Wood Frames for the Langstroth Hive

Author: Barry Birkey, Editor: Sarah Bass, Date: April 13, 2015

A Beekeeper’s Frame of Mind

Frames are to a beehive what folders are to a filing cabinet: they structure and support the essential elements of a system. As there is little more essential to a hive than comb, frames are probably the most extensively engineered piece of equipment a beekeeper will use in his or her hive structure. The necessity of frames for comb manipulation, combined with the demands placed on frames throughout the beekeeping season, makes them one of the weightiest financial investments a beekeeper will make. The wise beekeeper, therefore, should take into consideration qualities such as suitability, functionality, durability, price, and in some cases, aesthetics, before purchasing a product so foundational to the construct and operation of his or her hive. It’s just a matter of knowing what to look for.

But first things first: what’s in a frame? (Besides foundation, of course.)

A Very Brief, Semi-historical Frame Work

Dating back to the mid-1600s, beekeepers have used wooden frames to facilitate the removal, inspection and reuse of comb. Today, though there are some variations in frame style and size in the U.S. and abroad (like frames made of plastic, for example), most of the frame components of the bee hive (as they include frames and various types of foundation) are standardized to fit the dimensions of the Langstroth or modified Dadant hive design. This uniformity provides the beekeeper with choice in brand while usually ensuring proper fit and utility even when combining products from different manufacturers, although the intent of this review is to highlight some of the differences that do exist.

Most frames used in the U.S. today look similar to this one, a frame-style known as the “Hoffman”:

frame

Frames require precise dimensions to accommodate foundation and the spacing of comb while providing and maintaining proper bee space (from 5/16” to 7/16”). One of the convenient qualities of the Hoffman design is that it allows frames to be self-spacing when pushed together, a margin created by the widest part of the end bars touching each other. Frames must not only hold up under the weight of brood and honey, especially when frames are subject to the stress of machines during the honey extraction process, but they must sustain the demands of hives-in-transit when moved across the country for pollination work – all with the expectation that frames will be reusable again and again.

Bar Hopping

topbarstyles

The two most common wooden top bar styles are wedge and groove.

Frames that have top bars with a removable wedge are typically designed for wax foundation. The foundation is secured to the top bar by being pinched with the wooden strip as it’s nailed in place. Conversely, a grooved top bar is generally used with plastic foundation as the groove provides a slot into which the plastic sheet is slid and secured.

A foundationless style top bar is also being sold. For beekeepers who want the bees to build their own comb without any influence of the cell pattern on foundation, this design provides a beveled starting point for comb attachment to the top bar that helps to keep the comb straight.

topbarenddesignTop bar ends, also known as ears, are made two ways, with every manufacturer making all of its top bars in one style or the other. The first is known as the chamfered style, the other, –square.

As illustrated in the diagram, the chamfered style removes the outer corners of the bar, giving it a more rounded end. The advantage of the chamfered bar emerges most distinctly in commercial beekeeping, for the architecture of the bar makes it less likely than square bars to bind and jam when employed in extraction equipment and passed through the various stages of the honey removal process. Chamfered ends also provide less surface area for bees to propolize (cement with propolis) the gap between the top bar and the hive body rabbet.

endbarEnd bars have a notch (dado) on top and bottom to receive the top and bottom bars. All end bars are 1-3/8” wide on the top one-third and then reduce down to 1-1/8” on the bottom two-thirds. This narrowing of the bar creates space for bees to move between the frames of comb around the ends rather than just the top and bottom.

bottombar

Concerning bottom bar design, grooved, solid and split are the three styles available. All three will work with the wedge top bar and wax foundation since cross-wiring is used to support the rest of the sheet, whereas a grooved bottom bar best suits the use of a grooved top bar and plastic foundation.

Framing Yourself Without Getting Caught

There are many options available to you as the beekeeper when it comes to selecting frames. That being said, with a myriad of choices available and a multitude of manufacturers advertising themselves with a traffic-jam of superlatives like:

“Unparalleled Fit!”

“The Best!”

“More Wood!”

“Tighter Fit!”

the obvious question remains: How does one choose the right frame without feeling beekeeper’s remorse?

Hence, this review. Reading it through to the end is probably a good place to start.

First, you need to decide how you plan to manage your bees, as this approach will influence the frame style most conducive to your beekeeping method. Perhaps you are the sort of beekeeper who wants your bees to build comb on wax foundation. For this you will need end bars that have a series of holes in them for wiring (as previously mentioned). Considering the fact that foundation is made in a wide variety of cell-size imprint, this may also dictate your frame selection based on the foundation available in a certain cell size. In the case of wax foundation you would likely find the wedge top bar frame most suitable.

