After Laurie attended Gunther
Hauk’s Biodynamic Beekeeping workshop several years ago, we started using
“starter strips” (1 or 2 inch deep strips of foundation wedged in the top bar)
instead of foundation, and really liked the results, really liked not having to
buy as much foundation, and found there was no need for wiring. Last year, we started using Popsicle sticks
glued in the top bar as “comb guides”, which is the best solution we have found
(as starter strips can warp, sag, and get detached from the top bar, etc). A new deep box can be built and filled with
frames ready for the bee yard, and there is no wax inside to melt, warp, tear,
or be attacked by moths. There is
perhaps a little more time needed management wise to get this established, but
it seems well worth it to us. The comb
guides cost us 3 cents per frame…”Jumbo Craft Sticks”.
Several people have told me that
they tried to do foundationless but only got drone comb. Bees will naturally raise about 10-15% drone
brood. In a hive where only worker foundation
is used, the bees are always squeezing _some_ drone brood here and there. They
might use the drone comb they have more often when they have a limited amount,
trying to reach that 10-15% population. Given a totally empty frame, they will try to make
up for the lack of drone comb all at once.
If the beekeeper removes this comb and puts another empty frame in it’s
place (in an attempt to keep the drone population down, and perhaps to remove
varroa), they will again draw drone comb. Instead, if the drone comb is
migrated towards the outside of the broodnest _and_ an empty frame is added,
they will eventually start to draw brood comb…and nothing is more beautiful
than fresh, freely drawn comb.
Unfortunately, regression is slow in a pure foundationless system. The bees start out as LC, and it takes many generations and a constant feeding in of empty frames into the broodnest for them to regress (years). We determined that we needed to regress our bees in order to grow our apiary….and still didn’t want to use foundation.
What we ended up doing was to install packages onto Honey Super Cell (HSC), which is fully drawn plastic artificial comb that has a 4.9mm cell size. Just as with all plastic comb, the bees can be reluctant to occupy it when new, but will use it eventually if there is no other option. There should be no space for them to draw comb, and there should be a queen excluder to contain the queen (in case they decide they’d like to abscond) until brood starts hatching. Bees born in these 4.9mm plastic cells will draw small cell comb, and bees really start to build comb at about 8 days. With the above in mind, we restricted the new packages to 5 frames of HSC in a deep box with a follower board confining the bees in one half of a deep hive body. About a week after the first bees were emerging, we started to add in one foundationless frame at a time, moving any with larger cells towards the outside of the box, and moving the follower board over to make room.
This method requires less feeding (as the bees aren’t expected or allowed to build comb in the first month). One does need to be careful of overfeeding, as, if they plug the HSC with sugar syrup, there will be no place for the queen to lay. When the bees do start to build comb, try to have them build it in the broodnest for raising brood, and not for honey/nectar storage, as the cells they build for that (especially during a flow or when feeding) are even larger than that of drone comb. This requires keeping open comb available for nectar, and an empty frame in the broodnest for the bees to draw out.
Using 5 frames was purely a cost saving measure (HSC costs $110/20 frames delivered), and we would really recommend installing a package on 10 frames of HSC, and 20 frames per package would make a first year honey crop much more likely (and with minimal feeding). HSC is reusable (and can be “powerwashed”). Personally, we believe that wax is best for the bees, and we see HSC as an instant regression tool rather than as an alternative to wax. We hope to rotate the HSC frames out of our hives soon so we can reuse them.
I don’t think that any significant evaluation of our success can be made until at least the spring….but things seem to be going well, and we are very optimistic.
Honey Super Cell can be purchased directly from the manufacturer www.honeysupercell.com.