How to Make Foundationless Frames

I tried to follow some internet directions on how to start foundationless frames, but they seemed sort of messy and complicated. And yesterday I discovered a pretty good and very quick system and completely clean process that I’ll share here.

Here’s an empty deep frame with a split top…there’s a little groove in the top (the frame in the photograph is actually resting on it’s top) into which the wax foundation usually slips, and that’s where we’re going to install a guide of wax that will give the bees some direction. It tells them where to begin and which way to build their comb.

I have some unused beeswax foundation (the kind with the wire running through it). I bought the foundation before I decided that going foundationless made more sense for me and my bees. It works perfectly for this process. I simply break or tear the foundation along the wire…it breaks naturally there. Then, I lay the strip along the groove in the top of the frame.

I cover the length of the frame with the strips of foundation. Then I place my hand on the wax to soften it a bit.

Once the wax is pliable (and this works much better if it’s done in a warm room), I press a series of popsicle sticks through the wax and into the groove.

The popsicle sticks provide a frame around which the wax will wrap.

I wrap the wax up and around the popsicle sticks. The warmth from my hands softens the wax perfectly and makes it pliable. I mold it and shape it as I go.

That’s all there is to it! I now have a nice little start of wax from which the bees will hang their own comb. This process involves zero mess and requires no additional tools (other than the hive tool I use to chop off a little bit of that last popsicle stick so it’ll fit).

This takes me about 3 minutes per frame…no wax melting, no wax painting, no syringes or application tools. Just a little bit of pre-formed foundation, some popsicle sticks, and the warmth from your own hands will do it.

And I guess I’ll use these tiny leftover popsicle sticks in my smoker. Yep. This is as much about recycling and simplifying as it is about anything, right?

We're Making Some Changes around Here

My weekly Sunday hive inspections yesterday revealed:

Amazons—No signs of the queen yet. I’m choosing to remain patient, though, because I think it’s a little too early to see signs of her post swarm. Amazons swarmed 16 days ago, and it should take about 22-25 days for the new queen to be born, orient, mate, and begin laying.

But I was surprised at how few stores the Amazons had in their hive. They need a queen, and soon.

Tomboys—Loads of new bees hang out and orient to this hive, but the inspection shows no sign of a queen…no eggs, no larva, etc. And there were supercedure queen cells on several of the frames. This really surprised me, but it’s becoming a common story in regards to packaged bees and their queens (another reason to begin using locally raised, hardy, disease-resistant queens. Or learn to harvest the queens raised by my own bees). These supercedure cells (they look a lot like peanut shells) are a sign that the colony either doesn’t have a living queen or they don’t have faith in the quality of the queen they have. They’re making plans for a new one. You gotta hand it to them. They don’t tolerate disfunction.

Girls of Summer—These girls haven’t required much attention at all. They’re the quietest of the three colonies, and though there are some new bees orienting, I thought I’d be disappointed in them. Not so. They are healthy, and the queen is laying in a great brood pattern.

I replaced three old frames in Girls of Summer because the bees are avoiding them…the frames I removed are three I inherited from Chris last year. I replaced them with three frames of fresh foundation, but I wasn’t thinking well when I did that. I need to go back in and replace those three new frames with foundationless frames…frames in which I’ll use popsicle sticks to guide the new comb building.

“Iddee” on Beemaster forum suggests I take one frame of brood and larvae from Girls of Summer (because their queen is a good-laying queen) and put it in Tomboys. After 7 days, he says, I should check for queen cells on that frame; if I find more than one, I’m to cut one out and put it into Amazons. He gave me directions for doing this procedure.

This, Reader, is the direction I’ve been waiting for. It’s time to start managing my bees. It may be the only way I can develop strong hives organically.

I’ll totally keep you posted. With pictures (sorry about no pictures. Yes, I take my camera out there, but it’s cumbersome. And I get so involved in things that I forget).

Marion Ackerman and several of his hives

Mister, I Am Now Your Student

My bee buddy Chris and I took a little roadtrip. Well, we didn’t really go far. He calls, he says, “You wanna go with me?,” I say, “Sure!,” he says, “I’ll be by in about 28 minutes,” and we go.

Today he took me to visit a bee guy. Yard full of bee equipment both in use and out of use. Stacked as high as it’ll go. Garage full of extracting equipment, wax melting equipment, the works. Sheds full of more equipment. More sheds full of more equipment. Beehives everywhere. Kitchen full of honey. I cannot begin to tell you the extent of this.

Marion Ackerman lives and breathes bees. He uses chemicals in his hives, but he could tell by the way I was talking that I’m learning my stuff. No shit. I am. And I intend to learn from Marion Ackerman, too, even though I remain convinced that avoiding chemicals will mean stronger bees for me.

Marion already asked me if I wanted to go with him to look at Simpson’s place. Without a moment’s hesitation I said, “Yes,” and he knows I’m serious.