Alternatively, you may choose to use wooden frames with plastic foundation, or go completely foundationless altogether, putting a strip of wood in a grooved top bar or using the wedge strip on a wedged top bar turned at a 90-degree angle from the top bar. Both methods provide a starting point for bees to draw their own comb completely. Or, as illustrated, you may buy the foundationless frames that have a beveled starting edge manufactured right into them. The choice really is yours, and an important one to make before purchasing anything. Once the choice is made, however, the controlling selection factors can be boiled down to two primary considerations: quality and cost.

You may decide to opt for one-piece plastic frames for ease of use, as it eliminates the need for assembly of frames and foundation. Further, unlike wax foundation to which adding cross wires is a common necessity, plastic frames don’t require additional foundation support.

The Seven Lions of Frame Making

Seven companies manufacture the lion’s share of wooden hive frames in the United States. They are, alphabetically, as follows:

Beeline Apiaries and Woodenware: This manufacturer consists of three independently owned and operated businesses located in Michigan, Colorado and Washington. They all produce the same products and work collaboratively to ship supplies to the customer from the closest dealer. A unique feature of this manufacturer is that there is no central office or location that manages the branches.

Betterbee: A company located in New York, Betterbee has been in business for over thirty-five years and operates with a staff of roughly twenty-four people. In recent years, Betterbee has been under new management, renewing its commitment to providing excellent products and customer service to the consumer.

Dadant & Sons Beekeeping Supplies/Western Bee Supplies: Dadant is possibly the largest manufacturer of bee supplies in the United States and has an extensive history in beekeeping. Dadant’s manufacturing dates back to 1878 with the production of foundation. In 1924, the company moved its enterprise into a tire factory in Hamilton, IL, the location of its headquarters today, although Dadant has ten branch locations across the United States. Western Bee Supplies, located in Montana, is a subsidiary of Dadant and makes all of its woodenware.

Kelley Beekeeping: This company was originally started in Louisiana in the 1920s by Mr. Walter T. Kelley. With Mr. Kelley’s death in 1986, the company transitioned to private ownership and now has its manufacturing base in Kentucky. It offers a wide range of manufactured goods for beekeeping.

Mann Lake: Mann Lake began in Hackensack, Minnesota, thirty-one years ago and remains the location where the majority of its products are manufactured. Mann Lake has three branch locations in the United States, as well as a branch in the United Kingdom. The manufacturer markets itself as a “100% Employee-Owned Company.” (For further elaboration on exactly what that slogan means, feel free to contact Mann Lake directly!)

Miller Bee Supply: Miller began in 1976 as a father-son owned business. In 1994, the son, Presley, bought out his father’s share and became the sole owner. In 2003, Miller built their current warehouse in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, out of which they continue to operate today.

Shastina Millwork: The owners of Shastina Millwork have over fifty years of experience in the lumber and wood industry and have serviced bee box manufacturers throughout that time period. Additionally, Shastina manufactures wooden products for the agricultural industry, an enterprise that has been functioning for twenty years. For over a decade, Shastina has been producing a wide variety of woodenware for beekeepers, ranging from novice to expert. Although Shastina began as a family business and has now grown into a mid-size corporation, it strives to preserve the “small-town family” mindset.

Ladies and gentlemen, there you have it: the pride of beekeeping manufacturers. In the words of Bottom to Quince in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “Let [them] roar again.”

Getting Down to the Nitty-Gritty: A Framed Review

Before we take a closer look at the wooden frames produced by the featured manufacturers, a few words on the parameters framing this review are in order.

All of the frames are deep (9-1/8”) and were assembled using 17-gauge cement-coated box nails designed specifically for frame construction. This is the traditional method by which frames are assembled seeing that not everyone has pneumatic staplers and nailers.

Two cement-coated box nails (1-1/4”) were used to attach the top bar to the end bars, and two cement-coated nails (1”) were used to attach the bottom bar to the end bars. All frame joints were also glued with Titebond II for reinforcement.

framejigA frame assembly jig like the one pictured was used to enable ten frames to be assembled at a time, holding parts square during assembly.

Ten end bars are inserted on each side of the jig, sandwiched between two boards, with pressure applied from the outer board using elastic straps. Glue is applied to the end bar notches and the top bars are applied to all ten and nailed. The jig is then flipped over and the process repeated with the bottom bars. Once the frames are completely assembled the elastic straps are removed and the inner boards fall out along with the frames.

In this review we assessed ten wedge frames and ten groove frames from each manufacturer (with the exception of Shastina, who only produces grooved top bar frames), with top bar ends varying between square and chamfered depending on the manufacturer. Even though we assessed both top bar frame designs, however, the features that were commendable and/or problematic had less to do with style and more to do with the quality of manufacturing. Therefore, the focus of each review is on the overall quality of frames per manufacturer rather than the nuances between the frames styles of each.

