Frames and Foundation

The frame is the part of the beehive that sits inside the hive bodies and holds the honeycomb. It forms the “frame” the bees build on with beeswax to store honey and raise brood. L. L. Langstroth designed the most common moveable frame in use today. The standard Langstroth design is 10 frames, each 19 inches long, inside each hive body. Eight frame equipment is also available, but the only difference is the width of the box. The length of the frame itself is the same, no matter the hive width. Shallow, medium, and deep hive bodies require shallow, medium, or deep frames. A deep frame is 9 1/8 inches tall, a medium frame is 6 1/4 inches tall, and a shallow frame is 5 3/8 inches tall.

Wood frames can be purchased assembled, unassembled, or made by the beekeeper. If you are going to use foundationless frames (frames with no foundation installed), the bees benefit from the use of a starter strip. This is a strip of either wood or wax hanging from the center of the frame’s top bar that serves as a guide for the bees to start drawing comb on. A starter strip helps them keep the comb straight and maintain bee space in the hive.

Wood frames have been designed to accept wax or plastic foundation. The foundation is imprinted with a standard comb shape that encourages the bees to draw uniform size cells. Wax foundation can be purchased (or hand milled if you have the equipment) with or without wires. Wire lends strength to the comb so that it is less easily damaged during inspections and honey extraction. Most wood frames also have holes on the end bars (sides) where you add pins or horizontal wire for even more strength. Thin wax foundation is for frames you want to make cut comb honey from.

Plastic foundation is a honeycomb stamped sheet of rigid plastic. Some companies offer them already coated with wax, which helps the bees accept it as a suitable surface. Brushing on more melted wax may get you even better results.

Several bee supply companies sell a one piece plastic frame/foundation combo. I haven’t personally used any variety of the all-in-one plastic frames because we have the small hive beetle in my area. I am concerned that the frames have too many nooks and crannies for the beetles to hide in.

Green plastic frames are sized for drone cells. You can also buy drone sized wax foundation. Drone foundation is used to increase the number of drones in an area for queen mating, or to trap mites. Mites prefer to breed in drone cells, so by removing capped drone frames and freezing them, you are theoretically helping keep the mite population controlled. If you are late removing the drone trap though you have just left a mite bomb in your hive. Be religious about removing it on time.

Specialty frames for making cut comb honey are available commercially as well. The bee supply companies sell kits with the round cut comb frames. I have seen some direct marketed square frames to sell to customers as an individual sized honey frame, and time will tell if this concept catches on.

The last speciality frame to discuss is the queen grafting bar. It is a  frame with two extra horizontal bars instead of foundation. These bars hold wax or plastic cups that the beekeeper inserts larvae into, then places the frame in a queenless hive. The hive will raise multiple new queens at once.

A few tips on frames and foundation:

  • Try not to mix wax and plastic foundation in the same super. Bees seem to have a preference for wax and may be reluctant to draw out the plastic. Once they are drawn out it isn’t a problem.
  • Pay attention to the kinds of frames and foundations you are ordering and make sure they are matched with each other. It’s pretty disappointing to assemble a box of frames and then realize you bought the wrong kind of foundation for them. The bee supply catalogs should have what kinds go together clearly marked, but it’s up to you to pay attention to detail.
  • Another detail to watch out for is cell size. If you accidentally order small cell foundation instead of standard you may be less than pleased with your bees attempt to draw it out smoothly. Unless you already have small cell bees of course. I’ll go ahead and confess to making this beginner mistake 🙂