I told him he might as well start calling me his shadow. I told him I’d see him tomorrow. I may just go pop in on him, too.

Marion Ackerman and several of his hives
Chris Stevens and Marion Ackerman and some bee equipment
Some of Marion Ackerman's not-currently-in-use bee equipment (well, a swarm took up residence in one of these boxes)
A very few of Marion Ackerman's active beehives

Just a Spoonful of Honey

I know, right? Once you learn you can’t get that honey you thought you were getting, it makes that honey unbearably desirable, doesn’t it. What a crazy life.

Why Does Everyone Tell Me, "Patience, Grasshopper?"

Reader, I know I got your hopes up for some honey. But I think our hopes may have flown off with the Amazon swarm.

Yesterday’s inspection shows that all honey production has ground to a halt in Amazons. Because they swarmed, the remaining Amazons aren’t drawing comb or storing honey until their new queen gets busy…and that’ll take a month or so. And by the time she gets busy, there won’t be much blooming. All of this is to say that we won’t get more honey this spring. Who knows about the fall…there’s often a fall honey flow, but not always. We didn’t have one last year.

Though Tomboys and Girls of Summer remain very healthy and very active, they aren’t drawing comb or storing honey in the honey supers. They’re loaded with brood about to be born, though, so if there’s a good fall honey flow, we may get some honey from them. In a few months. This is killing me.

To keep my mind off this disappointment, I think I’ll consider experimenting a little bit. I think I’ll try to take two frames of brood and a frame or two of honey from the deep brood boxes (I haven’t decided which combination of colonies to take this from) and form a new colony. That should be fun, and I’m sure to learn new stuff.

Here are Jay and Jackie who visited the hives with me yesterday. I rewarded their interest with a 5 oz. jar of honey. I hope they treasure it. I’m not giving any more to anyone until I harvest more. And that’s not looking great.

popsicle sticks on foundationless frames

Preparing the Ways

Yesterday I began the process of converting to foundationless frames. I’m going to let the bees do their thing without purchased, pre-formed beeswax. Why? Well, there are good reasons, none of which I will go into here—I think these past few posts have been sort of boring because there’s just too much detail.

To prepare my new frames, I used melted wax to attach popsicle sticks to the bottom of the frames. Hopefully, the bees will use these as a guide with which to build their comb.

I made sort of a mess of things, though. They sell special wax-applying gizmos, but I don’t want no stinkin’ gizmos. I melted my wax in a glass measuring thingy that I’d placed in a pan of boiling water. Problem is, spits of wax splattered the stove and the countertops, and Deb’s freaky freaky about keeping those things spotless. It took me forever to clean it off. I can see already that I’m gonna have to buy a little hotplate and do all this work in the basement at my workbench.

Here are the globby frames. My bees have to be very patient with me.

popsicle sticks on foundationless frames
popsicle sticks on foundationless frames

Also, I mowed a nice, wide path to the bee yard. Poison Ivy in the path had become an issue. Every time I took someone to see the bees I had to ask, “How are you with Poison Ivy?” Invariably everyone stood there like a frozen sissy. So, I mowed the sissies a swath.

new path to the bee yard
Making Swarm Lure

Recipe for Swarm Lure

Those bee colonies that swarm are strong, and I want strong bees. I hated that one of my hives died last year…the hive that died was always kind of slow compared to the Amazons (which I got as a result of a swarm from Chris’s hive). It makes sense that it you’ve got strong colonies, you’d want to propogate them. And there are several ways to do that, though I haven’t done it yet.

Last night I mixed up a batch of swarm lure—I have to give credit to Linda over at Linda’s Bees. She posted this recipe several years ago.

I mixed 1/4 cup olive oil, a wad of beeswax (1/2 of a sheet of foundation), and about 20 drops of lemongrass oil. I heated the mixture together in a glass measuring cup that I placed in a pan of boiling water. Once it was all melted together, I poured it into a small foil bread mold we had in the cabinet. It solidified into a smearable paste in about 5 minutes. I wish I’d had a nice little jar with a lid, but all the jars I have are too deep to keep shoving my hands into.

Today I’ll head out to an unused brood box I’ve set up near my hives and smear it with this swarm lure. It’s supposed to attract bees…apparently the lemongrass oil smells like the queen pheremone; the oil and wax keep the lemongrass oil from dissipating and make the mixture workable.

In the swarm-lure box are 10 frames with beeswax foundation (I’m supposed to have some frames of drawn comb in there, too, but I don’t have any. All my combs are with the bees), so once the scout bees from a swarm come to check out the smell in my brood box, they should find a nice home in a good neighborhood all ready for them to move into.

Later today, I plan to call the police and fire departments in my area and add my name to their swarm capture list…then, if anyone calls to report a swarm of bees, I’m on the list of people who will go and capture it. It’s a great way to increase the number of robust bees.