Finally, for the sake of fluidity, product references, numerical data, precise measurements and price comparisons (net cost per frame) have been either listed or formatted into a chart at the conclusion of this article for the reader’s convenience.

We have separated this review according to manufacturer, so we’ll start alphabetically.

Framed: Beeline Apiaries and Woodenware

Frame grade: commercial

Top bar ends: square

Wood type: Eastern Pine

Assembly nails included with purchase: no

General: Wood is slightly rough with loose-hanging wood fibers. The end bars of Beeline frames feature a double dado bottom bar joint that present no splitting issue when nailed. On the wedge top bars, the wedge is easily removed by hand, with a tool needed to remove the remaining thin strip of wood on the top bar. The wedge cleans up easily by hand as well.

Pluses: The frame parts come together snugly, creating tight joints that hold together when dry fitting. The pine used for the frames has a very even grain pattern with consistently low wood density, making it easy to drive nails straight. Only occasionally did we come across denser pieces with wider or more angled grain.

Problems: beelineTBcurveSeventy-five percent of the end bars extend up past the top of the top bar. There are also no rabbets on the bottom bar against which to seat the end bars, making assembly more difficult as you have to spend extra time lining up the pieces before nailing them in place. Beeline is one of only two manufacturers whose bottom bars aren’t rabbeted. And, while we expect all pieces of wood to have a limited degree of warping regardless of manufacturer, one top bar from Beeline was deformed beyond reason and rehabilitation, rendering the frame useless.

Net price: $1.61/ea.

Framed: Betterbee

Frame grade: only one available

Top bar ends: square

Wood type: Eastern Pine

Assembly nails included with purchase: no

General: betterbeejointThe wood is nicely milled with the smoothest finish of all the brands. The quality is consistent and uniform in all twenty frame parts. The grain pattern is slight with overall consistency, providing for easy nailing. The frame pieces fit together well with no wiggle room, a characteristic especially noticeable when attempting to slide the end bar into the dados of the top bar. You can dry fit the frame parts together and wave the frame around and it will hold firmly together, demonstrating exceptionally tight joints. There are, however, hanging wood fibers on the bottom bar rabbet cuts, although they are soft, thin, and don’t pose a sliver issue.

Pluses: The top bar wedge strip is the sturdiest of all the wedges reviewed (measuring a full ¼” x ½”), yet remains easy to break off. Upon separating the wedge from the top bar the remaining thin wood strips on both are slight and easily removed with a finger, although most often the top bar is free of any thin strip of wood after the wedge is broken off. In our opinion, the quality of the precut wedge doesn’t get better than Betterbee’s.

Betterbee features one of the thickest end bars made. The pre-drilled holes are clean, with very few wood fibers remaining in them. The rabbet cuts on the bottom bar ends that receive the end bars, while being very slight, still leave enough of a shoulder to support the end bar. This provides more wood (approx. ¼”) on either side of the groove to receive fasteners for attaching to the end bar, decreasing the chance of the bottom bar ends splitting. We had no splitting issues.

Problems: Due to tight tolerances of the joints, a bit more effort is required to assemble the frames. Chamfered end bars would aid in assembling.

Net Price: $1.06/ea.

Framed: Dadant & Sons Beekeeping Supplies/Western Bee Supplies

Frame grade: select

Top bar ends: chamfered

Wood type: Western Ponderosa Pine

Assembly nails included with purchase: yes

General: The wood is slightly rough to the touch with loose-hanging wood fibers on the edges. The Ponderosa Pine has a pronounced grain pattern and is denser than Eastern Pine. Of all the frames, Dadant/Western frames actually weigh the most. The top bar has a chamfered end profile. Dry fitting parts together requires little effort and you cannot wave and shake the frame around without it coming apart.

End bars (3/8” thick) have pre-drilled holes with considerable fibers remaining in them on one side of the bar. Occasionally the end bar extends above the top bar. The bottom bar (1/2” thick) has a 3/8” deep “V” groove with a width of 3/16” tapered to 1/8” at the bottom making it the widest available.

Pluses: Once together, the frame is solid and has a heavier feel than all the others. (That’s because it is heavier!) The frame also features thick end bars and bottom bars.

Problems: The wedge strip requires some effort to remove by hand and usually needs a sharp tool to remove the remaining thin strip of wood, as it rarely breaks cleanly and tends to splinter when separated. (It’s a scrappy piece of wood!) The wedge strip (5/32”x 1/2”) is one of the thinnest manufactured.

dadantbottombarsplitWhen nailing the bottom bar to the end bar, we notice that the bottom bar ends consistently split. This is due to the grain pattern and density of the wood species as well as the narrow/deep piece of wood the nail is penetrating, although it doesn’t appear to negatively affect the integrity of the bottom bar. The photo clearly shows how the nails follow the grain of the wood on an angle.

