I have been experimenting with foundationless brood frames in the past few weeks, having read about them first on David Evans' blog. Most beekeepers use brood frames fitted with wired worker brood foundation. The benefits of foundationless frames include:
1. The bees produce their own wax. Recycled commercial wax may contain residues of chemicals and pesticides.
2. The bees can decide when and where they want to produce worker brood or drone brood. Generally they will produce more drone brood than when constrained by worker brood foundation.
3. The bees can decide the cell size for worker and drone brood.
4. Comb production is said to be faster if there is no foundation.
5. The queen will lay earlier.
6. Foundationless frames are cheaper to make.
The potential disadvantages are;
1. They take slightly longer to make.
2. The comb is more fragile until the bees have fixed it securely to the sides and the bottom of the frame so the beekeeper has to be careful during manipulation.
3. The bees raise more drones, especially in spring. Probably not a problem but a fact.
Foundationless brood frames require some extra support. This can be provide by horizontal wires or fishing line but I have been using a design copied from David Evans' blog that uses wooden starter strips and vertical bamboo supports. He has experimented with different supports and starter strips and has settled on this design. To make one frame you need a DN4 frame, two bamboo skewers (available from the supermarket) and three wooden iced lollipop sticks (from eBay).
The frame is assembled as normal and the wooden fillet which normally holds in the foundation is nailed to hold three wooden lollipop sticks. I use a dab of wood glue as well.
The three sticks are a perfect fit and define where the bamboo supports will go. Two 3mm holes are drilled in the top bar where the lollipop sticks meet. After a dab of wood glue to the holes the bamboo skewers are pushed through.
Further dabs of glue are applied to the bottom bars and the skewers are held with clips until the glue dries.
All that remains then is to cut the skewers flush with the top and bottom bars.
I put the first foundationless frames in my hives 19 days ago. This is how one of them looks after three days.
Here is a close up of the bees hanging on the bottom of the comb as they make the wax.
Lots of things intrigue me about this. One is that the bees don't care about the orientation of their hexagons. If you buy foundation it always looks like this with horizontal rows of hexagons which have the points at the top.
The evidence from the foundationless frames is that the bees are just as happy if it looks like this with vertical rows with horizontals at the top.
Or like this, on a slant.
They also don't produce the same orientation on each bit of comb, as you can see here.
The next thing is that the bees build drone or worker brood wherever they want. This frame has drone comb in the middle and worker comb either side.
This one is all worker comb. I wonder who decides what goes where?
It is also fascinating that the queen has laid eggs in the cells even though they are not finished. You can see here that she has gone almost right to the edge of the comb.
As comb building continues the bees eventually secure it to the sides, which is where the bamboo skewers provide extra support. Again notice the different cell size and orientation.
This is a frame after 16 days. The left panel has mostly worker brood with drone brood at the bottom. The centre panel is all worker brood. The right panel (incomplete) is all drone comb.
This is the same frame from the other side, so the comb matches on both sides.
And this is the same frame at 19 days, now almost complete.
A couple of important points from David Evans' advice. The hive must be perfectly horizontal. If the frames are not vertical the bees will build comb vertically downwards anyway and so will miss the sides of the frames. And so far I haven't tried putting two new foundationless frames in side by side. I worried that the bees might join across two frames but having seen what they have got up to so far I don't think the risk of that is high. David says the main problem is when the frames don't line up with those in the box above or below, when the bees can build a lot of brace comb. My hives with double brood boxes always have the dummy boards on the same side so I think I am OK there.
The past few days have been warm and sunny with a heavy nectar flow, so perfect for comb building. My first ten frames are all in the hives so I'll monitor (and photograph) their progress at each inspection and report back here later in the season.