In its basic form, frames and foundation are very simple, but, as with almost everything in beekeeping, different people have different ways of doing things and with these options comes conflicting information.
First, let's talk about frames, how to use them, the different size options and when to use fewer or less than the recommended 10 frames in your box. Then, we'll talk about foundation, how and why you might want to go foundationless, using plastic versus wax foundation and my tips for the beginner beekeeper to make getting started easier.
What Is a Frame?
Inside a Langstroth style beehive, you will see hanging frames. Within these frames, the bees build honeycomb. The frames can be placed in the hive empty (what we call foundationless) or you can put foundation or wire inside the frame. Foundation can be made of plastic or wax and has a hexagonal imprint for bees to build honeycomb off of.
The standard Langstroth hive body holds 10 frames, but you can opt for the 8 frame box which holds 8 frames. Most people will choose the 8 frame box if they can't lift heavy equipment. We have a blog post about the differences in hive bodies here if you'd like more info about the pros and cons for each.
Frames are usually made out of wood or plastic. I prefer the wood frames. Even though they do require assembly, they last a long time. Even if one breaks, its often on the ear and a $7 pack of frame savers will fix at least 10 frames for you. Plastic frames come with foundation already built inside them. I've found that these frames crack after a few years and once the comb is no good, you need to throw away the entire frame. You can't pop out the foundation and reuse the frame.
Photo of a frame of honey with no foundation.
How to Use Frames
To use a frame, you slide it into a box so that it hangs from the sides. See the video above if you're unsure about this.
But here's where it gets a little tricky. When putting frames into your box, there's an order to where the empty frames go versus the frames that already have brood in them (brood is what we call baby bees) and the frames that have food in them (honey and pollen).
If I was to buy a nuc or package of bees, I would put 10 frames in my 10 frame box. The frames with baby bees (brood) would be in the center of the box and the food (honey and pollen) would be outside the brood frames. The rest of the frames would be empty.
As it warms up, and the bees get used to their new home and you see them active outside the entrance, you can start to move the frames inside the hive around so there's 2 empty frames between your brood and honey frames.
Once those frames are being filled in with honeycomb, you can take any remaining empty frames and put them between the frames of brood so that the frames of honey are the very first and last frame in your hive body and the brood is in the center.
When adding a honey super to my beehive, if I have any frames with drawn out comb on them, I like to add a few into my box. Otherwise, I put 10 empty frames in my super and place that on top of the hive.
How Many Frames Do You Put In Your Hive Body?
Some people put 10 frames in their 10 frame box. Some people put 7-9 frames in their 10 frames box. Why do this? If given the option, bees will often build very fat comb if it's going to be used to store honey, so if you put 7 or 8 really wide frames into a 10 frame honey super, you get about the same amount of honey, but you have only 7 frames to extract and uncap versus 10 narrower frames. This is how the frames on the flow hive are.
Another time you might want have less than 10 frames in your box is if you're finding it difficult to remove frames from your brood boxes.
If your bees fill the hive with a lot of propolis and you're having trouble pulling that first frame out of the box without damaging comb, you can put just 9 frames in your box instead of 10. You then space out the frames a little bit so the gap in between frames is the same for every frame (Eyeballing it is fine. There's no need to be too exact.) and it's a lot easier to remove that first frame. When inspecting a honey super, it's not as big of a deal if you damage the comb, but when checking a brood box, you want to be more careful.
How to Use 9 Frames In a 10 Frame Box
If you want 9 frames in a 10 frame box, first you need to put 10 frames in your box. Once bees have created comb on 9 of those frames, you can take the 10th one out. If you only put 9 frames in to start, but these frames don't have comb drawn out in them, it's common for bees to build cross comb (This is when the bees connect comb across frames). Your other option is to use frames that are wider than the average frame purchased from a beekeeping supply website. A farm I worked for made their own frames that were wider. It made harvesting honey a lot faster. When you do this, you use 9 wide frames instead of 10 narrower frames in your box.