Nailing parts together takes considerable more effort due to the grain of the wood. It is quite difficult to drive nails straight; we find that nails frequently want to take off in a different direction, following the grain. We wonder if this happens as well when using pneumatic fasteners.

Net Price: $1.16/ea.

* 09/01/15 Western Bee Supply bottom bar update at the end of the article.

Framed: Kelley Beekeeping

Frame grade: only one available

Top bar ends: square

Wood type: Pine (species unknown)

Assembly nails included with purchase: yes

kelleyendbarbottom

General: Wood has a slight roughness to the touch with hanging loose wood fibers on the edges. The pine used has a very slight grain pattern and the wood density was consistent, making it easy to drive nails straight. Frame parts fit together well, creating tight joints that held together when dry fitting. The top bar wedge strip is easy to break off by hand, the easiest to remove of all the brands. The remaining thin strip of wood on both the wedge and top bar after separation is very slight and easily removed with a finger or tool. The wedge itself is very sturdy.

kelleyFframeAll frame styles assessed (SG, SGX, N and F) have end bars with pre-drilled holes for wiring and pins, while the “N” style has a groove as well. The “N” style has a slot all the way through the top bar, running its length. This style is designed for wax foundation with or without wires. The “F” style top bar has a “V” shaped underside providing a starting point from which bees build comb. All styles utilize a double dado bottom bar/end bar joint where the center pin fits into the groove of the bottom bar, offering maximum area for glue and support.

Pluses: kelleysplittopKelley’s “N” style end bars are very robust measuring over ½” thick! They provide a lot of surface area for attaching top and bottom bars, creating quite a strong frame. Even their standard end bar with a double dado joint for the bottom bar makes for a strong connection when all parts are milled correctly, providing maximum surface area for glue.

Problems: Even though the wax foundation sits within a wood groove on all sides on the “N” style frame, Kelley still recommends support pins or cross wiring. This gives us cause to wonder how hard it will be to clean out the top bar slot, end and bottom bar grooves when it comes time to replace the foundation, as those are spaces where a lot of wax and propolis are bound to end up. You would have to remove the cross wires in order to slide a new piece of foundation down the grooves.

Frame parts and joints are somewhat lacking in dimensional consistency and accuracy. The top bars, for example, are as short as 18-15/16” and as long as 19-1/16”, varying as much as 1/8” in length. Given the close tolerance between the end of a frame and the hive body (1/16”), combined with wax and propolis, you could have difficulty manipulating frames with a top bar over 19” in length. We feel a full 1/16th spacing, in this case, is an important dimension to maintain.

kelleyridge2The two cuts in the top bar that create the wedge do not cut equally to form a smooth rabbet once the wedge is removed. A 1/8” x 1/16” shoulder remains. This restricts the wedge from compressing tightly against the foundation, as wax foundation is thinner than 1/8”. You are forced to lift the wedge up and over this ridge in order to contact the foundation for securing. This is just another slowdown in the assembly process.

We found advertising inconsistent with the actual measurements of the frame. The “SG” style end bars are 5/16” thick (while advertised as 3/8” thick), and the “N” style end bars measure 9/16” thick, while advertised as ½” thick. The “SGX” and “F” style are both 1/32″ shy of 3/8″.

kelleybadfitBBWhile the thicker “N” style end bars assembled without a problem, the standard thinner ones on the “SG” style had a high percentage of splitting at the bottom bar joint. When the bottom bar is seated all the way into the double dado joint on the end bar (the outer two fingers measuring 3/16” wide), a split is created at one of the fingers nearly every time, compromising the integrity of the end bar. We found the reason for this splitting is due to the groove in the bottom bar not being exactly centered, whereby the center pin of the double dado forces it to one side.

Eighteen out of twenty “SG” end bars split at the bottom joint due to a poor-fitting double dado joint. Five out of twenty “SGX” end bars split. No splitting on the “F” frames.

Kelley's end bar above top bar.A vast majority of Kelley’s end bars stick above the top bar. We’re not sure whether this is due to the dado in the end bar or the milling of the ear of the top bar, or both. This lends itself to frustration when scraping and/or cleaning top bars with a hive tool, since the tool catches on these pieces of wood.

