A Good Foundation is a Wonderful Thing

Honeycomb harvest

So much in life runs more smoothly if you have a good foundation. Didn’t the fairy tale about the 3 little pigs teach us that? Anyway, nothing is as dependent on a good foundation as a bee hive. Or at least one managed by humans who have some intention of extracting honey.

For the non-beeies out there I’ll give a very brief description of a bee hive. Hives are made up of stacked boxes containing hanging wooden frames. On these frames the bees make their comb. The frames have wire running across them and should have a foundation hooked to that wire. The foundation is basically a template of a honeycomb so the bees know where to build. They build on the foundation and the beekeeper can lift out a single frame without disturbing the rest of the frames, inspect the comb on the frame, look for pests, disease, brood or honey cells. Because of the spacing of the frames (a pretty precise measurement based on bee size and discovered ages ago by a German beekeeper) the bees tend to keep the comb running up a frame, not between frames. They fill the comb with pollen, honey or eggs (only the queen lays eggs). Because the queen is slightly bigger than the other bees, it is possible to use a screen to keep her in the brood box(es) and stop her from entering boxes planned for honey (supers).

Which is enough information so that it should become apparent what problems can arise if a beekeeper sticks frames in a box without foundation on them. Bees build comb willy-nilly and separating the frames is impossible without cutting through the combs. In the honey chamber this means a lot of honey gets lost as it pours out into the hive. In the brood chamber a lot of eggs get destroyed. In both boxes a lot of bees get squashed as the comb is cut which is sad, though not really much of a problem when you realise a colony has about 20-30 thousand bees. Unless, of course, one of the bees killed is the queen which is a disaster.

Inside a hive with foundation-less frames

Moving right along, on Sunday Frank and I went to open the less active hive and immediately realised the honey box had no foundation and we had zig-zag comb. Nothing for it but to cut and destroy. Bees were smoked, the cut comb was shaken to remove bees, bees were flicked off and a sticky, crumbling mess ended up everywhere. Chunks of broken comb fell to the ground, chunks of broken comb made it into a box prepared in advance for any burr comb, chunks of broken comb hung from the frames that were placed into a waiting spare box.

Honeycomb cut between frames

To make a long story short, we extracted 6 of the 9 frames (it should be a 10 frame box but that was the least of our worries) then placed a spare box containing 10 frames with foundation between the brood box and the honey box and withdrew from the battle to fight another day. This left the bees with their brood box topped by a new box with 10 clean frames topped by their old box with the 3 frames we didn’t extract. It left us with 6 frames literally dripping with honey, a box full of beautiful, honey-drenched comb and 30 thousand angry bees who left us alone as soon as we closed the lid and walked away.

Back inside and without all our gear on, we moved on to the honey extraction phase of this operation. It’s normally pretty simple to cut the caps off the comb (the bees put a cap on the cell when it’s full with proofed honey) and then use an extractor (a basic centrifuge) to whirl the honey out of the frames.

Of course uncapping is more troublesome when the cells aren’t all nicely lined up.

Uncapping the honeycomb

And the extractor is far from efficient when the comb is not parallel or even (horror of horrors) layered.

Extracting honey from damaged comb

But we made a start anyway. Then we went to bed worrying whether the brood box was also foundation-less (a huge problem) and if the 2nd hive is in the same disastrous state. We didn’t exactly have pleasant dreams. But then I think our bees were even more worried. When we went to bed, they were still buzzing angrily on the outside of their raped hive.

Bee hive with extra super mid-honey harvest

It was not all doom and gloom – we had our first taste of what is truly delicious honey. We spread honeycomb on freshly baked bread and sat back to savour the fruits of our (bees) labour.

Honeycomb and cheese, perfect with freshly baked bread

Next instalment – Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.


About Laura Rittenhouse

I'm an American-Australian author, gardener and traveller. Go to my writing website: www.laurarittenhouse.com for more. If you're trying to find my gardening blog, it's here.
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47 Responses to A Good Foundation is a Wonderful Thing

  1. We only use wired foundation, and I bet you will from now on!!

    • I thought everyone used foundation and now that I’ve seen what happens without it, there’s no doubt I’ll never leave it out!