The key is to make sure there is no more than 3/8" gap between frames when the bees are building honeycomb. If there is a larger gap, the bees may build cross comb. Once the honeycomb is built, you can increase the gap between the frames.
Although it is easier to manage 9 frames in a 10 frame box, when it's cooler out, it's best to keep 10 frames in your brood boxes, so the bees have an easier time keeping the brood warm.
Using 11 Frames In a 10 Frame Box
Alternatively, you can try 11 frames in a 10 frame box. This not only gives you one extra frame for brood, but makes the brood even closer together, keeping everyone warm with less work. In order to do this, you will have to cut down the width of your frame, if it is a standard frame you purchased at a beekeeping supply website.
What the Beginner Beekeeper Should Do
I just laid out a few options for what you can do with the frames in your beehive. What should you do?
Beginner Beekeeper Tip! As a beginner, I recommend putting 10 frames in your 10 frame box or 8 frames in your 8 frame box and that's it! Do this with every box.
Once you're comfortable with beekeeping, try spreading your frames apart to encourage a wider comb to make honey harvesting faster or cut down your frames and put 11 in your brood box to see if it helps the bees in the colder months. Using more or less than 10 frames in your 10 frame box is what I would describe as advanced beekeeping and something to experiment with later on. It is by no means a requirement.
The primary size difference for frames is their height. You have 3 different depth boxes and so there are 3 different size frames to go with these boxes. When purchasing frames, make sure you know the size of the hive boxes you bought. The frame height should be just slightly less than the box depth.
If you want to make it easy for yourself, buy hive boxes that come with frames like this one from Dadant.
Foundation In Your Frames
When you put a frame into your beehive, it can be as simple as putting a completely empty wooden frame into your box. However, most beekeepers choose to put foundation in their frames. First, I'll explain foundationless beekeeping which is the act of using no foundation in your frames. Then I'll get into the foundation.
I don't use foundation in my hives, but I have worked for bee farms who do. I'm a big advocate of foundationless beekeeping because I see that my bees prefer foundationless frames over frames with foundation. I figure if the bees prefer it, that's what I'm going to do.
Why Go Foundationless
The benefit to foundationless beekeeping is that there's less equipment to buy and assemble, you're not using plastic in your hive, you let the bees build their cells to be whatever size they want them to be, you can see into the cells easily when you hold it up to the light because there's no plastic sheet in the center (makes it easier to spot eggs and larvae), it's easier to harvest the comb with no plastic foundation inside it and you can cut parts of your comb out.
Reasons why you might want to cut a piece of the comb out of your frame is if you see a queen cell that you want to put in another hive. You can do this without having to take the entire frame out. If there's small hive beetle slime on a frame, you can remove that section without having to throw away the entire frame.
Small Cell Size for Treatment Free Beekeeping
Some treatment free beekeepers say that allowing the bees to build their honeycomb without foundation allows the bees to build the cell size much smaller.
Smaller cells means smaller bees. Smaller bees take fewer days to hatch. When bees take fewer days to hatch, the female varroa mite, who is in the cell with the baby bees, laying eggs and mating, has fewer days to have her babies.
Will this solve your varroa mite troubles? Going foundationless, alone, won't make your hives mite free. I, personally, don't use foundation in my hives, and they still have mites. But, I do think it's best to let the bees build their cells whatever size they want them to. Some cells are large and some are small. I don't like to give them a set pattern to work from. Is it better for their health? As far as I'm aware, there are no studies proving this theory to be accurate, but I prefer to let the bees make their hive as close to what it would be in nature as possible.
If you listen to my podcast episode with Michael Bush, you'll hear him say that foundationless beekeeping along with 11 frames in a 10 frame box is the key to small cells and cutting back on varroa mite levels (not eradicating them completely). I plan to try this out in the Spring. I'll let you know how it goes. My bee farm is in Kona, the home of some of the largest queen breeding operations in the world. Between all the commercial apiaries in my area and the lack of frost (which means incredibly high varroa mite levels), I am doubtful that this will be the key to not having to treat, but I'm always eager to try out new theories.