Net Price: $1.20

Framed: Mann Lake

Frame grade: only one available

Top bar ends: chamfered

Wood type: Pine (species unknown)

Assembly nails included with purchase: no

General: mannlakebevelsNicely milled wood, fairly smooth to the touch. The quality and dimensionality is consistent throughout all twenty frame parts. The wood has a more pronounced grain pattern and the wood density is consistent, making it easy enough to drive nails straight. The end bars come either plain or with pre-drilled holes. The end bars with holes are fairly clean with few wood fibers remaining in them. The top bar/end bar joint is tight enough to stay together when dry fit, however the end bar/bottom bar joint does not hold together when dry fit.

Pluses: Mann Lake is one of two manufacturers that chamfer the top and bottom dado cuts in the end bar, a nice touch and added bonus that improves the ease of frame assembly.

mannlaketopbarsProblems: The wedge style top bar measures 11/16” thick, while the groove style is reduced to 5/8” thickness. This decreases the shoulder height on the top bar, making it more difficult to install a nail or staple through the end bar into the top bar under the bar ear.mannlakesplitBB

As with Dadant/Western, Mann Lake’s bottom bar (at ½” thick) frequently has minor splitting at the ends when being nailed, although this doesn’t appear to negatively impact the integrity of the bottom bar or frame.

Net Price: $1.25/ea.

Framed: Miller Bee Supply

Frame grade: #1

Top bar ends: square

Wood type: Eastern Pine

Assembly nails included with purchase: no

General: There is a smooth feel to the wood and the quality is consistent in all twenty frame parts. The wood grain pattern is slight with overall consistency, making it easy to nail together. There is little to no splitting at the bottom bar ends when nailed. Frame parts fit together fairly loosely (you can’t pick up a dry fit frame that holds together), however the looseness of the joint fit makes assembly quite easy. The removal of the wedge strip tends to leave the remaining wood ridge entirely on either the top bar or wedge. Removal of this ridge requires a tool.

Pluses: It is a fine manufactured frame. It has a good clean look overall, and very clean holes in the end bars for the most part.

Problems: millerjointgapThere is a lack of consistency in the milling of the top bar ends. The two dados for the end bars are not always aligned with the shoulder, thereby creating a noticeable gap. This causes a lack of additional lateral support to the end bars.

Net Price: $0.95/ea.

Framed: Shastina Millwork

Frame grade: only one available

Top bar ends: chamfered

Wood type: Western Ponderosa Pine

Assembly nails included with purchase: no

General: Shastina uses Ponderosa Pine for their frames. They make one frame style with a grooved top and bottom bar. Parts are generally smooth to the touch. End bars have distinctive mill markings with one side smooth and the other side roughened with fine bandsaw markings. The end bars do not come pre-drilled with holes.shastinabevels

Pluses: End bars are chamfered slightly on the top and greater on the bottom, aiding in faster assembly.

The frame parts assemble easily and quickly and fit together well, with little to no movement once dry fit. The dry fit frame holds together when shaken.

Problems: The species of wood is denser than Eastern Pine with a prominent grain, making it more difficult to nail by hand and drive nails straight.

Net price: $1.25/ea.

Concluding Remarks

While all seven companies manufacture frames that fall within the acceptable parameters of frame construction and use in modern beekeeping equipment, you can see that there are differences (some quite distinct) among them.

About Wood:

Wood species proves to have a significant impact on frame assembly, particularly when small, thin pieces of wood are fastened together. Eastern Pine is easier to nail and far more forgiving than Western Pine. Driving a nail straight into a frame made of Western Pine takes considerable more effort than one made of Eastern Pine. Its higher density and more prominent graining tends to force the nail in the direction of the grain.

Fifty frames made of Western Pine required four hundred nails, of which nineteen broke through the side of the end bar (and we are no novices when it comes to driving nails!). In the assembly of one hundred twenty frames made of Eastern Pine (requiring eight hundred eighty nails), ten broke through the side of the end bar, five of which happened on the thinnest end bars made by Kelley. Whether the results would have been different with the use of a pneumatic fastener is not something about which we are prepared to remark. Hopefully those who have tried it will share their findings.

End Bars:

End bars with chamfered notches for the top and bottom bars like those of Mann Lake and Shastina are easier to assemble. The chamfers guide the adjoining pieces into the joint with ease, while it takes more work to assemble a joint that has square edges, especially those with very tight-fitting joints.

The double dado joint used by Beeline and Kelley to attach their bottom bar can be a double-edged sword. We realize it has more surface area for gluing (which is good), however it also requires a higher degree of accuracy in manufacturing to keep all parts fitting properly. When there is even slight misalignment, it can cause the bottom of the end bar to split. This seems like an unnecessary hassle on both ends considering the fact that a simple single dado works just fine.

Bottom Bars:

If assembling more than a handful of frames we are of the opinion that not having rabbeted notches on the bottom bar (like Beeline and Kelley) is a considerable disadvantage. Extra time and attention have to be given to this stage of assembly to make sure the bottom bar is in the correct position before attaching. This usually results in getting glue on your hands as you wrestle to properly adjust it. Conversely, having a notched bottom bar enables automatic self-alignment of the two pieces as they are joined.