      • As top-bar beekeepers we do not use foundation and had one hive with lovely straight comb and another less so. The straight combed hive had top bars with a pronounced ridge to provide a strong hint to the bees. The other was much shallower yet still seemed to build straight until that hot day when we were bungling about and caused some comb collapse.
        Did your foundationless frames have any similar mechanical hint for comb direction? We think Michael Bush breaks off the top bit meant to hold foundation and nails it in rotated ninety degrees down. That provides a ridge which the bees take as a strong hint.
        Then again some bees are just perverse and do not read any blogs or beekeeping literature.

        • I’ve read quite a bit about top-bar hives. I’m interested but not yet sold. I don’t like the idea of always having to remove and crush the comb to harvest the honey. As you might have noticed in the photos of my 2 hives I’ve put on my blog, each hive has 2 supers that are deep supers (identical to my brood boxes). Each super has 10 frames. My bees create masses of honey and to crush all that wax every few weeks (yep, I’m getting honey every 5 to 6 weeks – more than 40 kilos each time) is daunting for me as a honey gatherer and I can’t imagine that the bees would be keen on making that much wax that often. I can return the stickies (the built-out foundation complete with drips of honey left after extraction) to the hive on the same day I remove them and the bees can get right down to the business of storing more nectar.

          The combs I had with their messy formation had nothing to give the bees a hint at how to build so they opted for chaos. It was their home so it was their choice. Until I moved their home to my back garden and cracked the whip so to speak.

          A compromise/experiment I’m considering is something a local beekeeper told me he’s done. That is to try a couple of frames without foundation surrounded by frames with foundation. He says the bees build natural comb in the frames without foundation as if there was foundation, i.e., straight down. This way I could get some comb honey as well as having plenty of honey to harvest with an extractor. I’ve heard that putting a tongue depressor at the top of the frame as a starting guide also works/helps so I might try this as well.

          Then again, if I have that perverse brand of bees you mention, they’ll do what they darned well please anyway!

          • The constant supply of fresh wax is usually regarded by top bar beeks as a feature not a bug but we are learning the tedium of crushing comb after comb. A honey press is on the list of construction projects. And we have heard of a centrifugal extractor that can work with top bar natural comb. Not that we are trying to lure you to the dark side.

            • 🙂 Lure away. I’m still new at this and experimental by nature. I am more careful when I’m experimenting with life forms though. I don’t want to cause too much effort for my colony. I have heard that bees prefer to build up new comb in a top bar hive compared to building onto a sheet of foundation. But once the foundation is built upon, they love nothing more than sticky frames. Not only is their work done, they have heaps of free honey secreted in the comb.(Okay, it was theirs and a very small portion is all they get back, but better than none at all I imagine).

              Don’t get me wrong, I’d never actually turn my nose up at wax. I can use it to make candles (though I could never burn as many candles as I now have wax for) or I can sell it for cool-hard-cash (my favourite kind). I just don’t need so much and I think my bees might.

              I’m now following your blog and will watch with interest when/if you build that centrifugal extractor that will work with natural comb.

              • And we are following yours. We are also very new to beekeeping (one year of everything going wrong and second year in progress with 50% loss) so our blog may be best suited for pointing at and laughing.
                For now at least we are committed to crush-and-strain and intend to build a comb-crusher once we obtain a cheap scissor jack. The alternate extractor is something we have only heard about and sounds just a bit iffy to us for unframed comb. Instead of having the frame sit broadside to the radius (as in your picture) it would be held with the axis of rotation in its plane, top furthest away. This would put less stress on the comb that might break it. It is claimed that this would work with just a top-bar rather than an entire frame. But surely the bottom of the comb could not be left free? There must be some sort of holder?

                • Interesting idea for your extractor. And worth a try if for no other reason than to provide a “point and laugh” post for the likes of me 🙂

                  I confess that I snooped around your blog a bit and there wasn’t much to laugh at – there were a lot of very sad stories about poor dead bees. I do hope you and your bees work something out where you both endure a lot less stres (and death).

                  Right now my bees are doing phenomenally well and so I don’t see any chance of me changing much. I bought 2 developed hives in October, I’ve harvested 96 kilos of honey and 3 1/2 kilos of wax since then with another harvest in coming soon. Right now I’m chanting, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! But I’m watching you and you never know what the future might bring.

                  The forecast is for 39 (103) today – I’m going to turn the mister on my bees to help them stay cool and prevent any honey leakage. The heat is the only problem I have with my hives right now and so far so good.

                  • Beekeeping in Michigan can be a grim business. We are glad you had a look around our blog even if you were more saddened than amused and agree that there is no point in changing what is working for you. If you are feeling experimental, the one thing you might consider trying is horizontal rather than vertical hives for the sake of your back. You could still use frames and foundation etc. although you would probably need to harvest smaller batches of honey more frequently. If you have lots of heavy flows that might get annoying.

