Weaving the Light- An Ode to Working Foudationless

“The force that makes the winter grow its feathered hexagons of snow, and drives the bee to match at home. Their calculated honeycomb is abacus and rose combined. An icy sweetness fills my mind, a sense that under thing and wing lies, taut yet living, coiled, the spring.” - Jacob Bronowski.

Those hexagon halls so carefully designed, row by row, up and down, with the upmost precision and attention to detail- containers to house the essence of all that is, for the honey bees who construct them. It is the fabric of their colony's life, woven from the divine rays of the universe, skillfully pieced together by each bee as she hums along with the song of the hive. This creation is the epitome of sacred geometry, for the hexagon is not only one of Nature’s most prolific and perfect shapes, but also the most efficient and least wasteful shape; no other shape can create more space with less material and it is also the strongest of shapes. For the honey bee, beeswax is the foundation of everything- the single most important creation of the hive, even honey cannot match it. Without the comb, there can be no colony and without the colony there is no honey.

Beeswax is built of and made by the honey bees. They do this by producing wax platelets from glands in their abdomen and from this they form perfect hexagon cells. I have heard the wax they produce referred to as the heart of the hive and connective tissue that weaves together the essence and soul of a colony. Honey bees live on this wax comb. It is a part of their nursery that cradles their young, from egg-to larva-to adult. This comb is their stage, where they communicate abundance with intricate waggle dances, and it is their pantry where they carefully curate their forage of nectar and pollen.

The bees' comb, is sacred, I truly BEE-lieve this. It is the epicenter of their creation and as an apicentric beekeeper who practices ethical and sustainable hive management methods, it is only good and right, that I bow to their instinctual desire to construct comb the way they were meant to. I run foundationless frames so they can be the creators they're designed to be.

This is a pound of beeswax. Honey bees must eat near 6-8 pounds of honey to produce 1 pound of wax!

As I continue down this path of bee guardianship, growing more apicentric with my beekeeping practices, I am also finding myself with a newfound appreciation of and awareness for just how precious beeswax truly is. The creation of beeswax is a tremendous undertaking for the honey bees. A single worker bee can only produce about 8 scales of wax in a 12 hour period. A colony requires just about 1,000 wax scales to make a single gram of beeswax for their comb. The hexagon shape allows them to maximize on storage space while minimizing the quantity of wax needed to construct the comb.

This is an average harvest of beeswax. Some years less, some more, and most always goes back to the bees!

Today, being a rainy day, afforded me some time to prep supers and brood frames for the coming season. I am a, "Less Is More"type of beekeeper. In my own apiaries I do not use anything but pure beeswax comb built by the bees themselves. There are no plastic foundations, no man-made wax foundation and no wires in my wax foundation. My colonies run on foundationless frames. This also means that most of the wax I acquire with each of my honey harvests, gets reused when preparing my frames. This is both an ethical and sustainable way to manage bee colonies. Any wax I have left over after that, I use in lotions, leather balms, encaustic medium for my art, and furniture polish I make. If I should have any left after that, I then offer it for sale.

I prep all of my frames in a very easy manner, supers get a jumbo wood popsicle stick dipped in wax and then waxed into the groove on the top area of the frame, right smack in the center. Larger brood frames (deeps) get the same treatment, only instead of popsicle sticks, I use wood paint stirs (you can use a half paint stick for each frame instead). If I run out of paint stirs, I substitute two popsicle sticks. I've become rather chummy with the paint department at Home Depot and they do often "donate" to my beekeeping cause. Though, when I am in need of an exceedingly large amount, I do buy them!

Frames ready for waxing!

I consider myself an ethical beekeeper and practice sustainable, bio-dynamic methods that keep my bee colonies living in as close to a natural way as possible. I used to call myself a "natural" beekeeper, but that label is a bit of a misnomer. There really is nothing "natural" about managing a honey bee colony in a beehive in the manner in which, we humans prefer (or rather are regulated) to keep them. Since beehives in most areas of the US and even many other countries are required to have movable frames for inspections, keeping bees in tree hollows or other areas where they "naturally" thrive, isn't possible or realistic.

There is also that ever pesky detail that honey bees are not even native to North America and should, by all accounts, be properly managed so as to reduce the likelihood of colonies swarming and becoming feral within the wild. There are studies that suggest honeybees are increasing the competition among native pollinators for dwindling forage sources, as well as subjecting other struggling native bee populations to diseases associated with managed honeybees. But, there are also just as many studies claiming this is not the case. Jury is still out, and I do have my opinion about that, which I'll likely touch upon sooner or later. For now, I will say, if every person stopped using pesticides/herbicides and other chemicals on their properties and planted more beneficial plants (like native plants and beneficial pollinator friendly plants) in their gardens and landscapes- I truly BEE-lieve all of our pollinators would begin thriving again.