BBrabbetBetween the two thicknesses of bottom bars used (1/2” and 3/8”), bars that measure ½” have a tendency to split at the end when nailed, unlike the bar that measures 3/8”. The slightest of rabbeting (A) on the ½” thick bars as opposed to the deeper rabbet (B), would provide maximum amount of wood to nail through, thereby helping to reduce the splitting of the ends. Structurally, however, either thickness should suffice when it comes to proper function in a frame. We are aware that in certain circumstances when bees build brace/burr comb between the bottom bar and the top bar directly below it, lifting apart boxes can pull a thinner bottom bar away from the foundation. If the foundation is plastic that simply sits in the bottom groove, this can cause the bottom of the foundation to come out of the groove if the comb hasn’t been fully drawn out, a process that can help secure the foundation to the frame parts. In this case, the thicker bottom bar would help resist flexing.

Squaring Things Off:

best_square_framesAfter assembling all the frames from each manufacturer we set them in a hive body to assess the “squareness” of the frames and whether proper bee space was maintained between the end bars and the hive body.

Even with the use of a frame jig in assembly we expect there to be some variance between the frames, albeit slight. Overall, we found that most frames maintained an acceptable degree of squareness to their shape. More than half of the manufacturers have one or two frames that failed to meet standard acceptability, while three stand out for having the highest degree of squareness: the grooved TB frame by Betterbee, Kelley’s wedged TB and the grooved TB by Shastina.

Mix and Match:

framegap2As the data in the graph reveals, every manufacturer makes its frames distinct from the rest. You can mix and match frames from different manufacturers, however, and not have an issue with them fitting horizontally into a Langstroth hive body, as they self-space 1-3/8” apart, center-to-center. Yet where you will notice variation is in the frame bee space vertically between hive bodies (the space created between the top bars of the bottom hive body and the bottom bars of the hive body that sits above it). As we measured this area, we found that manufacturers fell into two groups.

Comprising Group One, Dadant/Western, Mann Lake and Shastina frames all have the same top/bottom bee space. Likewise, in Group Two, Betterbee, Kelley and Miller have the same top/bottom bee space (Beeline falls between these two groups). If you were to therefore combine any of the frames of the members of Group One, regardless of whether they are placed in the top or bottom body hive position, they would consistently create a bee space measuring between 7/16” and 1/2”. You might be surprised to know that the same measurements apply to Group Two, as they also create a bee space of between 7/16” and 1/2”.

You are probably asking, “So…what’s the difference then?”

The difference arises when you use frames from Group One and Group Two within the same hive. Any frame from Group One in the bottom hive body position with any frame from Group Two in the top body position will create a 3/8” space between frames. Conversely, any frame from Group One in the top position paired with any frame from Group Two in the bottom position will create a 1/2” space between frames. This may or may not become an issue for you, but we could see where it may pose a problem when frames with burr or brace comb on the top or bottom bars are moved around within the hive.

And The Winner Is…

Since the look and feel of a frame is one’s first impression, Betterbee’s frames excelled in this area. Their advertising is correct when they say, “The fit is excellent. . . . we find they are much easier to nail, too.” Betterbee employs quality milling that produces a smooth, uniform wood that is easy to work with. If Betterbee’s design elements fit your needs and taste (top bar square ends, 3/8” thick bottom bar), we think you’ll be pleased with them.

Beyond the look and feel of a frame is functionality. In most circumstances a 3/8″ thick bottom bar functions just fine, but a 1/2″ bottom bar will have less flex and have a third more surface contact in the joint, making it a little more secure to the end bar. If this is an important design element for you, you’ll have to choose between Dadant/Western, Mann Lake, and Shastina. We see no clear “winner” between these three. Final purchase price will probably have the biggest impact on choice.

Room for Improvement

We are disappointed with some of Kelley’s frame elements. The lack of dimensional consistency in the top bars, the absence of a rabbeted stop on the bottom bars and having the thinnest end bars (excluding their “N” style frame) that also consistently protrude above the top bar all contribute to their less favorable rating.

The Ideal Frame?

If we could design the very best frame, the species of wood used would be Eastern Pine for its straight grain and ease of nailing during assembly. The top bar would be a full ¾” thick, the ears chamfered (Dadant, Mann Lake and Shastina) and the wedge strip would be an ample thickness of 1/4” (Betterbee, Kelley, Miller). The end bars would be 3/8” thick, never protrude above the top bar (Betterbee, Mann Lake, Miller, Shastina), and have chamfered top and bottom dados (Mann Lake, Shastina). The bottom bar would be ½” thick with the slightest of rabbeted ends (like Betterbee). This would maximize the width of wood the fastener goes through and thus reduce splitting.

