Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Foundationless frames

I have been experimenting with foundationless brood frames in the past few weeks, having read about them first on David Evans' blog.  Most beekeepers use brood frames fitted with wired worker brood foundation.  The benefits of foundationless frames include:
1.   The bees produce their own wax.  Recycled commercial wax may contain residues of chemicals and pesticides.
2.   The bees can decide when and where they want to produce worker brood or drone brood.  Generally they will produce more drone brood than when constrained by worker brood foundation.
3.   The bees can decide the cell size for worker and drone brood.
4.   Comb production is said to be faster if there is no foundation.
5.   The queen will lay earlier.
6.   Foundationless frames are cheaper to make.

The potential disadvantages are;
1.   They take slightly longer to make.
2.   The comb is more fragile until the bees have fixed it securely to the sides and the bottom of the frame so the beekeeper has to be careful during manipulation.
3.   The bees raise more drones, especially in spring.  Probably not a problem but a fact.

Foundationless brood frames require some extra support.  This can be provide by horizontal wires or fishing line but I have been using a design copied from David Evans' blog that uses wooden starter strips and vertical bamboo supports.  He has experimented with different supports and starter strips and has settled on this design. To make one frame you need a DN4 frame, two bamboo skewers (available from the supermarket) and three wooden iced lollipop sticks (from eBay).

The frame is assembled as normal and the wooden fillet which normally holds in the foundation is nailed to hold three wooden lollipop sticks.  I use a dab of wood glue as well.

The three sticks are a perfect fit and define where the bamboo supports will go.  Two 3mm holes are drilled in the top bar where the lollipop sticks meet.  After a dab of wood glue to the holes the bamboo skewers are pushed through.

Further dabs of glue are applied to the bottom bars and the skewers are held with clips until the glue dries.

All that remains then is to cut the skewers flush with the top and bottom bars.

I put the first foundationless frames in my hives 19 days ago.  This is how one of them looks after three days.

Here is a close up of the bees hanging on the bottom of the comb as they make the wax.

Lots of things intrigue me about this.  One is that the bees don't care about the orientation of their hexagons.  If you buy foundation it always looks like this with horizontal rows of hexagons which have the points at the top.

The evidence from the foundationless frames is that the bees are just as happy if it looks like this with vertical rows with horizontals at the top.

Or like this, on a slant.

They also don't produce the same orientation on each bit of comb, as you can see here.

The next thing is that the bees build drone or worker brood wherever they want.  This frame has drone comb in the middle and worker comb either side.

This one is all worker comb.  I wonder who decides what goes where?

It is also fascinating that the queen has laid eggs in the cells even though they are not finished.  You can see here that she has gone almost right to the edge of the comb.

As comb building continues the bees eventually secure it to the sides, which is where the bamboo skewers provide extra support.  Again notice the different cell size and orientation.

This is a frame after 16 days.  The left panel has mostly worker brood with drone brood at the bottom.  The centre panel is all worker brood.  The right panel (incomplete) is all drone comb.

This is the same frame from the other side, so the comb matches on both sides.

And this is the same frame at 19 days, now almost complete.

A couple of important points from David Evans' advice.  The hive must be perfectly horizontal.  If the frames are not vertical the bees will build comb vertically downwards anyway and so will miss the sides of the frames.  And so far I haven't tried putting two new foundationless frames in side by side.  I worried that the bees might join across two frames but having seen what they have got up to so far I don't think the risk of that is high.  David says the main problem is when the frames don't line up with those in the box above or below, when the bees can build a lot of brace comb.  My hives with double brood boxes always have the dummy boards on the same side so I think I am OK there.

The past few days have been warm and sunny with a heavy nectar flow, so perfect for comb building.  My first ten frames are all in the hives so I'll monitor (and photograph) their progress at each inspection and report back here later in the season.

Friday, 4 May 2018


I grow quite a lot of winter-flowering broccoli and each spring I let one or two plants run to flower, mainly for the red mason bees.

However, honey bees are very keen on broccoli as well.  I think the flowers are probably similar to oil seed rape.

When you see bees like this you can understand how pollination works.

Common carder bumblebees like broccoli as well, probably because the flowers suit their tongue length.

And yesterday the first male red mason bee (Osmia bicornis).

The broccoli flowers are good for lazy honey bees as they don't have far to fly.

