Beehive Foundation for Beginners

Wax or plastic foundation? If plastic, do I use wax-coated foundation? What about brand and type: Duragilt, RiteCell™, PermaDent, generic plastic? What’s the difference between those? And then there’s the option of using Pierco plastic frame AND foundation. What’s this debate over cell size? Does it matter?

[I'll be updating this post to add links to resources. For now, I just wanted to get what I've written scheduled to publish while I'm at the farm.]

From the outset I’ve been concerned about the possibility of chemicals building up in beeswax and also about the use of plastics and leaching of plastic molecules into the environment. This is something I’m concerned about generally. Just because everyone is keen on plastic containers and wraps for everything, doesn’t mean plastic doesn’t have adverse effects.

It’s well-established that heating plastic above a certain temperature is not good. For that reason, I don’t use plastic wrap (when I can avoid it)  and I never use plastic in the microwave and haven’t for more than a decade.

On the issue of wax contamination, I intuitively knew (without having to research it) that if most beekeepers are using chemicals and wax is commingled that it makes sense that wax could/would be contaminated with the chemicals used by others. For that reason, I didn’t want to start with wax that wasn’t my own wax.

Aside from the likelihood that toxins would build up in the commercially-available wax, it also seemed pretty obvious that it was a lot of work to use wax foundation in frames. That would require more time: To learn HOW to use wax foundation, time to assemble frames. Wax foundation would also more tools to purchase. And the wax foundation assembly process didn’t sound like it would be good on my hands. I’m not one to pay for professional manicures (can’t afford it) but I do like my hands to look reasonably nice.

Then there’s the issue of wax moths and storage.

So those factors led me to quickly eliminate wax foundation from my options until I have the opportunity to learn more about it, build up my own wax stores and figure out the storage issue.

My general dislike of plastic when it’s avoidable means that (for now, at least), I also quickly eliminated the Pierco foundation products. Before I knew anything about foundation, I heard conference speakers offer opinions about the pros and cons of using the black vs. white or natural plastic foundation. I didn’t really understand what they were talking about, but I filed it away in my mind. I’ll continue to study this and will probably experiment, at some point, but for now I’m skipping Pierco options.

By eliminating those choices I thought the remaining question was whether to go with wax-coated or not and which brand. But then I learned about the debate over cell size and the option of going foundationless. That debate led me into a period of intensive research.

I’d actually started to research cell size and foundationless frames before I committed to  Legacy Apiaries, in part because I’d learned about the debate over cell size and whether small cell foundation helped to control varroa. I know that debate continues and I’m not going to enter into the debate. I have no opinion about cell size and varroa because I have no experience with either.

But it makes intuitive sense to me that bees know best what cell size they want. Why should I force them to build cells to match my foundation? It’s this position that led me to seriously look into the question of cell size, what bees create when unrestrained by foundation and the different cell sizes used by various plastic foundation manufacturers.

It was actually helpful to be forced to focus on Rite-Cell foundation when I started to seriously consider the issue of cell size. That led me to pose specific questions in Google searches that led me to meaningful discussions in beekeeping fora about cell size and whether a beginning beekeeper could go foundationless. I also read Michael Bush’s opinions on cell size and foundation and his opinions began to shape my own.

My initial thinking was to start with small cell plastic foundation, but that mean Rite-Cell wouldn’t be a good choice. And then I wondered if it would be possible to mix foundation cell sizes? And would it be easier to start with foundationless frames from the outset than to start with a single (or mixed) types of foundation? What would be better for the bees?

As I researched whether a beginner could deal with foundationless frames early on, I realized that the options could vary depending on whether the foundation was used for brood comb or honey.

And I also discovered there are several different approaches to foundationless frames:

  • Wedge top bar that’s reconfigured a la Michael Bush’s description to provide a guide
  • Grooved and/or slotted top bars that use a popsicle stick, paint stirrer or strip of plastic foundation as a comb guide
  • The Kelly F Frames that have a built-in comb guide

Whew. So many choices. What to do?

And if I decided to NOT go foundationless, which plastic foundation should I start with? Do I try the small cell approach in brood boxes? How would the nucelus colony adapt to a small foundation mixed in with the original frames provided in the nuc? Can I mix foundations in the brood boxes? Could I alternate between plastic foundation and foundationless?

I’ll provide my answers to all those question in the next post. Suffice it to say that, although I’m experimenting, I feel pretty confident in my ultimate choices. But time will tell.