Money Matters

A final and important consideration is, of course, cost (a factor that many beekeepers tend to focus on more than quality). Defining total price is impossible given the fact that the cost of shipping isn’t constant. However, as of the date of publication of this article, the net cost per frame with no quantity discounts are as follows:

  • Beeline: $1.61
  • Betterbee: $1.06
  • Dadant/Western: $1.16
  • Kelley: $1.20
  • Mann Lake: $1.25
  • Miller: $0.95
  • Shastina: $1.25

Most manufacturers will offer lower per frame costs if a customer purchases above a certain quantity (i.e. 100 frames). Since there are many variables that contribute to and impact total frame cost (like shipping, a factor naturally affected by geography), it will be up to the buyer to investigate and holistically compare price differences between manufacturers.

In the End…

Every frame we tested will do what a frame is designed to do: provide a means of holding a piece of foundation in place so that bees can draw out comb that the beekeeper can remove, replace and manipulate as needed. How niggling or inconsequential manufacturing differences are, however, is for the beekeeper to decide. That being said, if you’re going to invest a small fortune into wooden frames, we think you should get the most from your investment and know all of the options available.

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Supporting data:

framegraph framecodes

Top Bars

7topbars topbarside
End Bars
endbars endbarthickness
Bottom Bars
bottombars2 bottombars

 


Beeline Apiaries
20960 M-60
Mendon, MI 49072
Ph: 269-496-7001
Email: beeline@abcmailbox.net
Web: http://beelinewoodenware.com/
Mann Lake
501 S. 1st St.
Hackensack, MN 56452
Ph: 800-880-7694
Web: http://www.mannlakeltd.com/
Betterbee
8 Meader Road
Greenwich, NY 12834
Ph: 800-632-3379
Email: info@betterbee.com
Web: http://www.betterbee.com/
Miller Bee Supply
496 Yellow Banks Road
North Wilkesboro, NC 28659
Ph: 336-670-2249
Email: woodnwax@embarqmail.com
Web: https://www.millerbeesupply.com/catalog/
Dadant
51 South 2nd Street
Hamilton, IL 62341
Ph: 217-847-3324
Email: dadant@dadant.com
Web: http://www.dadant.com/
Shastina Millwork
2276 Avenue H
White City, OR 97503
Ph: 877-789-7526
Web: http://www.shastinamillwork.com/
Kelley Beekeeping
807 West Main Street
Clarkson, KY 42726
Ph: 800-233-2899
Email: Online contact form
Web: https://www.kelleybees.com/index.html
Western Bee Supplies
5 – 9th Ave. E.
Polson, MT 59860
Ph: 800-548-8440
Email: rick@westernbee.com
Web: http://westernbee.com/

* In response to Rick Molenda’s comments below, I asked him to send me Western Bee’sdadantBBrouteredSM routered bottom bar for review. The grooved bottom bar that was used in the review, has the groove going the full length of the bottom bar. When we nailed through it into the end bars, most every time it would split. This new routered design has the groove stopping just short of both ends, providing solid wood to nail through.

The frames we nailed together using this routered bottom bar did not split the wood. We’re not sure what the cost is for this bottom bar compared to the other one, but it’s a great improvement and we give it two thumbs up!

dadantBBroutered3SM dadantBBroutered2SM

15 Responses to Wood Frames for the Langstroth Hive

  1. rbirkey April 14, 2015 at 10:51 pm #

    This is an amazing amount of research and work on a very practical subject! Thanks for doing this and keep up the great work!

  2. mac May 3, 2015 at 10:29 am #

    WOW lots of info well done BUT if I were a new bee it is info overload tmi
    they would like Tell me what to buy which is better

  3. Bizzybee May 3, 2015 at 9:54 pm #

    Nice job!

  4. Matt June 3, 2015 at 6:11 pm #

    This is a great article, thank you very much.

    I certainly have to concur about Kelley. I purchased a number of woodenware items from them earlier this year, and almost the entire order was unusabld due to either very poor quality or dimensions so far off items like frames or suppers couldn’t even be assembled. They were kind enough to replace the order, but even then, many of the replacement items were not of good quality. I was able to piece together enough suitable items between the two orders. They don’t even compare to the quality of Brushy Mountain Bee.

    It would be great to know which of the suppliers you reviewed provide what types of frames. For example, I ordered from Kelley as they were one of the few suppliers, that I was aware of, that provide foundationless frames.

    Thanks again, keep up the good work.

  5. Barry June 3, 2015 at 6:53 pm #

    In reply to Matt.

