I just love natural comb and from the start of my beekeeping years experimented with the odd super frame without any foundation to watch the bees build natural comb. This interest has grown and now run all my framed hives foundationless and I think the bees benefit from it.
I have made some observations regarding the difference in hives with foundation and natural comb.
For people that dont know foundation is a thin sheet of wax embossed with worker cells and reinforced with wires to help support the comb during inspections. The wax is fitted into the frames and held in place by a strip of wood and a few panel pins. The bees chew the wax and draw it out following the embossed worker cell pattern, they also add some of their own wax to finish the job. The result is a very flat frames of cells where the bees can store pollen, honey and raise worker bees (female bees) and virtually no drones (male bees). In the case of the most popular hive in the UK the national hive, this can result in 11 frames within the brood box all virtually identical and not what the bees would chose given a choice.
In framed hives without foundation the bees are given the same frames. The frames wired to support the combs during inspections. These wires are two horizontal wires threaded through holes drilled through the sidebars pulled tight and held in place by two pins . The bees when building the comb incorporate this wire in the comb. This year I found that perhaps the bees prefer strong fishing line to wire and are more likely to incorporate it within the comb as they can sometimes go round the wire.
To get the bees to start the comb straight I give them a short 20mm starter strip of foundation without this the bees could get very artistic and the frames will be unable to be removed, failing the starter strip a triangular strip of wood fitted to the frame and wax rubbed on the point works well.
We have to compare the hive with foundation and one without where the bees are left to build comb for themselves although encouraged to build it straight. The biggest noticeable difference in the hive without foundation is the quantity of drone comb and approx 20% drone comb with the result of 1000’s of drones in the hive. Compare this to the hive with foundation and the bees are restricted to raising drones on bits of brace comb and even resorting to chewing away areas of foundation to have a small patch of drone comb. The result is only a few hundred drones and often the beekeeper removes this drone comb as they are told that drones are bad for the hive. The bees to me are less stressed with all the drones in the hives and in hives of foundation always seem desperate to raise drones. Stressed bees are not good for the happy running of a colony.
Beekeepers are taught that as drones dont forage or do any house work within the hive then they are only a drain on the resources of the hive and it is best if the numbers are kept low.
So why have the bees evolved with this quantity of drone comb and 1000’s of drones? To me it’s down to reproduction and survival of the fittest something that has contributed to the development of this fascinating insect over time. We all think of swarming as reproduction within the hive and if they split into two or even three with a cast swarm and all three survive then their genes in time may dominate over other hives. But the bees also want to send out into the world a good strong contingent of drones with the intention to mate with passing verging queens from other hives and by doing so pass on the genes of their hive.
We as beekeepers also need a good healthy drone population as it’s only the strongest and fittest drones that will mate with queens and if we have a small population of drones the less chance we have of getting the best drones. It has been noticed that over the last few years beekeepers are experiencing poor mated queens as they fail early or not even mating. Perhaps a link with what I see a fear of drones in hives and greatly reduced numbers and poor mated queens exists. Weather also plays a part in queen mating and if she has to fly further in bad weather the greater chance of failure.
The drone comb in the more natural hive is random with some combs having no drone comb and others 70% but in total throughout the hive, nearly always 20% drone to 80% worker and no two frames the same. It is obvious that the drone comb is mostly placed towards the edges of the nest and that is not by chance and calculated by the bees. The bees although happy to have a healthy population of drones also see them as dispensable and will eject the drones throughout the season if things get tough and not just at the end of the season. If a cold spell hits the hive sacrificed first is the drone brood as its often at the outer edges of the nest whilst the bees cluster to keep the worker brood alive. The bees at good times feed the drones but when times are tight and low nectar they stop feeding them and it is common to open a hive and see the outer frames covered in drones keeping well out of the way of the worker bees almost looking scared and forced to feed themselves.
As the worker bees see the drones as dispensable, this has led me to my own theory regarding varroa management. We know that the varroa prefer drone brood given the couple of extra days it has to reproduce within the cell. This preference has led to some people been scared of drone brood in the hive and as a result concentrates the varroa in the hive onto the worker brood and then more likely to damage and weaken the colony.
