Keeping bees without foundation can be difficult at times. Depending on genetics, bees can build comb nice and straight, or they can build a cathedral of cross comb. A cathedral of cross comb only they could admire, because it is a mess for a beekeeper to attempt to "fix". It has the potential of being horribly discouraging to the new beekeeper, manipulating frames and breaking apart comb. Attempting to help, all while destroying the bees precious hard work and trying to maintain composure through a shaken confidence. It's a tough way to start and a difficult way to learn beekeeping.
There are a few tips that we wan't to share with you. Through our struggles, we have gotten pretty good at keeping bees without foundation. It's taken some definite trial and error, but it does get better.
Buy the right frames for the job
You can buy "foundationless frames" with an edge built into the top bar. They aren't necessary, just a convenience for the beekeeper. We prefer medium sized, grooved top bars and solid bottom bars for foundationless frames like this. Medium because we don't use deep frames in our operation. Groove top because it's one less step to not remove and attach the wedge to the top bar. Solid bottom bar because it is one less place for small hive beetles to hide. Having the solid bottom bar is enormously helpful in keeping the population of small hive beetles down.
Collect your starter strips
You are creating a low point for the bees to start building comb from. Make it too short and the bees will ignore it and may build comb from the edges of the top bar. Make it too tall and the bees will waste the space below the top bar and above the lowest point on the starter strip. The perfect size for us is a cheap paint stir stick, scored lengthwise and split lengthwise. Walmart has cheap ones, which split easier. 3 paint stir sticks will be enough for 4 frames. 3/4 stick per frame.
Build your frames
Assemble your frames just as you would a regular frame. Place wood glue on all four joints (get the good glue (Titebond 3), you will appreciate it later), and one or two nails on each joint. Drive a nail through the sides of both side bars and into the top bar. Staples are better than nails at holding and nails or staples driven in at an angle have even better holding power.
If you bought wedge top bars, snap the wedge off and nail it to the spot it came from, turning the point down first. This will serve as the low point for the bees to build from.
If you bought groove top bars, place a dab of glue in a couple spots along the top bars groove. Break your stir stick and slide it into the slot, filling the length of the groove with paint stir sticks. You can use starter strips in a wedge top bar too.
If you are not interested in building your own foundation less frames, check out our online store. We carry medium and deep foundationless frames that would work perfect for you, made the way we use them for our bees.
Should you wire the frames?
We ran fishing line through the eye holes, the whole length of our first frames. It turned out to be unnecessary. Our thought was that the additional support would give the frame the strength to hold together in an extractor. In some frames, the bees built around the fishing line and in other frames they incorporated it well. In both frames, they spun nicely in the extractor without the wax breaking. The trick to extracting foundationless frames is to start spinning slowly, and only extract frames that have comb attached on at least 3 of the 4 sides of the frame.
Level your hive stand (not optional)
Your hive stand has to be level on all sides. Why? Because if it isn't you will really, really, really, regret not doing it. Besides living a life with regret, the bees will build a cathedral of cross comb in your nice new boxes. Bees build comb by festooning from the guide you made for them. Festooning involves hanging, hanging involves gravity. If your hive is not level, you bees will hang from the nice starter strip you provided and attach the comb to whatever is below it. You do not want your bees to attach their comb to the bottom bar on the frame beside where they are building from.
Preventing cross comb
Ahhh, the tricky part. Best case scenario is that you already have at least 5 frames of already formed comb. What do you do if you don't? You can either buy a nuc,with 5 comb frames in it, sweet talk a beekeeper for some, or buy 5 frames of foundation. The reason you wan't something else in there besides empty foundationless frames, is the frames of comb or foundation give your bees another guide.
They prefer to build comb parallel to the comb next to it. Sandwich the foundationless frames between full frames with comb or foundation and your in business. Check the frames every 7-10 days for cross combing. When you add a box, pull 5 frames of full comb from the box below and add them to your new box. Replace the empty spots with foundationless frames, creating more sandwiching of empty frames. Rinse and repeat as necessary. Check often and remove errant comb or press it into place.