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Starter Strips

Used instead of full sheets of foundation

Starter strips are narrow strips of foundation that are fixed in brood and super frame top bars to encourage bees to build combs instead of the normal practice of full sheets of foundation. They are an old idea, that can be seen in old books, but were used for slightly different reasons than we use starter strips today. In the past, frames were made from thinner wood, often with thinner top bars without the wedge that is a feature of most modern frames. The frames were wired, usually in a cross, so the flimsy frames were tensioned. Wired foundation was in its infancy and as many beekeepers worked in low wage jobs, they tried to save money where they could.

For many years, virtually all beekeepers used wired foundation, as it was readily available, easy to use with the different frame designs and they were taught to use it. Two unrelated things happened that inspired beekeepers to consider using starter strips or being completely foundation-less. There were several worldwide studies that showed high chemical residue levels in foundation, which, although for obvious reasons the compounds were different in each study, there were levels that concerned some beekeepers. Understandably, it was felt that if bees built their own combs from fresh wax, rather than using foundation that may be contaminated, there would be less residue in combs. Also, some beekeepers were interested in the bees building their own nest, with drone and worker comb where they wanted it.

For well over 50 years, I have made my own foundation, using my own wax. I wire the frames, then embedded the wire into the foundation. Like others who use bought foundation, it was all worker base, so the bees had to replace some worker comb/foundation with drone. In removing many free-living colonies that had built their own nests, I observed that bees usually build about 10-15% comb area as drone, usually on the periphery. This needs to be understood when using 100% starter strips, as it affects the result.

When beekeepers add foundation in the brood box it is usually all worker base, whether it is for hiving a swarm, replacing combs or simply adding one or more sheets. How are the bees going to produce drones? One answer is to have some or all of the combs built from starter strips. I use them at both my own and the Wisborough Green BKA apiaries. In doing so, and with my knowledge of free-living colonies I have learnt a lot about how bees build combs.

My thoughts on starter strips and how I use them.

I have got to like starter strips, but I think the topic needs a little understanding, as it is easy to assume things that may be a little different from what is thought, so I will try to explain.

It would be interesting to see what residues are in comb that has been built freely. I suspect there will still be some, but presumably different compounds than in foundation that is produced from wax that is sourced elsewhere. If the beekeeper doesn't use chemicals in their hives, then presumably there won't be traces of treatments.

Bees will usually only build comb if they have a need for it and income with which to produce the wax, so they won't build comb in a nectar dearth, unless being fed. I dislike placing foundation in the centre of a brood nest, especially when there is little income, because it splits the brood up and very often queens won't go beyond the foundation. As there is no barrier with starter strips, there isn't the same problem, so I'm happy to place starters in the brood area.

The type of cells that bees build depends on several things including:-

The thinking that bees will build the comb they want in the brood box is only partly true, as I find they usually build comb to suit the circumstances at the time.

There are different ways of working with starter strips. Some don't use foundation, but thin strips of wood such as lolly sticks, plastic and cardboard. Some chamfer the underside of the top bar to create an edge and others use nothing. As with other things in beekeeping, if it works for you, then do it.

I wire the frames horizontally, preferring to use plated steel wire. I find this better than stainless, that is hard and difficult to use. I have tried fishing line, but I didn't get on with it very well. I know that some people don't use any form of support, but I have had and seen too many combs fall out of frames to risk it. I cut unwired foundation, which can be brood or shallow, into strips 10-12mm wide, which I find easier to do with a sharp knife when it is warm, rather than cold when the foundation is brittle. I place the strips into the frames, nailing the wedge with a couple of nails. I prefer to have full length strips to give the bees a good guide. To see what happened, I used wired foundation which also worked, although a bit more fiddly. It doesn't matter if it is worker or drone, the bees will build what they want. I place the strips in the frames when I make the frames, as I find the bees still work the strips if they are stale. I mark the top bars "SS" using a felt tip pen.

Bees will build comb that follows the adjacent comb, so I put the starter strip frames between existing combs that are straight, so the bees build good straight combs. In this way you can build up a stock of combs as good as if they were built from foundation, making it easy to move combs between colonies and when making increase. For supers, I alternate starter strips and drawn comb that has been uncapped straight, placing them on narrow spacing. To put two or more starter strip frames adjacent will probably mean the bees will build comb crossways. Occasionally, bees will not build good comb, but you can have that with foundation too, especially where perhaps they have been unable to draw a comb fully one year and the foundation has become stale by the next.

There is a bit of skill needed to produce good combs using starter strips and there may be some remedial work needed if the combs aren't built well, but that can easily be done by cutting pieces out and placing the frames between good drawn combs on narrow spacing next year. Bees build comb vertically, so it is best if the hive is level. When bees build natural comb, they cluster underneath, but when they draw foundation they can only hang on the side. I wonder if this causes them problems we can't see. If bees are allowed to build comb during a nectar flow and everything else is right, there is a better chance of producing good combs. It must be accepted that comb built on starter strips is wild comb, so there may not be all the same cell size in the same frame, the orientation may vary and there will be transition cells between drone and worker cells. For a beginner, I suggest using foundation to get some good, straight combs built before using starter strips.

Roger Patterson.

Page created 24/08/2022