In our latest installment of our beekeeping journey, I am going to describe why we decided to use a wax foundation in out frames, and show how we installed the wax foundation in frames.
It is not technically necessary to put a foundation in your frames. Bees are perfectly capable of building their comb without it, however, there are benefits of using a good foundation.
It takes somewhere in the neighborhood of 7 pounds of honey to make one pound of wax, so by installing foundation in the frames, the bees have a good start on making their comb. This allows them to store more honey than they would if they did not have the “head start”. I must add that some beekeepers believe that while bees use more resources to build wax than make honey, they build comb faster on foundationless frames then they do on waxed foundation. I don’t have enough experience to comment, so I deferred to the knowledge of those teaching me and have enough foundation for the first 3 medium hive boxes. This is what the bees need to eat during the winter. Once they get their food, I plan on experimenting with both foundation and foundationless frames. That way I get experience first hand and my bees still get to eat this winter.
Foundation, especially the crimp wire foundation I chose helps give strength and stability to the comb. This allows honey extraction by the use of centrifugal force which allows the honey comb to be reused the next season (which increases the size of next year’s honey harvest.) Without the reinforcement wired frames give the comb, spinning honey extractors cannot be used, so the crush and strain method of honey extraction must be used. Foundation also is especially needed in the south as heat will soften the wax and sometimes the comb partially melt and collapse from the frame. Foundation, (especially the crimp wired foundation) helps the comb resist the heat.
A third more technical discussion about foundation involves comb cell size. Most beekeepers, both commercial and hobbyist, believe bigger bees help get a larger honey harvest. While that is undoubtedly true, some beekeepers believe that smaller more natural sized bees help with resistance to mites because the bees are too small to be a good host to the varroa mite. Bee size is tied to cell size, and most commercial foundation is imprinted with a larger cell size so that the bees use those imprints and make larger sized combs. If you want large bees, you need to use large cell foundation. If you let the bees make their own combs, they will naturally regress and make smaller and smaller cells until they get back to natural sized.
I like science, and have no problem using modern solutions to problems, but my preference is to stay as natural as possible, especially if I don’t understand the benefits and drawbacks of modifying things. Therefore, I decided to use small cell foundation, so my bees will make honey comb that fits right into their natural cell size range.
I decided on foundation in my frames because:
1. It lets me get more honey per pound of nectar, so I can ensure the bees store enough to last the winter
2. It makes a stronger comb that I can reuse so next year I have an even better harvest
3. Installing foundation on frames gives me something else to put on youtube…
Installing the wax foundation inside the frame is pretty straightforward; however, there are several methods we will discuss for KEEPING the foundation inside the frame,
1. If you have not already done so, cut/snap out the prescored “wedge” from the top bar of the frame.
2. Lay the frame on your work surface with the wedge side up.
3. Gently lift a single wax foundation sheet from the pile, making sure to pull off the paper that keeps it separate from the others in the pile.
4. Gently (I keep saying that word, but you will see why when you buy foundation) insert the edge of the foundation in the grooved bottom bar.
a. If you are using crimp wired foundation, make sure the crimp wired end is at the top bar end, and the crimp is facing up, allowing the foundation to rest inside the top bars cut out section where the “wedge” once was.
5. Reinstall the wedge into the top bar, so that the crimped “L” shape of the wires are between the top of the wedge and the top bar, and the wax portion of the top of the foundation is between the side of the wedge and the top bar.
a. See video if confused
6. Gently, tack the wedge to the frame. I use a brad driver instead of a hammer, and place one small brad in the center of the wedge upward into the top bar, and a singe brad on each end of the wedge.
EMBEDDING THE FOUNDATION
Once the foundation is installed, you need to do something to keep the center from softening in the heat and collapsing. On the side bars of most commercially bought frames will be two small holes. The most common way of keeping the wax foundation inside the frame is to place wires through the holes across the frames.
If you are going to use wire to hold your foundation in place, you will need to place small brass grommets inside the holes so that the taut wire does not rip out of the soft wood. The wire need to be tight against the foundation. Once the wire is attached to the frames and is tight, it needs to be embedded into the wax. There are two methods of doing this. You can either use electricity to heat the wire so that it melts into the foundation, or you can use a spur embedder.
A spur embedder is a small toothed wheel attached to a handle. The wheel is rolled over the wire, and it pushes it into the wax. A spur embedder is cheaper, but messier, and you have to be careful not to stray off the wire.
An easier, if more expensive way, is to use a short burst of electricity to heat the wire. Commercial electric embedders are available, but some use a electric train transformer. This method is easier and faster, but you must take care not to over charge your wire or the heat can cut through the foundation.
I choose a more DIY route, and used a trick I learned at the NABA bee school. Instead of messing around with wire, I bought a couple hundred bobby pins, and simply inserted a bobby pin in each hole and made sure they gripped the foundation between the two legs of each pin. A single frame uses 4 bobby pins, and is able to be completed in this manner both cheaper and faster than either of the two wired techniques. I like this way as it takes no additional tools, but I do worry about the bees build foundation around the pin as it does not sink into the foundation as with the other methods.
For the more visual learner, please look at the video below for a more concise explanation.