                    • Dear me, we’re getting long skinny posts now with so many replies – oh well, such is life.

                      Yes, the weight of the hives is a consideration. My solution is to have my husband do the heavy lifting to save my back. Actually, when one of our 10 frame deep supers is full with honey, we work together to lift it off to get to the super below and we both carry the honey box (that’s a box hubby built to hold the frames we want to rob) during harvest. As we age we’ll probably go to half-height supers and maybe even 8 frame boxes rather than 10. But what we’ve got is the easiest quickest way for us and the bees so it’s working for now.

                      As for harvesting more frequently, the real problem with that is we don’t have our own extractor and it’s a good 30 minute drive to get to the one we can borrow from the club. Add in clean-up pre and post harvest and returning the extractor and there’s basically 1/2 lost with each harvest so we’re keen to harvest in bigger batches less often.

                    • What will happen when single words no longer fit in a column? But we have tried your patience sufficiently in this exchange. There will be other comment threads.
                      It has been a pleasure to make your web-acquaintance.

        • BTW, how hot is hot enough to collapse your foundationless comb? It’s already been over 110F here this summer and I don’t want to even consider foundationless comb if it will start sagging and spilling honey which would kill my bees!

  2. cohutt says:

    As a non-beeie, or perhaps more accurately a wanna-beeie, the 2nd paragraph explained more to me about hive boxes than any thing else I have read.

    Thank you.

    (One day i’ll have a hive or two….. )

  3. Max says:

    Hmmmmmm Bee Therapy…………..sounds promising

  4. Gosh some things can get really complicated. It is clearly not simply a case of getting the bees.. thank you for the information so clearly explained. I am glad I am reading this interesting blog from a safe distance, although that honey does look very tasty…

    • Yeah, what’s up with all these complications in life? Especially in the sanctuary of my back garden. That’s where things should be tranquil and run like clockwork. Oh yeah, Mother Nature lives there 🙂

      You are definitely at a safe distance but honestly, even in my backyard I feel safe. So far, no stings even when we’re stealing all the honey. Of course I am very well protected with lots of layers of clothing, but as soon as I walk away from the hives I unzip and the bees ignore me. They are clearly not predators. And they make VERY tasty honey!

  5. Coop Poop says:

    So a foundation and/or template is optimal for the beekeeper who wants to effectively manage the bees/beehive and efficiently extract the honey?

    I’m wondering in nature, how is the foundation, if any, formed…and how closely does the contrived foundation (the beekeeper system to optimize beekeeping) mimic that found in nature? Also, you mentioned that bees build combs willy nilly…is it possible that there might be an actual rhyme or reason to the natural, unemcumbered honeycomb madness. I’m wondering in the case of a natural honeycomb, what the physiologic idea of “form- follows-function” might actually be?

    • In nature the form is somewhat loose. Hives built in trees tend to be onion like with concentric circles – brood (babies) in the middle, then some pollen with honey on the outside. The brood stays warm, the pollen food is right there at hand and the reserve honey is keeping it all safe.

      But natural hives aren’t quite as neat as an onion because there is still plenty of zig-zagging. By putting them in nice, flat panels in boxes the bees contentedly (or so we assume) follow that pattern.

      Maybe there’s a pattern that we can’t quite see. Sort of like a snowflake – there’s a pattern, but can you predict it?

      • Coop Poop says:

        More info….

        The Beekeepers Quarterly Feb 2008 (Excerpts)
        Towards Sustainable Beekeeping Part 1
        David Heaf Lleyn and Eifionydd BKA, Wales heaf@ifgene.org

        In nature, to retain nest heat, the combs are hermetically sealed to the top of a cavity, such as a hollow tree, and fixed to the walls at the side. This creates cul- de-sacs of warmed air which, because the warm air rises and has nowhere else to go, is retained in the nest. Renewal of the nest air by diffusion and active fanning by the bees occurs only at the bottom of the combs. This natural ‘air-conditioning’ is under the bee’s control. Anything that is done to undermine it is done at the expense of increased activity by the bees. Increased activity necessarily increases the consumption of sugars, the bee’s heating fuel, which it normally derives from nectar or honeydew. Whilst skeps perfectly mimicked the natural arrangement at the top of a feral colony cavity, modern beekeepers undermine nest heat retention by using frames. These leave air gaps round the sides and the tops of the comb, contrary to the natural situation. Some even winter their bees under a queen excluder with a stack of supers on top. This only works in mild climates provided the sugar supply is adequate to balance the excess heat loss.

