30 June 2013

Fishing line and brood frames

There's a popular trend to try to return to more natural, and less industry-dependent, ways of doing things - if we can. In beekeeping one of the ways of achieving this is to let the bees draw their own comb with less interference from the beekeeper. It takes quite a leap of faith to move away from the apparent security, ease and speed of construction, of using complete sheets of commercially pre-wired, cell-imprinted, pressed foundation that is available from all 'big' beekeeping suppliers, but I think almost all beekeepers who try it will never completely return to the 'old ways' - more especially if they buy beautiful foundation from specialists suck as Peter Kemble.

Unwired frames are fine for shallows, especially if used for cut comb, but large (deep) brood frames such as Dadant, Langstroth Jumbo, 14x12 National and 'Commercial' are a different matter. A lapse of concentration during an inspection can lead to new comb slumping from the frame, taking eggs and developing larvae with it - a disaster and a mess for both bees and beekeeper. So brood frames need to be strengthened, usually by wiring.

The late Dave Cushman used fishing line instead of wire. I couldn't believe it would work, but he was a better and more knowledgeable beekeeper than I'll ever be, so I decided to give it a try. I don't think I'll go back to using tiny eyelets and thin wire that can cut into the fingers of the unwary.

Here's how I do it, along with a lot of pictures in case my description is a bit awry. You can click the images to enlarge them.

First of all you need to drill the sidebars. Three equally-spaced holes (make a drilling template) is enough for a Langstroth Jumbo or Dadant brood frame.

The bees will attach the upper third of the comb to the sidebars themselves but not the lower part - so they can move to and fro and communicate. It won't collapse if you remember to turn the comb carefully during an inspection whilst the wax is fresh.

Insert the side bars - but do not nail/tack them in place yet, the joint needs to stay flexible for now.

Thread the fishing line through the predrilled holes, starting from the left one nearest the top bar - make sure the flat hoffman shoulder is on that side.

Add a tack, at an angle - that's why you need to be sure this is the flat face of the side bar. Do the same to the right hand side bar, but with the tack closer to the lower edge.

Right hand tack - pull on the short end of the line to tighten and wrap it round the lower tack.

Keep hold of the line whilst you knock this tack flat, and into the wood to securely anchor the line in place.

Left hand tack - hold the fishing line reel in your left hand and pull the line taut, so that the lower ends of the side bars pull slightly inwards - not too far inwards.

Anchor the end of the line, and knock the tack flat. Cut the line close to the tack.

Insert the bottom bars.

The right hand ends won't look as if they'll fit - but they will. Pulling them into place will tension the line.

Tack the bottom bars in place - this will 'square' the frame.

Now you can tack the side bars.

When you're finished you should be able to play a tune on the fishing line - it should ping, or strum, like a guitar.

Cut an unwired sheet of foundation in half diagonally * and interleaf one piece between the fishing line and attach with the wedge with at least four tacks.

You can use a heated spur embedder or a warmed blade to fasten the wax to the line, but I've found the bees will do it themselves.

If you prefer, you can use a shallow starter strip instead.

Trim the excess line by the tacks and you should have a frame that looks like this.

* I tend to use a larger starter piece of foundation in my brood frames, simply because it can take the bees a long time to draw such a big area without a bit of help.
I alternate the direction of the frames, so that the wax in one frame sandwiches the gaps in the adjacent frames, making wild comb building less likely.
The bees make, and retain, their own communication pathways through the brood area.



  1. Very interesting. I think they use a similar technique in Sicily - you can see a picture on my last blog entry. Most of my super frames are unwired because I like honey on the comb. It can be challenging especially in hot weather as the foundation often becomes soft and dislodges. This needs to be realigned during inspections. However, after a few weeks the bees seem to repair it and it holds well.

    1. I don't wire my super frames either (there's a post about it, 4th June 2013), although I did to begin with because that's what you're told to do. My bees are within reach of heather, which won't extract easily and has to be either cut comb or pressed. Having unwired super frames makes it much easier.