Photo of a frame with cross comb. We cut the comb that was going the wrong way and held it in place with rubber bands. The top photo is what it looked like when we first put the rubber bands on. The lower photo is the frame a week later.
How to Go Foundationless
In order to make sure the bees don't build cross comb (honeycomb across frames), there's three things you need to do:
- Make sure your hive is perfectly level.
- Put 10 frames in your 10 frame box (or 8 fames in your 8 frame box).
- Put 1-3 frames of drawn out honeycomb in the box. I see it as giving the bees a plan for how the hive is supposed to look. These frames can have honey in them or be empty from last year's harvest. If you already have a super on your hive, grab a frame of comb from the box below and swap it with an empty frame.
Some people choose to take the extra step and put a 1-2" strip of wax foundation or hang popsicle sticks in the top slit of the frame so the bees have a starter strip to build off of. If you don't have any frames of drawn out comb, adding a starter strip to at least a few frames is a good idea to prevent bees from building cross comb. I have a large chest freezer full of frames, so I never have to do this.
Some people thread wire inside their frames. This step is way too much work for me! However, I also harvest mostly comb honey. If you use an extractor and you're having trouble with your honeycomb breaking during extraction, using wire is a way to prevent this.
I don't put a starter strip or wire in my frames. It's way too much work for me! If I see cross comb, which isn't often but occasionally happens, I cut a slit at the top of the frame, push the comb where I want it to be and put a rubber band around the whole thing to keep it together. Here's a short video if how I do this.
If you plan on using an extractor to harvest your honey, plastic foundation is the easier way to go.
It gives the honeycomb support so you can spin the frames without the comb breaking. Do you have to use plastic foundation if using an extractor? No, but there will be some frames of broken comb if you put foundationless frames in your extractor.
How to Use Plastic Foundation
Plastic foundation is super easy to use. Your frames should have a slit in the top and bottom for you to pop them in fairly easily. The only thing you really want to do is make sure the foundation is waxed. You can buy waxed foundation or you can melt beeswax and paint a very thin layer of wax onto your foundation.
This sounds simple, but wax is thick, dries fast, is hard to clean up and destroys whatever you melt it in. The only benefit, I've heard, to waxing foundation yourself is that you know where your wax came from. Beeswax is very porous and the wax used on these waxed pieces of foundation could have all kinds of chemicals in them. Whether or not this bothers you is for you to decide.
I'm probably not the best person to explain wax foundation to you because I just don't see the point to it. If you use an extractor, go with plastic foundation. If you don't want to use foundation, but also use an extractor, use wire in your frames if you have trouble with the comb breaking. If you don't use an extractor, don't use any foundation at all. I don't see where beeswax foundation fits into the puzzle.
Recommendation for Beginner Beekeepers
If you're just getting started, I recommend not using foundation in your brood boxes. Leave the frames empty. Or if you really want to use foundation, put waxed foundation sheets in some of your frames and leave some empty.
For the honey supers, if your beehive came with foundation and you plan on using an extractor, use plastic foundation.
If you plan on harvesting your honey using the crush and strain method, don't use any foundation.
You will hear a lot of opinions on all these foundation options. Personally, I can't say any one way is right or wrong. I see it as the beekeeper's preference.
Don't be scared that you're going to choose the wrong option. Pick what works best for you and don't be afraid to experiment with different setups once you're comfortable with beekeeping.
The Flow Hive Foundation
If you have a flow hive, the only boxes you'll have to decide whether you want to use foundation in are the brood boxes. The honey super with the flow frames have the honeycomb already built. Bees don't build comb in the flow frames. The comb is plastic and the cells split when you harvest the honey. This is a whole new level to foundation. It's not just foundation but the whole cell.
Want to learn more about the parts of a hive? Check out our other articles:
- 5 Reasons Why I recommend a Langstroth style hive for every beginner beekeeper.
- Langstroth Beehive Lid Options Explained
- The Purpose to an Inner Cover.
- Deep, medium, shallow. The boxes of a beehive explained.
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