How Firm a Foundation

This weekend, I did two important things: I began painting my hive bodies (the individual boxes we think of collectively as a beehive – more on this later), and I installed wax foundation into the frames that sit within those boxes:

2_22_18 Foundation
Before and after.

As I understand it, foundation serves several potential purposes, but the most important one is to give the bees a gentle directional nudge about which way to orient their comb, because bees — like certain people — flat refuse to read a manual. The foundation is made of wax or plastic, and encourages the bees to “draw comb” out on either side of the foundation, supported on all four sides by the wooden frame around it. The top of the wooden frame (oriented upward in the picture above) has a lip on either side, which holds frames suspended, parallel to each other, in the boxes. Voila! A hive with frames of honeycomb that you can remove, manipulate, and replace. Without foundation, there is a chance that bees might build their comb perpendicular to the frames, creating a perfectly happy wild beehive, but a hot mess for a beekeeper.

Disclaimer: At this point, I should mention that beekeepers have opinions. Assume that anything I tell you is hotly debated, constituting approximately the same grounds for an argument as expressing an opinion regarding the best barbecue in Memphis. There’s some fierce discussion over whether wax foundation or plastic foundation is better, whether one or the other is harmful, whether it matters, and whether you should use foundation at all (see also: “foundationless beekeeping”). I’m sure I will develop opinions of my own in time, and I might decide I disagree with some of what I’m saying now. But at the moment, I am absolutely 100% Conventional Wisdom Girl.

(But for dry ribs, you definitely want — wait, bad, no, this is a blog about bees and not barbecue. Mixing the two up would be unfortunate for everyone. What I meant to say was: I’m using wax foundation rather than plastic. This has less to do with any as-yet-firmly-held opinion on my part, and more to do with the fact that wax foundation is what my supplier sells.)

So. Foundation and frames: Sold separately, some assembly required. Of all the intimidating things about beekeeping, the necessary basic carpentry skills are the scariest to me. Covered in bees? I can handle that. Getting stung? Don’t love it, but okay. Hammer and a nail? Eep! (This is part of why I forked over a little extra money for pre-assembled hive bodies.)

2018_02_26 P2
Materials? Check! Cat spectator? Check! Beer? Check! Binge-watching Netflix? You bet.

There’s something delightful about a stack of foundation waiting to be installed, though. I’m not sure why, but the weight and symmetry are somehow immensely satisfying. The thin wax panels are separated by tissue paper, and working my way through the stack just felt good… even when I wasn’t sure of the quality of my work.

The installation process is, hypothetically, pretty simple: There’s a thin strip of wood that is pre-scored and easy to cut away from the inside of the top of the frame using a box-cutter.

The foundation slips into a groove (you can’t see it in the pictures here) in the bottom of the frame. Thin sheets of wax being notably fragile, the foundation is supported by strips of wire – each of which ends in an L-shape – and that L sits nestled in the ledge left where the wood strip was removed. Replacing the wood strip secures those wire tips – and thus the top of the foundation – into place.


Then – gulp – it’s time to hammer the wood strip back down with two or three nails spaced across the inside of the frame. Too much of an angle pries the interior of the wooden strip up and away from the foundation. Too little angle drives the tip of the nail all the way through the frame to its top, creating an unpleasant spike trap for your fingers. Note: It is possible to accomplish both of these errors on the same frame, if you are as good at carpentry as I am.

There is so much that could go wrong in this picture.

The finishing touch is, hilariously, bobby pins. These are installed through small holes in the sides of each frame and pounded gently into place with a hammer for extra structural support.

I was particularly pleased by this step, not only because it made me feel like I could use a hammer like a real adult (At last! A hammer-task appropriate to my skill level!) but because on Friday, I owned a ridiculously impractical stash of bobby pins which I use, on average, at a rate of about two pins per three years. I now own about six bobby pins, which is probably what my supply ought to look like.

The process probably took me about three times as long as it would have taken someone with the ability to drive a nail where she wants it, but I’m pleased to report that I got through all forty (!) frames without destroying any irreplaceable equipment. And I did most of this with a helpful cat in my lap. And I didn’t lose any fingers, and he didn’t lose his nose… so I’m feeling pretty proud of that.

2018_02_26 P9
Now if only I had something to store all of these frames in! Say… several sturdy wooden boxes…

5 thoughts on “How Firm a Foundation”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s