Plastic Vs. Wax Based Bee Foundation (Choose Wisely!)

plastic vs wax bee foundation

Beekeeping can be a time-consuming undertaking.

As a result, beekeepers are constantly trying new ideas. 

I often ask myself, “will this be better for the bees”? Or “will it save me time and money”? 

Plastic and wax foundation for frames is a prime example of this. So which option should you choose?

In this article, I’ll give you a complete overview so you can make an informed choice…

Bee Foundation – Plastic Vs. Wax-Based

Wax foundation is a more natural approach to beekeeping as the sheets are made from beeswax rather than an artificial product. But wax is more difficult to fit into frames. Plastic foundation is easier to use and more durable, but the bees may not accept the sheets, and the plastic can leech toxins.

Foundation is a method beekeepers use to encourage bees to build wax comb on a Langstroth hive frame. Foundation can be fitted to frames of all sizes, but the design of the foundation can be adjusted for different purposes.

The foundation’s purpose is to give the bees a strong building block or “foundation” from which they can draw out the comb. The structure encourages the bees to build straight comb within the frame and keep the comb regular and orderly.

As you will have found, there are mainly two options for foundation available to beekeepers: 

  • wax foundation sheets 
  • plastic foundation sheets

Wax-Based Foundation Pros And Cons

The wax-based foundation consists of thin sheets of beeswax cut to specific sizes to fit in the various frames.

The sheet can be smooth, but most commercial wax foundation sheets (like these) are made in a mold that embosses a raised hexagon shape of the comb cell. This shape is a starting point for the bees to draw out comb.

The wax-based foundation has been used for many years by beekeepers. Still, it has its disadvantages along with its advantages.

Pros for Wax FoundationCons For Wax Foundation
It is a natural product if pure beeswax is used.Some manufacturers mix paraffin wax or candle wax into beeswax to cut costs.
The wax attracts the bees and encourages them to build comb.It breaks easily
Bees readily accept wax foundation to begin building the wax combsMelts easily in hot climates.
Relatively cheap compared to plastic foundation.Not reusable, increasing long-term costs.
Cut comb can be harvested to be sold in this format.Requires wire to hold the wax foundation in place on the frame during honey extraction.
Beeswax foundation is not as heavy as plastic foundation.
Beekeepers can make their own wax foundation with wax harvested from their own hives. This limits the possible spread of disease from wax from unknown sources.
Bees build out comb faster on wax foundation than plastic foundation.
Beeswax is edible
Bees will build comb across the entire foundation sheet

New beekeepers may find it challenging to work with beeswax. It is pretty fragile and requires more work to fit into the frame.

Experienced beekeepers have little to no problems working with wax foundations since they have established processes and workflows to make operating with wax easier.

In fact, many beekeepers use their own wax to make the foundation sheets using a mold like this, saving on costs and preventing the spread of diseases from using wax from an unknown source. (Amazon)

Plastic Foundation Benefits And Concerns

Plastic foundation is an alternative to wax-based sheets. The plastic sheets are molded to the right shape and size to fit various frame types.

Similarly to wax sheets, the surface of the plastic is embossed with raised hexagonal bee comb cell shapes to encourage the bees to build the correct cell types and sizes.

The main benefits of plastic foundation sheets are as follows.

Pros of Plastic FoundationCons of Plastic Foundation
Plastic foundation sheets are more durable and not susceptible to damage by excessive heat or cold.Plastic foundation is heavier than wax foundation.
Frames can be colored. Black frames are often used in brood chambers because the white eggs and larvae are more easily visible against the black background. White or yellow frames are used for honey supers.Bees may be reluctant to accept plastic foundation.
Reusable, saving on long-term costsRelatively expensive upfront
Easy to fit into a frameBees may not draw comb properly on the plastic foundation, leaving “bald spots” on the foundation.
Better durability in centrifugal honey extractorsIt cannot be used for cut comb
Won’t be damaged by wax moths or rodentsToxins from the plastic can leech into the comb, brood, and honey.
Must be purchased from reputable suppliers. It is not possible to make it yourself.

One of the biggest concerns for beekeepers regarding plastic frames is the possibility of toxins from cheaply made products leeching into the honey or the brood and causing health issues for the bees and people that may consume the honey.

There is some doubt whether honey can be marketed as organic if produced on plastic frames! In today’s market, this is a significant issue.

But What if Bees Don’t Like Plastic Frames?

Let’s say you decide to give the plastic foundation a try. As you can see from the table above, there are a few issues you need to address…

Bees prefer natural environments and often seem reluctant to build their comb structure of plastic frames. This is mainly because bees can smell the chemical aroma of the plastic material, discouraging them from building on the plastic foundation.

This can lead to spotty building patterns on the plastic foundation, leaving open or bald spots where no comb is built. 

The bees could also refuse to build on the plastic foundation, but in most cases, they will eventually build comb on these sheets if they are desperate for space.

However, you can use a few techniques to make your bees accept the plastic foundation sheets more readily.

How To Get Bees To Accept Plastic Foundation

The best way to get bees to accept plastic foundations is to mask the smell by coating the foundation sheet in a fresh layer of beeswax.

Some plastic foundation sheets come wax-coated. For example, see these wax-dipped foundation frames. (Amazon)

If you use these, keep in mind the wax may wear off in spots during transport.

Adding a fresh layer of beeswax to the sheet will make it more acceptable to the bees.

How To Coat Plastic Foundation With Beeswax

The best way to coat plastic foundation in fresh wax is to use wax from your own apiary. That way, you know where the wax comes from and will not risk contaminating your hives with pests or diseases.

Melt some beeswax in a shallow, wide pan. Dip a foam roller in the hot beeswax (you can use the same sponge roller used to paint walls in your house). Move the roller over the plastic foundation to deposit a thin layer of wax across both sides of the sheet.

When To Replace Plastic Foundation

Plastic foundation sheets are incredibly durable and will last many years, possibly even decades, and still be good to use.

However, you will need to recoat the foundation sheets with a fresh layer of wax from time to time, but the sheets themselves will last a lengthy duration.

Generally, you only need to replace the plastic foundation sheets if they are physically broken or damaged, 

Such as accidentally leaning a hot smoker against the foundation sheet! 

Ask me how I know!

So Which Is Better – Plastic Or Wax?

Some beekeepers prefer using standard beeswax foundation sheets, while others prefer plastic. Often the bees will choose for you. If you struggle to get the bees to accept the plastic foundation sheets, stick to using the wax sheets.

I prefer wax foundation sheets because I’m not too fond of the possibility of plastic contaminating the honey or the brood. It is all too easy for manufacturers to claim that their plastic is food-safe, but labeling can be fraudulent.

You must decide which option works best for your beekeeping needs as a beekeeper. Plastic foundation is undoubtedly more convenient, but I like to keep my beekeeping as natural as possible. 

Conclusion

Wax foundation sheets have been around for a long time, and beekeepers have become accustomed to dealing with the issues that wax sheets present. However, this option is cleaner and more natural than plastic foundation sheets.

Plastic sheets are more durable, easier, and quicker to fit into the frames. Still, they have acceptance issues with the bees and the possibility of toxins emanating from the plastic. Therefore, each beekeeper must weigh up the benefits and concerns of each option and choose for themselves!

Good luck 🙂

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