees onto small cell foundation because the bees are too big for the cells. Care must be taken to bring them down to size gradually. But as long as they are building their own comb, they will make it the right size.

Suzanna
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Thanks Rusty – I was hoping that was the case! I’ve got book learnin’, but not a lot of hands-on experience, and it’s great to have blogs like yours and forums where I can find mentors.

Sam
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I just started with a 5 frame Nuc 3 weeks ago. Based on a recommendation by a friend, I alternated the drawn frames with new foundationless frames (I put a one inch strip of wax foundation attached to the wedge as a guide for the bees). In about 2 weeks, the bees had pretty much drawn out comb on my new frames. A week ago I added another deep box, with 10 new foundationless frames. Today after 3 weeks I saw that the bees started building comb on the middle frame in the new deep box, but from the bottom up. Since there is no guide strip at the bottom, they drew out comb offcentered and connected the adjacent frame. I simply scraped the new comb away from the bottom; took a honey filled frame from the bottom box and put in the center of the upper box.

Will this motivate them to draw combs from the top down on the adjacent frames?

Rusty
Reply

Hi Sam,

Whenever I start new foundationless frames, I always alternate them with already drawn frames otherwise you can get some pretty strange arrangements. If you have comb started on the ten lower frames, you could take five of them and alternate them in the second box. If you do that, just try to keep your brood together in the center as much as possible.

I have no idea why they go from the bottom up, but I’ve seen them do that too.

Sam
Reply

Thanks Rusty! I did some reading and came across this idea of phasing out the old frames with foundation that came in the nuc. The beekeeper suggests adding 2 new frames at a time to the center of the bottom box seperated by a drawn out frame and moving two of the older foundation frames to the center of the top box. Eventually you move the old ones away from the center and take them out of the box as you keep adding new frames to the bottom box.

What is your opinion about this approach?

Rusty
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That should work great, Sam. There’s actually a name for that procedure, although I can’t think of it. It makes all the difference in the world to have drawn frames on each side of an empty one. Bees dig parallel.

Suzanna
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Hi again, Rusty,
I’ve been using your suggestion of alternating frames with and without foundation, and it has been working fairly well in my medium supers. Now I’d like to transition out the deep frames that came with my nuc that are on foundation. I’m thinking of using the technique Sam mentions to move them out toward the edge of the box, and then removing them from the box. But I’m confused about when to start moving and removing them. Are you looking for frames that are newly hatched and basically empty?
Thanks for your advice,
Suzanna

Rusty
Reply

Suzanna,

Yes. The bees often don’t use the frames on the sides. So as you add frames in the middle, you can usually find frames on the side that are empty (or nearly so) and these are the ones you remove. Then you wait for the bees to draw out the foundationless frames, and then once again, remove the outer frames and add new foundationless ones near the center.

Sarah
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I am using that method now and it is working beautifully. Thanks for the information!

Halley Hart
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Hi there. I just read your piece on converting from Langstroth to foundationless. I am getting standard 5-frame nucs and will put one in a 10-frame and then one in an 8-frame hive. If I put the 5 frames in the 8 frame hive there will only be 3 empty frames. When you put in a new nuc, how long do you have to keep the frames together before you put a foundationless frame in the middle? I also read somewhere else that you can take 2 middle frames (with brood) and place them in the top box (middle of it) and the bees will naturally move up to take care of the brood. I am just wondering about timing? Do you have any recommendations?

Rusty
Reply

Halley,

Never put empty frames (with or without foundation) in the middle of the brood nest. If you want to start adding frames, do it where the brood nest ends, at the edges of the laying area. Pyramiding (putting brood in the upper box) works because you put the brood frames directly above other brood frames, keeping all the brood together such that the cluster can cover it all at once. Before you pyramid, make sure that there are enough nurse bees to thickly cover all the brood. The timing is based on how many bees you have to do the work. If you can’t see the brood because of all the bees, that is a good time to do some careful manipulations.

Gona Kikbuty
Reply

I recently (2 months ago) bought foundationless frames from Walter Kelly bee supply. I just put 10 in my first medium expansion box (1 week ago) and the ladies have not built any wax up yet. But some of the suppliers are realizing that not everyone wants foundation.

Robert
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I saw the foundationless frames at Walter Kelley as well. Would you recommend either dipping the “guide” in wax before assembly or painting on wax to encourage comb building?

Rusty
Reply

Robert,

Whenever I’m going foundationless, I use some type of wax guide. You can dip it or paint it, either one.

Bill R
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Rusty,

Late coming upon your post about foundationless frames. I started converting using an inch wide wax foundation and then welding in place with melted wax. The bees are doing a great job drawing out the comb. An additional hint in helping the bees draw down straight comb is to level the hive (right to left). As always, I enjoy your posts. -Bill

Lisa
Reply

Really informative post, as are the comments and suggestions. We are starting with two nuc colonies in May, and I am strongly considering going foundationless with these two hives. I’m curious how I can get the ladies to build upwards into a medium super that is foundationless? I’m wary of sticking a medium super with foundationless frames right on top of the deep, as I am worried they would create some wacky comb. What about starting with one or two empty frames with follower boards on either side of them? Any thoughts on how this might best work?

