Field Guide to Beekeeping

December 2014

Assembling Wooden Frames


Frames are the workhorses of the manmade parts of a honey bee hive. They provide the structure in which bees build the combs; thus, frames bear the entire weight of a colony’s wax infrastructure, honey/pollen stores, and brood nursery. They are spaced from one another and the hive’s walls a distance of 3/8s of an inch. This spacing, termed “bee space,” limits bees’ placement of propolis or wax in the area between adjacent frames and between frames and the hive’s walls. Herein lies the simple beauty of a Langstroth colony. The frames lack attachment to other structures in the hive because of the use of bee space. Resultantly, they can be removed from the hive with ease. The discovery and exploitation of bee space ushered in modern beekeeping. For the first time, combs could be inspected and colonies intensely manipulated.

The basic frame is simple in design and the vast majority of frames are made of wood, a smaller minority of plastic. The wooden frame has four basic parts: a top bar, two end bars, and a bottom bar (Figure 1). Top bars (Figure 2) have a flat upper surface, two “lugs” that overhang the joint they share with the end bar, and a lower surface that contains a groove. The groove is flanked by two bulges of wood I will call “ribs.” Top bars are either “grooved” (both ribs are attached to the top bar) or contain a wedge cleat (one rib is attached to the top bar). The wedge cleat can be removed from the top bar to make it easier to install Crimp-wired foundation.

The end bars of a frame (Figure 3) are what give the various sizes of frame their names. This is because there are three heights of end bars: tall, medium, and short. This, then, makes frames “deep” (when the tall end bars are used), “medium” or “Illinois” (when the medium end bars are used), or “shallow” (when the short end bars are used). End bars have notches at the top and bottom that are cut to accommodate the top and bottom-bars respectively. Most end bars contain two-to-four holes that are used when wiring foundation into frames.
The bottom bars of a frame come in three types: (1) solid, (2) split, and (3) grooved (Figure 4). The grooved bottom bars are the most common, followed by the split bottom bar. I rarely see solid bottom bars used any longer.

Frames are a very important part of the bee hive so it is essential that they are assembled correctly. Frame assembly is a simple process, but there are a few key points one must consider in order to maximize the long-term usefulness and integrity of the frame.

1) First, frames are under a lot of pressure in the hive. They are suspended by their lugs which rest on a special groove present on the front and back internal walls of the super in which the frames are placed. The weight of a deep frame full of honey can exceed 10 pounds. This, coupled with the fact that frame lugs are glued into the hive boxes by the bees using propolis, means that great force must be used to free the frame from the hive when removing them for inspection purposes. Thus, frames must be assembled in a manner that they can withstand the pressure placed on them by their own weight and a beekeeper’s hive tool.
2) Frames should be assembled with wood glue (Figure 5). The glue should be applied on all frame joints prior to fastening the parts together with nails or staples. Wood glue helps the frame parts stay together better. It reinforces the holding power of the nails or staples that will be applied later.
3) Most people who assemble frames fasten the frame parts together using nails or staples. Staples are a nice option because they are, essentially, two nails held together by a small bar (or crown). Of course, one can use nails to assemble frames. However, it takes twice as many nails as it does staples to assemble a frame. In the end, staples are less work.
4) A common mistake when assembling frames is to use too few nails/staples (“fasteners”) when assembling the frame. Of course, a top bar and bottom bar must be secured to the end bars using fasteners driven straight through the one and into the other. Usually, beekeepers will drive a fastener (1) through the top of the top bar and into the end bar and (2) from the bottom of the bottom bar and into the end bar. These are the “essential” fastener positions, but they are not the only place that the fasteners should be inserted. A frame assembled using fasteners only in these positions can come apart when being removed from the hive. This is due to two reasons. First, bees glue frame lugs to the hive walls using propolis. Thus, a hive tool must be wedged under the top bar of the frame and pressure applied in a downward direction to lift the frame out the hive. Second, fasteners driven into the frame in the opposite direction that the force is applied from the hive tool can slide out of position if other parts of the frame are glued securely to the hive wall. So, it is common to pop the top bar of a frame from the end bars while the rest of the frame remains secured to the hive body with propolis. The way to get around this phenomenon, which happens often and is very annoying, is to apply fasteners in a 90° angle to the direction of the force applied by the hive tool when loosening/removing the frame from the colony. This will make more sense when you read the step-by-step instructions for assembling frames, where I use figures to illustrate this point.
5) Frames do not need to be treated with wood preservative. They remain inside a colony their entire life. I mention this because many new beekeepers hear about treating colony woodenware and assume the frames should be treated as well.
6) A properly assembled frame must be square, i.e. each corner in a frame must be a 90º angle. A properly assembled frame is a rectangle, not a rhombus. I like to take my frames and apply the “wobble” test once I have finished assembling them. I use one hand to grab the top bar of the frame and a second hand to grab the bottom bar of the frame. I, then, try to force the top and bottom bars in opposite directions, back-and-forth. It the frame wobbles, it needs more fasteners.

You might find the following recommendation strange given all of the information I just provided on assembling frames. I believe it is easier and more economical to purchase assembled frames. Most equipment manufacturers/vendors sell assembled frames. These frames usually are assembled with glue and staples. Furthermore, the frames often are assembled with an extra staple driven through the face of the end bar and into the rib of the top bar (a figure illustrating this follows). This extra staple provides extra support to the top bar of the frame, making it very unlikely that you will pry the top bar from the end bars when attempting to remove a frame from the hive.

Furthermore, the added price of a preassembled frame over that of an unassembled one, i.e. the price you pay for the frame’s assembly, usually is considerably less than the value of your time assembling the frame. In summary, preassembled frames are assembled well and worth the slight increase in price over unassembled frames. Of course, every beekeeper should assemble a frame, or even a hive’s worth of frames. However, I believe it is usually more economical to purchase frames fully assembled. Since this is true, I believe it is overwhelmingly more economical to purchase frames rather than make them from scratch. I have made frames from scratch and it was a fun endeavor for me. It was not, however, an economical one.

Step-by-step instructions for assembling frames

1) Collect the following equipment/supplies: Wood glue (Figure 5)
Staple gun (or hammer) – Staple guns that are run using ...