Frame Rehab

Old frames now foundationless

Re-working old frames can be tedious, especially if you attempt to put new foundation in them. This task is greatly simplified by switching to foundationless. The most difficult part is getting the old comb and foundation out of the frame. After that the wedge board is removed, rotated 90 degrees, and nailed back to the top bar. The majority of excess wax should be scraped from the frame, but after that it is ready to go back into a bee hive.  It does NOT have to be perfectly clean.

I have hundreds of deep frames out there and only a fraction of them have foundation in them anymore. For some reason many regard the use of foundationless frames as an advanced beekeeping topic. Nothing could be further from the truth. As with everything in beekeeping there will be times that observed results may vary. I have had boxes get cross combed while using foundationless frames, but the vast majority of colonies take to them quite well. In my use of foundationless frames there are a couple of rules that when followed give good results, at least in the brood chamber.


The first rule is that all colonies with foundationless frames must be level especially ACROSS THE FRAMES. When level, the frames will be hanging perpendicular to the ground and will be plumb. Since the bees use gravity to orient their combs it is more likely to be constructed within the plane of the frame.

The second rule is that NEW boxes of foundationless frames must to be added UNDER the already occupied boxes. That’s right. All that is needed is to place a deep box with frames at the bottom of the stack of Langstroth equipment  and the bees will work down through it just as if they were in a tree working down.

no wire

The third rule and one that I believe is missed by most using foundationless frames is….. frames must not be moved around within the boxes.  Do not swap them out, move them around, or checkerboard them. In my observations I have noted a pattern. As the colony moves down through the cavity they make specific sized cells consistently within the nest. Normally worker sized cells are placed centrally, in the middle of the colony. In my colonies this is typically the center 4-6 frames. Frames on the periphery of the colony will generally have a much higher percentage of drone sized cells.

Wedge top to foundationless

Several years ago when I began experimenting with foundationless frames they were placed between already drawn combs. At the time I was also more prone to move frames around inside boxes during inspections. It was noted that many times when foundationless frames were applied in this fashion a large percentage of the cells were drawb to drone size. This was particularly true when foundationless frames were installed ABOVE the brood chamber between already drawn frames.

When using foundationless frames the best method is to set-it and forget-it. Place an entire box of undrawn founationless frames UNDERneath a box that is already occupied with bees and comb. This is more similar to what they would be doing inside a tree. Typically a colony begins it’s life in the TOP of a cavity and then spends it’s lifespan working DOWN. As they work down they will centralize the worker sized cells in the middle of the box of frames and construct much of frames 1&2 as well as 9&10 in majority drone comb. 

If varroa are a problem within the colony, and were more prone to laying their eggs in drone cells it would stand to reason that majority of varroa activity woulf be in these FOUR frames.  This would affect a percentage of thousands of drones while allowing workers to have less pressure from the mites.  This is only a hypothesis.  There is a mechanism that Feral colonies are using to overcome mites, SHB, and all other bee maladies.  Experimenting with foundationless frames is an example of an experiment to determine if natural nest structure could be one such mechanism.

My observations have shown that bees take to foundationless frames easily when I follow these simple rules. I DO NOT use any type of starter strip, or apply wax to foundationless frames. These activities are totally unnecessary.  I feel that wiring them is also a waste of time. If the rule of applying boxes UNDERNEATH the preexisting ones is adhered to, eventually the TOP box becomes filled with capped honey and must be removed. When this comb becomes heavy with honey and begins to sag bees affix the bottom of the comb to the bottom board of the frame. I have been extracting deep foundationless frames for the last 2 years using a Maxant Chain un-capper and Radial extractor. They have extracted without failing.  

The time for Spring hive manipulations quickly approaches. Have you formulated your plan for 2017 yet?
What will you experiment with this year? If foundation-less frames are on your list feel free to ask questions.

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11 Responses to Frame Rehab

  1. Ben Fern says:

    When adding the box of empty frames, how long do you wait before you start checking to see if they are building straight comb? I love your approach and am going to start doing some of your methods this year. Really excited to see how things go! Also, do you do this to all of your hives and then just remove the top-most deep for honey extraction (thus rotating out some of your deep boxes from the brood chamber)? Are you using foundation for your supers or letting them build that naturally too? Sorry, so many questions! Thanks for all of your good work!!

    • Jason says:

      To tell you the truth Ben, I don’t “check” on it normally. If you have everything level they usually do a really good job. I have had comb jumbles and in those colonies I have just waited until they work on down into the next box, then removed the cross comb box filled with honey. This was crushed then dumped into my capping spinner.

      It takes several years for the bees here to build and occupy all 3 deeps. After they do I watch for most of the brood activity to be in the bottom two boxes. When this occurs I add another deep UNDERNEATH the stack in the Spring. I plan to wait until after the locust bloom to pull those deeps and extract them. Hopefully along with some supers.

      I primarily use foundation in the supers. In each super I will use 2 foundationless frames. For every 10 frame box, when using old drawn comb, 2 of the 9 frames installed will be foundationless. When setting new foundation for every 10 frame box, 2 of the 10 frames installed will be foundationless. I will have a post about that after I put some supers on here during the next couple weeks.

      Good luck and don’t mind the questions…. That’s how we learn stuff….