I was told by a few as I have so much drone brood in my hives I will have a varroa factory and to date it’s not materialised, I still have varroa but not a noticeable increase and I would argue on a few hives I have seen a reduction, but its early days.
As the varroa prefer drone brood over worker brood drone culling is a good way to reduce varroa in hives. In hives of foundation beekeepers often place short or empty frames into the hive and as the bees are keen to get up to 20% drone comb they produce a big block of drone comb and when capped the beekeeper removes the frame and cuts way the comb along with it varroa. It is possible to cut away blocks of drone comb from my foundationless hives but can be messy and I think the bees do it for me but although silently.
My theory – As the bees see the drones as dispensable I believe once they have a good healthy drone population in the hive they will uncap and remove any drone larvae they think are sick and a drone larvae will give off signals from the cell if all is not well. The bees remove the developing drone along with the varroa that has targeted the drone over a worker.
My theory may be bonkers or it may just give the bees a way of keeping the levels along with my minimum treatments at an acceptable level. I have not seen it yet as I have not looked that hard but if I am right I should start to see gaps in drone brood as the bees remove drone larvae from the hive and something I will be looking for next year.
Another noticeable observation with foundationless frames that may tie in with my theory is the bees attach the combs to the top and approx two thirds down the side bars but stop and the rest is unattached apart from the odd bit of brace comb. If the bees are pushed for space they will fill this gap but prefer not to. It is thought that the bees communicate through the comb and as the hive is a world of darkness vibrations through the comb makes sense. Frames with foundation touching the timber frame all the way round would dampen any vibrations through the comb. Actually in hives of foundation it is common to have one or two frame’s where the bees chew away the foundation (to the annoyance of a few beekeepers) so as to have at least one comb not attached to the bottom bar. Although I dont know but its suggested that it’s this comb the bees prefer to do the bee dance? Another advantage to the bees not attaching comb all the way down the frame is to aid movement of the bees around the hive especially throughout the winter.
So I ask myself why do we have foundation if the bees are fully equipped to build comb and when the conditions are right faster than drawing out foundation. To me producing wax and comb building is equal to producing honey and the bees benefit in health for doing so and I benefit in watching them.
We give them wax foundation and recycled wax at that, recycling in the modern world is good but I doubt good for the bees. I am not aware of any testing of UK foundation but in the US it has been tested and found to contain a long list of chemicals, some the beekeeper has introduced in the form of treatments and some the bees have carried back to the hive when out foraging. These chemicals in the wax builds up over time and the more it is reused the greater they get and has to be damaging to the bees.
When the bees need to build comb they chain themselves together this helps raise the temperature interestingly the chains also reflect the size of comb the bees are trying to construct and the young bees who are the more prolific wax producers move to the top of the chain and tiny wax cells are moulded into the comb. As the bees start to build comb they start at one two or three points along a top bar and in time almost seamlessly merge the combs together. If the weather takes a turn for the worst or a nectar flow comes to an end they will stop but the comb they have started however small will be 70% usable for the queen, pollen or honey so it’s not a wasted effort. In hives of foundation I have rarely seen this and it’s not un common for a frame to be half drawn to be of no use to the bees.
I recognise that I can see a couple of advantages in foundation. First it does give you very flat even frames and inspecting is easy and fast as all the frames are almost the same. Foundationless frames are very similar but the combs are not perfectly flat and you run the risk the bees may build comb across the frames one day and its best to keep an eye on the bees when starting a fresh box of frames. Also as each comb is different requires a bit more time to read it and as the comb is not always attached to the bottom rail and part of the side rails the bees love to hide queen cells in this gap so at times of swarming extra care should be taken but only sharpens the beekeepers skills.
Is the foundation an aid to the bees or the beekeeper? To me defiantly the beekeeper and no great help to the bees. I can understand the beefarmer using foundation and even the hobby beekeeper with many hives and is obsessed with honey but the moderate and small hobby beekeeper who is fascinated in the bees and their interactions should consider foundationless beekeeping for the sake of the bees health and personal satisfaction with the added benefit of saving a few pounds. You may also see an improvement in your bees as I did and as a result they may produce more honey than conventional hives as happy less stressed bees make for good workers and that’s something that works for us to.