Bjorn Apiaries

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.

                                                      Albert Einstein

Over the years, we have used about every type of comb possible. This includes wax, plastic (with and without wax), smallcell, foundationless comb systems to include Kenyan and Tanzanian top bar hives, long or trench hives, etc. Below you will find some of our observations and advice.

Natural Comb? Not really. But about as close as you can get to natural comb. Notice the different angles. This situation happened when we left on an empty super above the inner cover, after using the space for feeding. 
Comb from an open air colony. While it is very unusual for bees to make open air nests (about 1-2 swarms per 100), it does demonstrate the natural inclinations of what the bees desire in comb building.

Natural Comb


So what exactly is "Natural Comb"? You will hear the term used loosely in many discussions concerning foundationless systems, Top Bar Hive beekeeping , as well as with Warre hives, and other much promoted and hyped ways of keeping bees. And of course some loosely use the term "natural" to promote books and beekeeping styles. So the meaning becomes convoluted.


Natural Comb is comb drawn by bees in feral colonies, void from human intervention. Pretty simply concept. Once you give the bees a guide to follow (starter strips), a particular cell size to build (smallcell), or dictate by the width of the bar what should be drawn (Top Bar Hives), you have preselected a path for the bees and have dictated what they will build. Even the pictures above, showing comb built in an open space void of a beehive, and the comb drawn in the open, can be seen as unnatural for the purist. Both can be said to be influenced by man. One, by having the size determined by a bee colony already managed in a hive and given a preset space to fill, and the other by the loss of natural cavities and habitat resulting in what some would suggest an unnatural decision of the bees to build in the open.


Yes, natural comb will be used to describe and really just explain foundationless systems for many beekeepers. But we should realize that bees do not naturally build straight comb as we dictate by our management of the colonies. Bees, if left to their own construction and void of our influence, will build comb of varying angles, sizes, and cell sizes. This may be for defensive traits, wind control, and thermal regulation of the hive. So realize that you will run across many references by beekeepers using the term "natural comb". And perhaps it should be understood that it should be in reference to foundationless systems, and NOT cell size being forced upon the bees as with smallcell foundation.



                            Comb Options


Wax foundation:


The big movement lately, especially since the invention of CCD, is that wax foundation is tainted and not healthy for bees. It was suggested that foundation was tainted with chemicals and bees were being sickened. This once visited topic of what was causing CCD quickly moved on to other areas of interest. However the often repeated claims of the dangers of tainted foundation continues cycling over and over. So we looked at this ourselves in 2008.


We took samples of trapped pollen from bees that were on commercial wax foundation. The idea was simple. If commercial wax was tainted enough to make bees sick and even die, that internal levels of chemicals would certainly be seen in such things as bee spit, which is used to help form the balls of pollen as they collect from the field. Since we have never used fluvalinate or coumaphos products in these hives, it would be easy to see if such contaminates were actually tainting the bees. So we paid for, and sent samples off to Penn State for full chemical analysis. The results....not one part per billion could be found. And while we could further test the comb, just in case we actually purchased what could be only suggested as the only "Clean" commercial wax on the market, that would of been very unlikely. And we could of tested the bees themselves. But we thought this would be redundant. After all, we were told that any chemical enough to effect bees, would be seen internally, and would show in testing of bee spit via collected pollen. None was found.


Yes, perhaps this could have a different outcome for those beekeepers using the fluvilanate and coumaphos treatment for years, while using the same comb for 30-40 years. But we have newer comb. So chemical buildup not a problem. But neither is commercial wax with unwarranted claims of contamination. We have found that any small amounts of chemicals encased in wax and used for foundation, is not contaminating brood or bees. Not using these chemicals yourself, while using good IPM management strategies like comb rotation, are much larger issues in colony health. We see no reason to not use wax foundation. Yes, we promote and love foundationless comb. But that is for other reasons than scaring the crap out of new beekeepers while promoting a particular type beekeeping, using unwarranted claims.



Plastic Foundation:


We use a lot of plastic foundation. And it is for logistic and cost factors. While this may not be the most "natural" thing for the hives, it certainly is not as bad as some suggest. And the bees probably do not care.


In using plastic, we are aware of some observations in regards to interference of bee communication when it comes to comb vibrations of the comb. Heat dynamics, as well as fumes from the plastic, are also discussed among some beekeepers. But we also do not see the detrimental consequences or damage that some may suggest. And we have not seen any clear cut proof to support or back up these claims.


We use plastic due to it's ease of installation in wood frames. (We do not like plastic frames) In our nuc business, we may build 2 or 3 thousand frames every winter. To install and properly wire in wax foundation, the  labor costs would be astronomical. And our nuc prices would be considerably higher.


