To provide our readers with something of perhaps more interest than the daily logging of no evident changes at the hive we resume our hive design apologetics with explaining why, after choosing a horizontal hive, we chose also to dispense with foundation.

One consideration in choosing tools and techniques is appropriate level of required effort. Sounds nicer than laziness, eh? A hobbyist beekeeper tending a small number of hives might reasonably be expected to resemble more a hobbyist gardener tending a few flower beds or a family plot of vegetables than a commercial farmer whose livelihood depends on successful and efficient exploitation of many acres. The hobbyist can get by with simpler equipment, less-automated procedures, and no worries over maximizing yield.

Another consideration approaches more controversial areas, a preference for organic, ‘natural’ (if one may use that word for an activity that begins with housing bees in manmade accommodations), sustainable methods and a suspicion that some common practices, innocently developed when the industrialization of all agriculture seemed an unalloyed good, may not be the best for the bees or ourselves in the long term.

So let us contrast foundation versus empty frames. Given a fresh sheet of foundation with its stamped hexagons, the bees are provided with the backs of the comb cells and need only make wax to extend or draw out the cell walls. After centrifugal extraction of the honey the empty comb can be returned to the hive. The bees can start refilling it without having to first make wax.

Without foundation the bees need to make all the wax to fill the empty frame. There is a chance that the comb will not be as planar as it would if constrained by the foundation and so more difficult for the beek to remove for examination or harvest. Honey extraction (crushing and straining) will destroy the comb so that when the frame is returned to the hive the bees must start from scratch, making wax for new comb and only then filling it with honey.

So far, we must admit foundation use is sounding attractive. Straight, re-usable comb and bees making honey without first making wax. But let us consider further. Re-using the comb requires a centrifugal extractor. These are expensive. Beekeeping organizations may have one or more available for member use but that involves scheduling and hauling either the extractor or your frames to and fro. Is it worth the fuss for less than commercial quantities of honey? And if we crush and strain to extract then we need new sheets of foundation each time. Furthermore these sheets must be purchased. There is no inexpensive machine to produce home-made foundation on a small scale.

And should we want to re-use the comb anyway? Fresh comb is a pristine, translucent white. As it suffers the traffic of all those dirty bee feet it darkens with whatever they have been into, plain dirt and dust, pesticide residue, disease organisms. All of that builds up over time in the wax. How healthy an environment would our house become if we never washed the floors, vacuumed the carpets, or dusted the furniture? The comb should not be re-used forever and while some older beeks would brag about the age and darkness of their comb today’s foundation-users do typically start afresh every few years. But why worry about keeping track when the bees are ready to make fresh wax each time?

Furthermore commercial foundation is already contaminated. The foundation makers pool source wax provided by many beekeepers. The melting of comb for useful wax leaves behind the worst of the dirt but some residue of pesticides encountered and medications used make it to the end product from all the bee hives that have contributed wax. Enough to be a concern? Perhaps not, but if the bees produce their own wax each time then they will certainly need only deal with what they bring to the hive or their own beekeeper introduces.

Finally we come to the prestamped hex cells on foundation. We will only nod at the controversy over the historically increasing size of the cells (more honey or more Varroa?) and observe that they are all the same size unlike the variety of cell sizes which the bees left to their own devices will produce for different reasons at different times of the year. These are small differences but then the individual bee is a small creature and perhaps these differences have a not insignificant effect. Do we gain anything by interfering?

This has somehow become quite the Phillipic against foundation, which surely seemed a good idea at the time. We conclude that for us the recurring expense and bother of foundation has no benefit worth the possible detriments and so we have argued our way to a horizontal hive with empty frames. We will further argue against bothering with the frames in a future post.

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