Having said all of what I just did, I still believe that allowing my bees to thrive upon their own constructed natural comb brings them just one step closer to living "naturally" under managed conditions. There is a lot of good research suggesting that natural comb is better for the bees as well as supporting hive immunity and disease resistance. I have seen less disease and fewer issues with Varroa mites and small hive beetles simply by allowing my bees to thrive on their own comb with cells built to the size they prefer.

Rendering some wax down to prep frames.

Please do not mistake this as me saying, "I have NO Varroa mites, No illness, or No SHB, etc," because I still get those and I still treat. I just do not get them as bad as I did when I worked with foundation. I fear mites will always be an issue for beekeepers for now on, unfortunately. I also live in an area where nearly all my neighbors run hives and our bees are constantly exposed to each other's. Some of us are strict about how we manage, some are not, and some are treatment free. It is just the way it is here and as such, I am always ready to battle disease, mites, etc.

I choose to use natural remedies first but if those prove inconsequential, I will treat more aggressively. I do not, however, use antibiotics in my hives at all. I like to say that I must be doing something right, as I haven't lost a single hive to Varroa related issues or other health issues in three years. However, I have lost a hive and nearly three others to a massive sink hole during heavy rains that ran through a portion of one of my apiaries (no thanks to the groundhog who created the large tunnel system there).

Frames ready for waxing, propagated cuttings ready for planting-so much to do.

It is my opinion that working foundationless with comb built by your bees isn't any harder than using foundation, once you get it going and become skilled at pulling frames for inspection. It takes awhile to learn the proper techniques and you will mess up more in the beginning because foundationless is less forgiving than working with foundation. It will be more time consuming as you need to work a lot slower and carefully in your hives. Many new beekeepers are encouraged to start out on foundation and are steered well away from working foundationless.

For those who are interested in going foundationless, I am planning an upcoming blog about how to transition a colony from foundation frames to drawing wax on foundationless frames. This is something one can do gradually over a season, or a few seasons. If working with foundationless frames is the way you want to go, and you want to learn more about ethical sustainable practices where comb is natural and no plastic or man-made wax sheets are utilized, I definitely recommend finding a beekeeper who practices these methods and ask if you can learn from them. Sometimes you can find an awesome beekeeper who will mentor you for free, or for a slight fee, and sometimes even for labor exchange/apprenticeship- as in you help them in their bee yards! The later happens to be worth its weight in gold, and is how I learned.

The last of the frames drying... They're upside down, in case you didn't realize that!

Here's another BEE-WARE bit of advice, if you choose to work foundationless it is best to make sure your hives all sit as level as possible. You will end up with wonky wavy comb construction if your hives are not level. Depending on how severe of a lean your hive has, the harder it becomes to work in your hives. It is nearly impossible to lift out wonky comb when its wavy and uneven and things DO get REALLY MESSY really quickly!

When working in your hives, be sure to pull frames up as level as possible and never severely tilt them, tip them upside down, or drop them- even if you are using wire as support. BE WARNED- Natural comb will break, either under the weight of tipping/tilting it too much, or due to sudden impact from being dropped. This is the one saving grace for working with foundation for many beginners and why foundation is often recommended over foundationless.

They're all waxed and ready for the new season!

This is a topic I could literally write a book on and one that I will be writing more about it in future posts. There is just sooooo much I haven't even touched upon and I have barely scratched the surface in this post. There are many different methods beekeepers utilize when working foundationless. I encourage you to do your research, learning as much as you can before diving all in. I have my way and it works for me. Others do it differently and it works for them. You may find your own method that works for you. As long as it is working and you're getting good results, keep on pluggin' along! Don't be afraid to ask questions or ask for help! The world of beekeeping has many inspiring and truly helpful souls, do not hesitate to reach out to someone! I welcome any and all questions, so don't be shy!

Before I wrap this up, it is worth mentioning that I do remove my brood comb every 2-5 years, or sooner if there is a health issue. I never keep comb in the hive past 5 years. I will use old comb in swarm traps and this never fails me, and I always catch swarms each year. The comb in my supers only see one season unless they are part of the winter food supply I intend to keep on through the winter. I have been seeing an increased demand for comb and chunk honey in recent years so I produce towards that need. Of course, I utilize wax in some of my own endeavors outside of beekeeping.


Sources & Additional Reading:

Four Simple Steps to Healthier Bees Common Sense Choices to Keep Your Bees Alive

The Great Divide: Foundation vs. Foundationless Beekeeping The Lifestyles of Wild and Healthy Honey Bees

Standard Methods for Apis mellifera Beeswax Research

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