Making Swarm Lure
Liquid Swarm Lure
Solidified Swarm Lure
Amazons, Tomboys, Girls of Summer

Let's Go, Tomboys and Girls of Summer. This Year, It's up to You

Yesterday when I got home from work, I jumped into my long pants, my long-sleeved shirt, my socks, my boots, my gloves, my hat, my veil, fired up the smoker and visited the bees. I didn’t know if they’d still be pissy with me for my rude behavior the day before, but they were as hospitable as they could be.

The Amazons are no longer going gangbusters since half their colony hit the road in a swarm, but they’re slowly finishing the job of capping some frames of honey. I took one frame from them yesterday and harvested about 2 pounds of strained honey from it. I like the idea of catching the honey very very soon after it’s capped…I can’t think of anything any fresher than that.

Because I don’t think Amazons will be producing a lot of honey this year, I moved one of their supers to Tomboys and another of their supers to Girls of Summer. Those two hives are still bubbling over with energy and enthusiasm, and they fill every box I give them. And because it’s still so early in the season, I think they may make some honey for us this year. Of course, I said the same thing last year about Amazons, and they didn’t draw a single comb in the super I gave them last fall.

Amazons, Tomboys, Girls of Summer

Thinking Outside of the Box(es)

Just when I’ve built up a lot of equipment, my beekeeping philosophy evolves. I guess if you simply “keep” bees, the equipment doesn’t matter so much. But if and when you get more involved, some off-beat equipment makes more and more sense. Figures.

Here’s what I’m thinking: I currently own and use two different sized boxes and frames. I use two 10-frame deep brood boxes per hive, and then, for honey collection, I add however many shallow boxes I need on top of the two deeps per hive.  I want to switch to 8-frame medium boxes and use those for both brood rearing and honey collection.

Why is that, you ask, Reader? Because the bees almost always leave the two end frames empty, so there’s no reason to use 10-frame boxes. And the 10-frame deep boxes are very very heavy when they’re full of honey and bees—they weigh about 100 pounds each. Try lifting four of those every week…you might be inclined to stop raising bees altogether. It’s also easier for the bees to heat and cool and defend a smaller-size box.

Interchangeability is another reason to switch over to medium-sized boxes. If all the boxes are interchangeable, then I can begin to move frames and boxes all over the place to increase colony success. As it is now, I’m limited by how and where I can move my bees and brood…right now, I have to keep shallow frames in shallow boxes and deep frames in deep boxes. If they were all medium depth, it would give the bees the room they need to raise brood, and I could still use them for honey collection…the medium-depth boxes are liftable.

If you don’t often manage or think about how to manage a hive of bees, what I just discussed won’t make much sense to you, so skim over it. Suffice it to say that medium boxes make more sense for the beekeeper, and they’re easier for the bees to manage and defend, too.

But I can’t quite figure out the logistics of how to shift over to the new sizes since all my hives are active and healthy right now (so I’m not gonna mess with them at all)…this is when my creativity often fails me. I have a hard time thinking outside of the box (get it?!) Nor am I sure of what to do with the old equipment. I guess I can hang onto some of it and devise another type of hive. Or I could sell my larger boxes and frames to someone who’s only beginning.

Reader, do you want some nicely painted boxes?

That'll Teach Us to Open that Danged Hive without a Mannerly Puff of Smoke

We’ve had company for a few days, and that got us a little bit off our usual schedule around here. But I put our guests on a plane this afternoon, and when Deb got home we went out to check on the bees. Things seemed calm and happy, and I’m convinced that activity at Tomboys and Girls of Summer was simply new bees taking their orientation flights. They were all sunning lazily on their front porch when we arrived late in the day.

We decided that Tomboys and Girls of Summer may need a honey super on top of their two brood boxes…our spring has been so wonderfully full of flowers and generally good weather, and I think our new colonies may want to make some honey for us. They’re certainly full of bees who want some work to do.

So, before we headed off to dinner on our scooters, we decided to put a new super on Tomboys…without using the smoker, without a veil, without gloves, without a hive tool, without a brain. The second we lifted the inner cover from the hive, bees came after us like a house on fire. I got stung immediately on the neck, so I threw the lid on the hive and ran like hell through our back yard with bees after me. Deb wasn’t far behind…slapping her ear and her leg and her head. I got a bee in my t-shirt, so I ripped it off and ran around the yard in my bra. In broad gorgeous daylight. I put my shirt back on and another bee got in there. I ripped it off again and beat the air with it to get the Tomboys to back off. God, I hope the neighbors weren’t watching.

We both got stung…I got one, maybe two. Deb got two stings.

What was I thinking, Reader? Geez. What an idiot. We got a good laugh out of it (as well as a couple of angry red welts), but I’ve learned not to go about these bee things so cavalierly.