Monday, 23 April 2018

The slatted rack revisited

I published a post a little over a year ago about the slatted racks I had made for my hives.  A slatted rack is essentially a shallow eke fitted with slats which is placed above the mesh floor (US: screened bottom board) and below the brood box.  Slatted racks are in widespread use in the US and are commercially available for 8, 9, and 10 frame Langstroth hives.  I am not aware that they are available in the UK for National hives so I made my own.  They have now been in place in my hives for a year and the recent merger of two hives to deal with a drone-laying queen allowed me to look more closely at one rack.  This is how it looks after one year.

The advantages of a slatted rack include:
1.  It restores bee space below the brood frames, something lacking when the brood box is immediately above the floor.
2.  It provides extra space for bees to hang out and reduces overcrowding, and perhaps discourages swarming.
3.  It reduces draughts and keeps the hive warmer in winter.
4.  It assists ventilation and keeps the hive cooler in summer.
5.  It encourages the queen to lay right to the bottom of the brood frames.
6.  It may also discourage the bees from chewing through the lowest part of the foundation.

For me the main advantage is the complete absence of burr comb under the brood frames which makes swapping frames around in a double brood hive much easier.  You can see here there is no comb on the bottom of the frames.

Langstroth hives have top bee space so commercially available slatted racks have the bee space built into the top.  Modified National hives, on the other hand, have bottom bee space so I built my slatted racks with the tops of the slats flush with the frame.

It is important that each slat is directly underneath each frame.  As the National hive takes 11 frames and a dummy board I offset the slats slightly to accommodate this.

The bees seem happy with them, and I am, so I'll continue to use slatted racks on my hives year round.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Drone-laying queen

In my last post I mentioned the unexpected finding of drones outside the hives before the first inspection, wondering whether they might have overwintered undetected or whether there might be a more sinister explanation.  Eventually the weather warmed up enough for a first look inside the hives.  Three were doing well but inside the fourth this was the appearance.

Here is another frame.

There were five frames with eggs, larvae and sealed brood but none of it was worker brood  - a tell-tale sign of a drone laying queen.  Here is a closer view of the brood.

Eventually I spotted the queen - not easy as she was unmarked in a hive with lots of drones.

The interesting thing is that this is the hive that had two yellow-marked queens on 30th August last year and one of them was still present on my last inspection on 24th September, with normal worker brood.  Both last year's marked queens were very dark.  The present queen has different colouring and no trace of a yellow mark, so she must have been a very late replacement last year, too late to get mated.  The thing that puzzles me is why the bees replaced the other two who were both new and at least one of them was producing normal worker bees (that is where the overwintering workers came from).  Here is the new queen busy laying eggs, surrounded by the midwives.

It was a fairly simple task to mark her while she was laying, if perhaps a little undignified.  This meant I could find her more easily once I had decided what to do.

She ran around for a few moments but soon went back to laying.

This is a potentially recoverable situation as the colony is queenright.  It would be possible to replace the queen (except that I don't have a spare).  It would also be possible to remove the queen, give a frame of eggs from another hive and let the bees raise a new queen.  However, that would mean a delay of three or four weeks before the new queen was laying and six or seven weeks before she produced new worker bees.  The present workers have overwintered and won't last much longer.  As I have more hives than I really want, and one of the others is a bit small, I have decided to remove the drone-laying queen and unite her colony with the other. Then at least these workers can join the workforce while they last.

Monday, 9 April 2018

A good sign and a bad sign

The bees have had a miserable time recently.  It feels as if we have had nothing but rain for weeks so they have mostly been confined to barracks.  I expect they were bored and frustrated so it was no surprise to see so many out in the sunshine these past two days.  At one stage it seemed as if every returning forager was carrying pollen.  And pollen collection is a good sign that things are going well inside.

The pollen colours were mostly yellow and orange with a few bees collecting pink, white or cream.

These bees had obviously found a good source of pollen.  Many were stopping on the outside of the hives on their return, perhaps for a bit more grooming, or to catch a bit of sunshine, or to get their breath back.

This one returned covered in pollen but with none in her pollen baskets.

After taking the photos I put in boards under the mesh floors for a varroa count over the next week.  While I was doing so I glanced across at the next hive to see a queen on the landing board!  At second glance it was a queen wasp, looking as though it wanted to get into the hive.  I ran for the camera but the wasp had disappeared by the time I got back, probably moved on by the guards.

I was very surprised to see a few drones outside the hives.  It is very early for drones and I wonder if these few had managed to survive the cull last autumn and had only just been discovered by the workers.  This poor chap has a deformed wing so despite my efforts with formic acid last summer and oxalic acid in the winter it suggests there is still a problem.

I haven't yet been able to do an inspection because of the weather but I am very keen to have a look in to see what is going on.