Langstroth hive construction and foundation July 05, 2013 14:31 4 Comments

For all you new beekeepers out there, here's a handy guide to constructing frames and hive boxes! Note that there are lots of ways to do this - some people glue, staple, or use fewer nails. If you have a system that works for you, great! But if you've just gotten home with your first hive kit and are scrambling to put it together before that nuc or package arrives, we hope this tried-and true, no-glue method will take some of the guesswork out of your first equipment build.  Note that we're using Jones equipment here (this is what Homesteader's Emporium and Two Bees Apiary carry). Also, scroll to the bottom for a primer on all-wax foundation.

1. The box

Building the boxes is the easy part - just fit the corners together and nail 'em through the pre-drilled holes.  There are just two easy mistakes to be sure to avoid: 20130705-143159.jpg Make sure all the handles are right-side-up. There should be a cutout in the side of the box, and the flat part should face down to make it easy to grip when picking the hive up. 20130705-143215.jpg The little shelf on the narrow ends of the box should face up and be on the inside. This is where the frames will rest.

2. Frames

That was easy, right?   The frames will take you much longer than the hive boxes.  But hang in there, it's worth it!20130705-143240.jpg You'll need a hammer, the four wooden frame pieces (end bars, top bar, and bottom bar from left to right), and up to 12 nails in two sizes (7/8" and 1 1/4"). 20130705-143251.jpg Fit the end bars into the notches near each end of the top bar.  There's no left or right bar, or inside or outside to the end bars, so don't worry about that.  Just make sure the groove in the top bar faces in (this is where the foundation will go). 20130705-143346.jpg After fitting both end bars, push the bottom bar into the joint at each corner. 20130705-143401.jpg Here's a close-up of where the bottom bar joins with the end bar. 20130705-143434.jpg Nail the bottom bar to the end bars with two nails at each bottom corner. 20130705-143529.jpg Optionally, add a third reinforcing nail on the side of the frame at each bottom corner. 20130705-143552.jpg Here's what it will look like. 20130705-143613.jpg Now drive two larger (1 1/4") nails through the top bar into the end bars at each corner. 20130705-143626.jpg A third nail through one side reinforces the frame corner.  It should look like this.  You're done!  Now just make 9 more :)

3. Foundation

You have several options for foundation these days.  Arguably the easiest is to use plastic, wax-coated foundation.  This is easy to install and strong enough to hold up during extraction, but is the least natural. 20130705-143648.jpg If using wax-coated plastic foundation, just fit one side into the groove and snap it in.  It's not fragile so you're unlikely to accidentally break it. Plastic foundation has disadvantages.  For a variety of reasons, many conscientious beekeepers are turning to wired wax foundation or foundationless frames (as in a top-bar hive).  Here's a primer on installing wax foundation: 20130705-143716.jpg You'll need a hammer, two small nails, 4 or 8 brass eyelets (optional but advisable), an eyelet punch (or improvised substitute), a wire embedder (spur embedder shown here), appropriately sized foundation, and 2.3m of stainless steel wire per standard frame (4 lines of wire) or 1.2m of stainless wire per medium frame (2 lines of wire).  You'll also want a pair of pliers (not shown). 20130705-143801.jpg Start with the eyelets, if you're using them.  Using a punch, gently tap them into place on what will become the outside of each end bar. 20130705-143824.jpg Now fix one end of the wire.  Twisting it around a small nail and then driving the nail in works well.  It helps to pre-cut the wire into measured lengths (1.2-2.3m depending on frame size) 20130705-143906.jpg Thread the wire through the eyelet and across the frame. 20130705-143920.jpg Thread the wire through in a zig-zag pattern, using pliers to pull it tight.  It should be tight enough to make noise if you pluck it like a guitar. Use the pliers to wind it around a second nail at the end. 20130705-143941.jpg Now insert the foundation.  Alternate going over one wire, then under one.  Push the foundation into place in the grooves on the top and bottom bars.  They also make special frames specifically designed for wax foundation, but it only makes this marginally easier. 20130705-143954.jpg With the foundation in place in both grooves, you're ready to embed the wire.  You're going to push on the wire to stick it firmly to the beeswax.  This way the bees won't interpret it as a root or other intrusion, but will build comb right over it.  Two styles of spur embedder are shown at above left; both are effective.  You'll need a piece of wood or other backing to support the wax while you do this, otherwise you risk tearing the wax. 20130705-144024.jpg Roll the embedder along the wire, pressing just firmly enough to securely stick the wire down.  Note the wooden support visible through the transluscent wax. 20130705-144037.jpg Behold the finished wax foundation frame! Note that the wire is still mostly visible- don't expect it to be pushed deeply into the wax. You're done!

On Foundationless Frames Even all-wax foundation has its problems.  Beeswax used in its manufacture generally comes from large, commercial apiaries, so there's a risk that it may contain pesticide or antibiotic residues.  Also, like plastic foundation, it forces a certain cell size on the bees, who would otherwise use different sizes for various purposes.  Proponents of "small-cell" foundation or foundationless frames believe that this imposition has contributed to the plague of varroa mites facing contemporary beekeepers by lengthening worker bees' gestation time.  I find this argument compelling and so, though I am not hugely knowledgeable on this subject, I will offer these words of encouragement to those interested in using Langstroth hives without foundation:

  1. Use a starter strip.  A narrow piece of wood wedged into the groove of a frame's top bar is an easy option.
  2. Provide a guide.  Your goal is to encourage your bees to build comb vertically from the top bar down, and they're more likely to do this if you have other frames in the same box that either contain foundation or drawn comb.  Try placing 3-4 guide frames in the middle of the box surrounded by foundationless frames. This is a good way to avoid being overrun by rogue comb.
  3. Experiment and get help.  Our resources page has links to some very informative sites.  Consider using small cell foundation or a top-bar hive.