The choice about what kind of foundation and frames to use in your hives is a place where too many options – and too many strong partisans for one type or another – can lead to decision paralysis.

If your goal is to do the very best you can for your bees, it can seem like any choice will be the wrong one, at least in somebody’s opinion!

The first thing to understand is that whenever there are many options, and many contradictory opinions, it’s likely that the bees will do OK no matter which choice you make.

The second thing is that frame and foundation choices, as central as these are to the workings of a colony, are not permanent decision points. Eventually, it’s likely that you will have all types in your hives. That’s because no single type is the best choice in all circumstances.

Movable frames – the essence of modern beekeeping.

Before going on to sort through the options, however, let’s take a moment to appreciate frames and foundation for the truly revolutionary ideas that they are. For thousands of years, humans kept bees in all manner of clay, straw, and wood containers. The bees were permitted to attach their free form combs to the sides and tops of their hives. To harvest the honey, beekeepers had to largely destroy the colony.

Rev. Lorenzo L. Langstroth , 1810-1895
Rev. Lorenzo L. Langstroth, 1810-1895
Photo credit The Book Worm, Alamy Stock Photo

Although many kinds of novel hive designs had been suggested, it was the Rev. Lorenzo L. Langstroth of Pennsylvania who studied bee behavior closely enough to discover that there was a small distance (about 5/16ths of an inch) that the bees would not fill with comb. The bees would invariably preserve this space, dubbed “bee space,” as open space between the combs in which to move around.

This insight led him to develop a frame design to hold combs exactly this distance apart - frames that were movable, and most importantly, removable from the hive so that individual brood and honey frames could be removed without harming the hive. He patented his idea in 1852, and for the first time, honey harvesting could be non-destructive and non-lethal to the colony. While we still call the box-design he created Langstroth-style hives, it wasn’t the box that was revolutionary. It was the movable frames inside, based on his discovery of the “bee space” between the combs, that changed everything.

Modern day frame and foundation choices - just variations on a theme.

Frames not only provide support for the combs in the hive and during honey extraction, they allow use of foundation. Foundation offers the best chance that the combs the bees make will be straight, flat, and if managed well, of an even thickness. Wonky comb makes it difficult to remove and replace the frames without harming bees. The success of the movable frame system depends on all the combs having uniform dimensions and form so that they retain the critical bee space between them.

Wooden frames to support the bees’ combs have been used since Langstroth patented his idea. Foundation is mounted inside the frame to give the bees a flat substrate on which to draw out the wax of their combs. Various materials have been used for foundation over the years, with thin sheets of cell-design embossed beeswax and plastic being two current possibilities.

There is also an all-in-one, plastic combination frame and foundation option.

The bees can do very well on each type, the main difference being how much work a beekeeper wants to do to assemble, and then manage, the different types.

First, let’s look at the easiest options: the all-in-one plastic combination frame and the fully-assembled wood frames with plastic foundation already mounted in them. Both are ready for use immediately, as is, though you may wish to add an extra coating of beeswax to encourage the bees to start drawing comb.

The other option is buying just the frames, either assembled or unassembled, and choosing which kind of foundation to use. The frame design is slightly different depending on whether you plan to use wax or plastic foundation, so the frames are not interchangeable.

This brings you to the next decision point: plastic, or wax, or even no foundation?

Comparison table for wax, plastic, and foundationless.

 

Wax Foundation

Plastic foundation

No Foundation

Cost

About 15% more expensive; plus cost of wire and pins

Less expensive than wax

Homemade or purchased starter strip

Ease of installation

Careful installation required

Easy to snap in; you may wish to add an extra coat of wax

Just install starter strip

Bees’ acceptance

Excellent

Extra coat of wax improves acceptance

Bees will draw comb only when they need to and sometimes not full frames

Management and harvesting issues

If correctly wired, no management or harvesting issues.

Very easy to manage and extract

Very fragile at first; requires close attention to make sure comb is drawn correctly.  (See box below.)

Recovery after mouse, moth or beetle damage

Often a complete loss

Scrape, wash (if needed) and re-wax

Bees may repair small problems; otherwise discard comb and start over

What About Foundationless Combs? Going without any foundation is a popular option, after all the bees are the experts at comb-making. But it is not without its challenges, particularly when starting out with no combs in a new hive. Even if your goal is to run foundationless frames, you’ll be better off if you start with some foundation to get an initial set of combs drawn. And then insert foundationless frames between the drawn ones. With the drawn combs as guides, your bees will do a better job of making perfectly straight and even combs. Otherwise you are committing to very close supervision to make sure that your bees get their combs off to a good start. You may need to remove parts that they have started to draw incorrectly, including sacrificing brood in some sections. The bees may also draw a larger proportion of drone cells. Foundationless comb must be handled in a special way during inspections, too, because it isn’t well-attached or hardened, at first.

There really are no wrong choices here. And if you like, you can have more than one option, even in the same hive or box.

Here are some resources that may help you decide:

For wax foundation:

How to assemble wooden frames and install wax foundation.

How to use a foundation embedding kit;

How to use two alternative wax foundation attachment methods, here (support rods) and here (support pins.)

For plastic foundation:

Read about how to assemble frames here, but do not break off the wedge section along the top (that step only applies to frames used with wax foundation). You will need to order groove/groove frames to have both top and bottom slots for the foundation. The foundation is just bent slightly so it can be snapped into place.

For both plastic foundation and plastic, all-in-one frames:

Read about how to add an extra layer of beeswax, which increases the bees’ acceptance of the plastic material. We also sell plastic foundation and combination  frames with an extra amount of wax already applied if you want to buy it ready to go.

If you plan to assemble your own frames:

You might want to consider our frame assembly jig, which turns a somewhat tedious task into an assembly line process, saving time and ensuring that each frame is square and straight. Unassembled frames are less expensive than assembled ones, so the extra cost of the jig will pay for itself quickly.