    Hi Matt –

    If you look under “Supporting data”, the graph on the right shows what frames were reviewed from which manufacturer.

    Regards, Barry

  6. John June 26, 2015 at 7:35 am #

    Super awesome job !!! Barry Birkey, if you are not working for one of the beek magazine companies, you should be. I would love it if the magazines provided unbiased, well researched reviews such as this. It reads like an auto or motorcycle review, which I love. There are no details left out. I was very pleased that the Betterbee frame won out for the most part. I’ve used almost every manufacturer’s frame, and personally, I prefer the Betterbee model. Granted, I don’t use a frame jig, and I ALWAYS use a pneumatic stapler. I have never had a bad split or had to throw away a Betterbee frame. And this year my medium sized equipment order was $100 less for comparable equipment through Betterbee. I apoligize if it sounds like I’m putting in a plug for them, as that is not my intention. When it comes to screened bottom boards, Betterbee is not my brand of choice. (Hint for next review). Thanks for the great research!

  7. Rick August 14, 2015 at 1:56 pm #

    Respectfully, I would like to point out that Western Bee 9 1/8″ Commercial grade
    frame starts at $0.85/frame and is discounted from there based on quanitity
    purchased. We also offer a routered bottom bar which is exclusive to the world
    of beekeeping – the groove in this bottom bar does not extend out the end of the
    bottom bar, leaving all wood to glue/staple/nail into the end bar.

    Regards,

    Rick Molenda, Gen. Mgr.
    Western Bee Supplies, Inc.
    Polson, MT

  8. Barry August 14, 2015 at 8:37 pm #

    In reply to Rick.

    Hi Rick – Thanks for the heads up on your unique bottom bar design. That’s a great idea and should eliminate the splitting at the end when nailing. Yes, some manufacturers have an additional lower grade frame for sale at a lower price point. I chose to use only the best from each so the comparison was apples to apples. Regards.

  9. Rick September 2, 2015 at 12:53 pm #

    Barry, Thank you for the update regarding our routered bottom bar. We do still make
    the grooved one as well, but are pushing more and more towards just having the
    routered version. The price I quoted above of 85 cents is the same grade as all
    others that you have quoted. Although we are connected to Dadants and supply all
    their woodenware, we also sell direct around the world and all 50 states. Our
    pricing is not the same as Dadants-it is less as it is direct from our manufacturing
    plant here in Western Mt. This is our 50th year in operation.

    Thanks again,

    Rick Molenda, Gen. Mgr.

  10. Andrey October 16, 2015 at 10:11 pm #

    I personally really liked Kelley’s foundationless frames. Also I like the fact that their bottom bars a are thinner than some others. It is there only for support and my bees seldom fasten any comb to it, I would think making them even thinner would be even better for better wintering. IMO.

  11. Bill Thompson January 26, 2016 at 10:18 pm #

    Enjoyed the article throughly! Winter project at six below zero in Minnesota was the construction on 10 medium supers and the 100 foundation frames for next years honey crop. The bees were still buzzing at Christmas so I hopeful heading into February. Anyway, the frames were Mann Lake and I have to comment on the quality of the manufacturing. 100 frames, 400 individual pieces to glue and nail with only one bottom rail with a slight curve. Using my inherited Sears workbench from the 1960,s as a jig, I was able place, glue, nail and insert the foundation in less than 5 minutes a frame. I inserted the foundation before attaching the bottom rail as I found that easier than popping it in after the frame was constructed. I was so impressed with the quality of the woodwork I thought I should share my experience. I have not had the opportunity to try any of the other manufactures products listed so this not intended as a commentary on which product is best. I just thought I would take the time to share my experience.

  12. Evan S March 17, 2016 at 10:18 pm #

    I found this interesting & informative! Thanks for doing the research.

  13. Redhawk June 13, 2016 at 3:53 am #

    Great review! As newbee, but also a longtime woodworker, I can tell you that this is the type of research that I’ve long appreciated within the woodworking mags. And you’ve opened my eyes in advance of the inevitable, I need to find my hammer & start practicing. I don’t use nails in my products. lol

  14. D. Murrell June 17, 2016 at 8:25 am #

    Great review. I really appreciate the mix and match section having found out about this the hard way.

  15. Paula August 15, 2016 at 7:14 am #

    Thank you, Thank you, Thank you,

    I am doing a pre research prior to purchasing our Hive and getting it ready for ordering our first bee’s come spring. With so much info out there, I really felt more confused if anything. This research has answered so many lingering ?’s I had.
    As a newbee, I didn’t find it over whelming at all, infact as a base for further studying. As a beginner I want to buy a long lasting product or at least something that during assembly will not fail – not even getting out of the gate – sort of speak. I am excited I stumbled on this, great job!

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