Rusty
Reply

Lisa,

Use comb guides or starter strips and the bees will probably do fine. I’m afraid if the follower boards are too close together, the bees might think the space is not big enough to start comb-building.

Mark Gowan
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Great information. I plan on converting my new hives to foundation less this year after losing my first hive last year, in part to varroa. I hope that this conversion helps!
thnx.

Tim Steele
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Getting ready to start some new bees. Should the foundation-less frames also be in the hive body or just the honey supers?

Rusty
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Tim,

This is a complex question. If you want to grow bees of natural size, then foundationless in the brood box is a good thing. Some people like to use large foundation in the honey supers because (1) bees are not raised there but (2) large cells seem to increase honey storage. However, if residual ag chemicals are a concern to you, then you may want to go foundationless in the honey supers as well. Personally, I try to go foundationless wherever possible, but I will use starter strips of foundation to get the combs started in nice parallel rows. All of these things are personal preference; the bees can handle whatever you throw at them.

Flatliner
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I am starting beekeeping for the first time this year with two packages. As hokey as this may sound, my primary reason for doing this is to improve the bee population in my area. As a result I strongly desire to go foundation less, small cell, and treatment free from the beginning. My question is will I need to adjust frame spacing in the deeps over time? I am building my own hives and am a very experienced woodworker so I am able to build the hives however I want without concern for how they match commercial designs.

Rusty
Reply

Flatliner,

No, I don’t believe you will have to adjust frame spacing. However in my opinion, starting treatment-free from packages is not particularly easy. Also, I’m not clear if you mean you will be using foundationless or small cell. If you go small cell, you will have to do some amount of regression. With foundationless you can skip the regression step.

Flatliner
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It’s highly likely that I am fundamentally misunderstanding something and that just dawned on me. I am planning on going foundation less and want smaller bees. Some of the reading I have done discusses building slightly narrower frames. (Bush farms) I was thinking that is what determines cell size but it isn’t, is it? Over time, will the bees adapt to the ideal size on their own?

Rusty
Reply

Flatliner,

I suppose you can go with slightly narrower frames but I don’t think it is necessary, especially when starting out with standard-sized bees. Honey bees are very flexible when it comes to the depth of their cells, especially those that will contain honey. If you look at a piece of honey comb that was built on wavy foundation, you will see some very shallow and some very deep cells.

As for cell diameter, honey bees build cells that are commensurate with their size. Larger bees build wider cells. But foundationless bees are not being told how big to build the cells, and they will be slighter smaller at first, although if you look at foundationless combs, you will see many sizes. This is a result of them building to their specifications instead of ours. If you continue to use foundationless, the size of your bees will gradually decrease.

Forcing large bees to build on small-cell foundation is more difficult. It requires several generations of bees to downsize to normal. I think natural cell size (foundationless) is preferable to small-cell foundation for that reason. Instead of forcing them to build smaller you are allowing them to build smaller. IMHO.

Flatliner
Reply

Thank you for the info! Love your site.

Robert Wittwer
Reply

Randy,

My bees arrive in a little less than three weeks and I am itching to go. I had a bit of a panic moment this weekend though. I have some older beeswax to run a bead on my foundationless frames but I have no idea where it came from or if it is contaminated. Is there a reliable source for healthy beeswax you could recommend to me?

Flatliner
Reply

Rusty, I am getting close (about 3 weeks) from having my bees. Do you know a source of clean/healthy wax I can use to coat the guides on my foundationless frames? I have some wax but don’t know where it came from or if it is contaminated.

Rusty
Reply

Flatliner,

You can get organic beeswax at Natural Apiary.

Flatliner
Reply

Thanks Rusty, with my bees arriving in less than 3 weeks, do you know a source in the US?

Rusty
Reply

That is the address for Natural Apiary U.S. My beeswax came in two days. If you don’t like that, Amazon carries Natural Apiary as well.

Richard Ralph
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I have 4 deeps & 4 mediums. Originally I was going to use foundation, but after reading a lot of blogs, I think I will go foundationless. The beekeepers in Indiana have not bee very supportive on this method.

I make model airplanes & have a lot of balsa wood. Can I use balsa sheets as started strips on foundationless frames? Balsa wood is not as dense as tongue depressors or paint sticks.

Rich

Rusty
Reply

Richard,

It should work just fine. It doesn’t need to be dense.

trisha
Reply

Hi Rusty! We are new to bee keeping and just received our first package bees to put in a Langstroth. I want to go foundationless in every hive body from the beginning. Our association is not very pro foundationless. Is this possible to do with a brand new colony? Can I do this foundationless in deeps? Will I need to put wire across to help support (I’m hoping not) the comb? We have strips across the top of the frames to help get them started. Any other advice is gladly welcome. Thanks!

Rusty
Reply

Trisha,

1) Yes, you can go foundationless with a new colony.
2) Yes, you can do it in deeps.
3) You only need wires if you want to place the frames in an extractor. The wires help keep the combs in place while they are spinning.

My advice it to watch them carefully until they start building comb. Without foundation to get them started, a new colony is more apt to abscond, especially when the wood is new.

trisha
Reply

Thank you so much, that definitely clarifies things. I’ll keep an eye on them.

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