        For my being made fully aware of the implications of framed beekeeping, I am indebted to books by Johann Thür (7) and Abbé Warré (6). Thür gives a persuasive argument for observing the principle of retention of nest scent and heat (Nestduftwärmebindung) in hive design and resurrects the hive of Abbé Christ (1739- 1813) which was identical in concept to Warré’s. Later in this series of articles I will discuss a type of frame, originally designed for a Warré hive, that minimises violation of the nest heat retention principle and may offer at least an interim solution in countries where the law requires combs to be very easily removable and replaceable.

  6. Coop Poop says:

    By the way, the breakfast looks to die for – homemade bread and fresh honey…that can’t possibly be beat!!

    • I think it is the best use of honey but a close second in honey drizzled over yogurt. And I certainly plan to try baking everything with honey. Some day maybe even brew up some mead. Mead and bread and cheese and honey – positively Medieval.

      • Coop Poop says:


        “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 inbetween 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.”

  7. Coop Poop says:

    I’m trying to comment back on one of your previous comments re: the bench blog post — but for some reason, your blog is not allowing me to post a comment back to you…I shall keep trying!

  8. ‘Beeies’ I love that! Can’t say it, but I still love it. Yes the girls get a bit cheesed off by burglary. Fair enough, if someone stomped into your house in unattractive clothing and raided your refrig and cabinets, how would you feel? Bet you would be buzzing for days!

  9. Coop Poop – thanks for the links and information. I’m fascinated by how the bees will continue along in a straight line if you just give them tongue depressors as a starting guide. Why doesn’t everyone do this. It’s certainly easier and cheaper for humans as we don’t have to buy and then insert wax sheets. In fact I’ve met one beekeeper who only uses foundation on every-other frame and he says the bees accept the pattern and build nice sheets of comb on frames even without foundation. If the bees are happier without any foundation, that sounds like a win-win. I can only imagine that beekeepers worry about the extra time and energy spent building up all that wax (though one of your articles addresses that). We were told it is by far better to empty the frames of honey then replace them back into the same hive (on the same day or the next day at the latest) because then the bees have already built the cells up and don’t have to re-lay all that wax.

    I may try this with a couple of my frames next time I have to replace the wax to see what the bees do. I’m a bit sceptical that they will grow straight comb that won’t cross over between frames but maybe bees aren’t as adventuresome as they seem to me at this point.

    Great stuff – thanks again!

    • Coop Poop says:

      I’ve been able to read a bit of what I linked to you. I think testing various systems can’t hurt. If you go back to the historical info on foundation development, it’s very interesting and somewhat (well…alot) implicated in some of the diseases that are persistently problematic. Lots to do with correct cell size for the bee strain you are working with etc. The bee knows best in truly sustainable, organic systems. Also the efficiency of production and quality of life for the bees has much to do with bee hive structure, which was the motivation for my original question…as form generally follows function in nature…so uncovering or discovering the variables usually matters for optimality…

      As is usually the case with humans, following the money and the industry and regulatory scheme that is formed has much to do with the perpetuality of it all. That is, the dogma of a contrived system. The pet food industry is another example…

  10. ambradambra says:

    Hi, thought your followers might be interested in this: last week I visited the Coal Loader Centre for Sustainability in Waverton. It’s a wonderful place where North Sydney Council has converted a historic site into a community/native flower garden and resource centre. Worth a visit, here’s site link: http://www.northsydney.nsw.gov.au/www/html/3313-about-the-coal-loader.asp

    • What a great initiative. I’m in Willoughby Council and we also have an environmental levy that pays for some great stuff. It’s heart warming to see the popularity of sustainability programs with the public. I had a look at the upcoming events at the Coal Loader and the one on pest management caught my eye.

      • ambradambra says:

        If you’re going, allow plenty of time – the site is quite big and you may want to visit the coal tunnels, wetlands, rock carvings. Or just have a picnic near the breathtaking views of Ball’s Head bay.

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  13. I am a “wish-I-was” beeperson and I found this post really helped me understand about the foundation which hadn’t quite “clicked” up till now.

  14. Pingback: Solar Beeswax Melter | Laura Rittenhouse's Gardening Journal

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