      • Ben Fern says:

        Thanks for the info, I really appreciate it! This is the year we are switching to natural comb, so I have to balance my curiosity (and wanting to see in the hive what is actually happening) and my “let’m be” approach.

      • Ben Fern says:

        One more question along those lines, do you worry about an “off” flavor of the honey when you extract old brood comb? Thanks again for your time!

        • Jason says:

          My taste for honey may weird….. I like bolder tasting honey. I have never experienced off-flavor… It’s generally darker, and more robust, which I like. Black Locust is what got me initially excited about honey, but I have found I prefer darker rich honey flavor.

          At some point that top deeps gotta go be extracted. When your top deep and much of the second deep are full of honey it’s time to get rid of that top one. Do whatever you want with those combs. At most they are only going to be 3-4 years old where I live. People who eat my honey consistently tell me that it is the “best honey they have ever eaten”…. So no complaints on flavor.

          How long would you plan on leaving those frames in there?

          • Ben Fern says:

            I’m a newer beekeeper (this will be my 3rd year), so I was planning on cycling out brood comb every 3-5 years. I have just heard different people talk about their concerns with extracting the honey from old brood comb, especially if you crush it, because they felt the presence of old cocoons in the comb caused it to have an 0ff-flavor. I’m happy to hear that you extract it with good results, because I thought it would be a good idea to just add a full deep of empty brood combs to the bottom every year so that you get new natural comb, keep the queen moving down into new comb, and then super on top if they are doing well. We are planning on putting some hives at my cousin’s organic farm and I don’t want to check on them all of the time. I’m trying to find ways to be the least invasive as possible and still get some results. Your website is just what I was looking for! I’ve learned a ton!

          • Jason says:

            I am not a fan of cycling it out. I take brood frames out when it’s at the top, after they are done using it. It doesn’t take that long. If at that time you want to do do go for it. At this time I think it’s best to leave the nest architecture intact. I observe when I swamp things out it sets them back.

            They don’t need it every year. At least where I live it takes most of them 3 years to fully occupy 3 deeps to the point of needing another. When you do that it’s best to have help. It’s one reason I am experimenting with 8 frame deeps… to cut down on the weight a little. Then I add another deep of foundationless frames to the bottom of the stack. Having holes in the deeps shows where they are at in the stack of hiveware. There will be posts on that this Spring as I get into colonies. I have several that should have had a deep added last year. Those were part of different experiment. They will have new deeps this year.

            When I am out supering colonies I will take pictures of what I am doing. There is a very effective passive method that can be used to keep the queen out of your supers. I have been using it for 4 years now and I’m sold.

            Focus on sourcing local feral bees, place them in good locations, and LetMBee… Your organic farm should be a good location.

            I will have hiving directions as the season progresses… and hopefully some new videos this year.

            Thanks for the questions and good luck.

  2. Richard says:

    Jason, thank you for posting this. I am new this year and have ordered 2 nucs from 2 different treatment free beekeepers. One very close to where I am and one about two and half hours away. (This is just in case my traps are not successful.) I have 2 traps completed and have material to make 4 more. I have been struggling whether or not use wire or fishing line or nothing. I had about decided to go half fishing line and nothing in the rest. Based on your post I think I will go with nothing. Building my frame jig today. Got 200 to assemble. Thanks again.

    • Jason says:

      As long as you DO NOT flip the combs away from you while you are inspecting them to look inside the cells there is no need to wire or use fishing line. Always hold the frame and turn it like you would your steering wheel in your car. If handled in that way and you’re not under the influence of alcohol comb will stay inside frames really well.

      I have 100 frames left out there, but no boxes to put them in. 200 isn’t really that many, but I’m about burnt out on assembly and painting for this winter. Good luck… Get them together… Bee Stuff is gonna be happening soon! I like pictures of full traps. If you send them to me I’ll post them on the Facebook Page… You’re identity does not have to be disclosed on there….. 🙂

      Thanks for reading.

  3. Tom Sultenfuss says:

    Jason, thank you for your blogs.
    Caught a late season swarm last October. As I told you at the time, lots of pleomorphism in the workers. Well, now it’s spring here in Tampa Bay Area, and this hive looks strong. It’s producing enormous numbers of drones. These guys are huge, easily twice the size of the rather small workers.
    I have been hive-gazing the last few days, and some of the workers are throwing drones out, dragging them to the end of the landing board and tossing them to the ground, some of the drones dying there, others flying off.
    I’ve never seen this before the fall.

    I second your advice to get traps out early. I caught a second swarm this year in early February, and that’s considered way too early even here in Florida.

    • Jason says:

      Here, when colonies experience frosts in early Spring after they started making drones they will sometimes kill them. Even drag larvae out. I have also noted that smaller colonies, that aren’t making bunches of drones are less likely to tolerate them being around in early Spring. I had reports of drones being kicked out from other beekeepers here several weeks ago. I don’t think you have anything to worry about. Healthy colonies make a lot of drones. Biologically it only makes sense. A well adapted colony of bees will have greater reproductive capacity…. MORE DRONES…

      Everyone living South of here makes me jealous with their “early” swarm reparts.. I cannot imagine starting in February! Might just have to move..

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