We also like plastic since we push bees to draw comb as long as they can into the season. When bees eventually shut down wax production, sometimes a frame of plastic is only half drawn. In spring, the bees simply pick back up where they left off, filling out the frame with drawn comb. With wax foundation, any foundation not drawn when the bees shut down, will be chewed and destroyed. Bees will collect this wax and use it for late season wax capping, or as needed in other areas of the hive.


We also have beehives scattered over a large area. Some hives are used for onsite pollination, while other are remote test yards. These bee yards may go months between visits. Perhaps not the ideal situation for a beekeeper, but that is reality. And when one of these hives do die off, the comb is sometimes damaged by wax moths or even mice. But not the wax foundation. You can scrape down any bad comb to the plastic foundation and the bees will draw out the comb once more. A huge savings in time rewiring wax, and no costs for additional foundation.


As a side note.... Never buy unwaxed plastic foundation. Unless you are waxing it yourself. Why companies even sell unwaxed is a real mystery. It just allows a bunch of confused new beekeepers to complain about their product after having bad experiences. We have never had bad experiences with bees drawing wax coated plastic foundation. And we also always buy Pierco plastic foundation. There are other plastic foundations on the market, made in China. We prefer Pierco to support "Made in the U.S.A." products, and have found Pierco cell size to be smaller than the knock off products.



Foundationless comb:

We have used foundationless comb in Top Bar Hives, standard Langstroth hives, Warre Hives, trench style long boxes, and nucs. Foundationless comb is not exclusive to any type bee hive, even though it is promoted by some as a benefit to a particular style hive. You can have foundationless comb with top bars only, with full frames, and everything in between.


We love using foundationless systems. There is no foundation to purchase. The wax from the comb can be harvested and used after extracting the honey. And nothing will beat a big slab of new honeycomb sliced off and placed on the table for guests.


Many beekeepers never try foundationless combs. Maybe that is due to thinking you need a Top Bar Hive, or some other specialized equipment. But you don't. You can have bees draw foundationless comb in any standard hive using the existing frames, while respecting the bee space these hives present.


One concern of using foundationless combs is the actual extracting of the foundationless combs. Extracting foundationless comb is very destructive to the comb. Some using foundationless comb systems will crush and strain the comb, or simply use it for comb honey production. We produce "chunk honey" and never have enough for demand. 


Another item to be aware of is the beginning process of actually drawing out the comb. Many will use a starter strip, a popsicle stick, with or without a bead of wax, or a guide to make sure the bees draw the comb straight and where it is desired. Even with the starter strips, bees draw the cell size as they sit fit. Guides or starter strips just get them to draw where the bees should, and has nothing to do with cell size of the comb.  


Foundationless concepts can also be for drone trapping IPM (Integrated Pest Management). Placing a few medium frames in your deep brood chamber will result in the bees many times making drone comb. As long as you go in and cut off the bottom comb in a timely manner, this is a very effective mite control procedure. The picture to the left shows the results of this process. (We highly suggest reading the information on "Two Queen Tower Systems" if drone cell trapping interests you.)



Any comb not using full sheets of foundation has been called foundationless. Some go as far to call foundationless drawn comb "natural". We should understand that any use of the term "natural" in conversations should be understood as simply "foundationless".   

Comb Rotation


Wax comb inside a hive acts as a sponge soaking up chemicals over time. Part of any IPM program should involve the replacement of wax brood comb every 5-7 years. We have posted below a picture showing three combs. On the left is foundationless comb recently drawn and fill with honey. No Brood had yet been raised in this comb. The middle picture is first year brood comb showing how dark wax can get within one season. The comb on the right is comb in it's second year of use. Normally within 3-5 years, comb gets very dark. When comb in the brood chamber becomes "black" you should replace.



Communication Holes

We have tried several types of foundation and systems utilizing communication holes. (See pictures below) Most beekeepers have the idea that bees need holes to pass through from one side of the comb to the next. That somehow, if not for the fact that beekeepers use full sheets of foundation, that bees would make the comb themselves with holes at convenient places. That concept is questionable. Bees having the freedom to draw comb in TBH and other foundationless systems, show no increased building of communication holes.


We installed a good bit of foundation with communication holes drilled out in the foundation of deep frames. The bees simply filled in better than 90% of the holes. Why would they do this if the holes were needed or desired by the bees? Are the bees just filling in all the available comb area in summer, without realizing the need for holes to pass the cluster along from frame to frame in winter?


We often have wondered if bees in winter get "stuck" without being able to move the cluster to the next frame of honey during prolonged cold periods. It does make sense. But when bees have the opportunity to make their own comb in top bar hives, they almost never make holes even with comb lengths of 19 inches. And we have taken out very long comb from feral colonies and many times the comb is very massive without holes between combs.


If bees are being harmed by getting stuck between frames in winter, we think the use of mediums would be a much better approach to eliminating this problem.

You can see the areas (previously drilled out holes) that the honey bees filled in with comb. We actually had to look through many frames to find one that even had a small opening still left.