This post is going to be a little short on details mostly because there are some many details that I could not expect to do a decent job of covering them all. My plan is to give you some things to think about and research and make up your own mind, because like I said each beekeeper has their own opinion.
There are two basic types of frames: full (four sided) frames and top-bar only frames. The full frames come in two basic types, with foundation and without. Top bars do not have foundation.
Regarding foundation here is what I know. Using foundation has a couple of advantages: one it gives the bees a clear indication of where and how (meaning cell size) you wan them to build comb. Two it strengthens the comb so that during inspections and honey extraction the comb has less damage for the bees to repair. The disadvantages that I have read about are if you use the wax coated plastic type, the plastic can off-gas and hurt the bees or even you. If you use the wax foundation, rumor has it most of it is made from old, dirty, toxic wax that is unusable for anything else. You decide! When looking at full frames there are different ways to secure the foundation to the frames: wedge, slotted, grooved, solid. Then there is also wired frames and/or foundation. The wires help strengthen the comb so that it can hold up to mechanically extraction.
Going with a foundation-less frame or the top bar frame allows the bees to build comb they way they want! Most would argue this is better for the bees, but not so for the bee keeper. First, to allow the bees to build the comb from “scratch” means they will build the cells in the sizes they need and would use naturally. Do a search on “small cell bees” or “natural cell size” for more information. The downsides are they don’t always build nice straight comb and when it is time to extract the honey you have to completely destroy the comb. The bees will have to start over with an empty frame next year. This means less honey because the bees have to first use resources to build honey comb.
UPDATE: Found this great series on converting to foundation-less hives. In the following link, it is is explained how to rotate the frames so that bees will naturally regress to the “natural cell size”. I was assuming I just swapped out the empty frames, but this makes more sense as each generation of bees will reduce or regress the cell size of the next generation until the get “right sized”!
Foundationless Beekeeping: How to convert to natural beekeeping!
So where am I? Glad you asked! I have full frames in Langstroth hives. Currently my hives are split down the middle. The deep boxes have plastic foundation and the bees have been building it out with no problems. I personally think the artificial materials and cell sizes is not good long term for the bees. I have this setup because this is what came with the nucs I started from and I hadn’t full researched it at the time. On the flip side I have gone foundation-less in my medium honey supers. I will have to report back on that since I just gave them those boxes last weekend. My long term plan is to swap out the plastic foundation in the deep boxes over time so not to disrupt the hives too much this first year. They have enough work to do already to build out the medium boxes and fill them with honey before fall/winter.
I would be curious to hear what others are using and why, comment below!
Found this great link over at Runamuk Acres Farm & Apiary site!
3 reasons to go foundationless in your Langstroth beehive