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Beeswax Foundation

Used to produce good combs

Beeswax foundation is considered to be one of the great beekeeping inventions. Foundation is simply a flat sheet of beeswax that is embossed with the shape of the base of the cell, either made by casting or rolling. The purpose is to provide the bees with a "foundation" on which to build their comb, the foundation becoming the midrib.

A "machine" to manufacture foundation was invented by Johannes Mehring (variously stated as German and Austrian) in 1857, shortly after Langstroth introduced the moveable comb hive. This was apparently a "crude" product that had no side walls, which appeared to result in the bees building whatever comb they wished. I have seen no drawings, but I suspect it may have been some sort of mould or a simple flat plate, perhaps wooden, that was coated in molten wax. Quinby (presumably Moses) may have made foundation as early as 1846. There seemed to be several developments until about 1876, when A.I. Root employed Alva Washburn, an engineer, to develop metal rollers. This was further improved by E.B. Weed about 1892, where the foundation was made in a continuous roll. This basic principle is still used in commercial foundation manufacture today.

In the latter half of the 19th century there was a huge upsurge in commercial beekeeping in the U.S., with at least two accounts I have seen of beekeepers having over 3,000 colonies. This was probably helped by the introduction of the moveable comb hive, so presumably the development of foundation was driven by the needs of the commercial beekeepers.

There have been several commercially manufactured foundation presses and many attempts at home made equivalents. This is mainly for the amateur beekeeping market. Soon after starting beekeeping I bought a foundation press from E.H. Thorne Ltd, probably about 1965. This was made by Herzog in Germany and it cost me £7 10s. I was told it was the only B.S. brood size that was ever made, all others I have seen being Dadant size. In over 50 years of use I have made thousands of sheets of foundation. Once you get everything right you can work quite quickly. On one occasion three of us made over 500 sheets in a day.

Foundation presses are usually no more than a lower tray with a hinged lid. The form of the cells is on both halves. The way I use mine is to have some release liquid, which is water with a dash of washing up liquid in it. Cover the bottom tray with release liquid, lower the lid, then drain off. Cover the bottom of the tray with molten wax, lower the lid, drain off the wax from a corner, then raise the lid that should have the foundation ready to be removed. This needs trimming, the surplus being put back in the melting pot. I have seen a drawing of a foundation press of 1879 that looks remarkably similar to those in use today.

I have a couple of Herring moulds, both worker and drone base. These are simply a tray that you pour molten wax into. There is a later version where you can cast a flat sheet, then sandwich it between a folded plastic sheet that is embossed with the base of the cells. This is then forced through a domestic wringer. Good results can be achieved, but it takes a lot longer than by using a foundation press.

Many people find foundation making to be a fiddle, but I like it. Getting organised is the key, then methodically working through it. The wax doesn't have to be ultra clean, coarse filtering being good enough. I have used some very good clean cappings wax, as well as the blackest that has been melted from old combs, often with bees and spiders in it! The bees use this quite happily. Home made foundation is thicker than the commercial product, but following experiments, where I have alternated sheets of both, I have found that in general bees start working on home made foundation first. I find that my foundation doesn't go stale so quickly.

Adulteration has always been a problem with commercial foundation, with paraffin wax being a main substitute. This is still a problem today that buyers of beeswax need to be aware of. Following research in the U.S. there is a concern about chemical residues in commercial foundation, either from materials used in the hive or from foraging activity. I will not quote figures because the residue levels may change with the wax source. I therefore urge readers to seek up-to-date information elsewhere.

I am an observant beekeeper and I have seen the way bees build comb, especially in a natural nest, where bees hang underneath the comb when building it. When foundation is placed in a colony they have to hang on the side of the sheet. I wonder if this causes stress. Certainly if you alternate frames of foundation and starter strips, the bees usually build the latter much quicker. If you place a sheet of foundation next to an empty comb, the bees usually prefer to extend the cells of the comb than to draw the foundation.

In Issue No7, March 2017, of "Beekeepers News", an online newsletter distributed by E.H.Thorne Ltd, there was a small article on the manufacture of foundation. Thorne's have kindly given me permission to reproduce it in a slightly modified form in PDF format.

I have tried to give a brief history of the developments in foundation making from information gleaned from a number of what I think are authoritative sources. Simple things like dates and the spelling of names often vary slightly. The names mentioned above seem to be the main ones involved, but there are clearly several others who may have made contributions too, who remain unrecognised. We must bear in mind the times we are dealing with, when there were clearly great advances being made in beekeeping, especially when some highly influential individuals were involved. The only history we have is written down and if some is missing or distorted we will probably never know the full truth.

Roger Patterson.