If you purchase an independently reviewed item through our site, we earn an affiliate commission. Read our affiliate disclosure.
There are two types of foundation in beekeeping: wax and plastic foundation. Plastic foundation has gained popularity over the years due to the time it saves during installation. It is popular among beekeepers with a business-oriented beekeeping operation. Wax foundation can be used with wired frames or without. Wiring frames give the foundation additional strength. Plastic beehive frames may come molded together with their plastic foundation. This article will compare plastic vs wax foundation. It also compares them to help you make better decisions when choosing foundation for your beehives.
The foundation on beehive frames is used to push start the building of honeycomb by the bees. It gives them the exact size of cells to make. Beekeepers can control the size of bees produced for increased productivity of the honeybee colony. In modern beekeeping, larger bees have been found to be better at foraging and defending the beehive. Foundation also finds great use when beekeepers are helping new honeybee colonies settle into a beehive. Both plastic and wax foundation used on wooden frames comes in the form of sheets that beekeepers insert into frames. Despite your foundation cell sizes, bees will still build drone comb and queen supersedure cells when they need them.
What about Flow Frames?
- Flow frames are plastic beehive frames that do not require foundation. The frames are also rarely removed from the beehive. They allow you to harvest honey without removing the frames from the beehive. The frames use special technology that allows them to split down the middle. Honey then flows out of the frame and is collected outside the beehive.
- Flow beehives making use of flow frames also have observation windows that reduce the number of times you have to open up the hive for inspection.
Plastic foundation is made using polypropylene by most manufacturers. It is an alternative to the traditional wax foundation. Each manufacturer has their preferred color of the foundation. Plastic foundation also comes in different cell sizes. Make sure to get the plastic foundation of your preferred color and cell size.
Plastic foundation is stronger than wax foundation. It does not need to be wired to beehive frames. Sheets of plastic foundation are available to beekeepers using wooden frames. The sheets snap into grooves cut on the inner surfaces of wooden beehive frames. They stay on and provide a plane on which honeybees can draw comb. Plastic frames often come with the foundation part molded from one plastic sheet. They give a stronger and continuous platform for bees drawing comb on frames.
Honeybees are not pleased with plastic. It is a material that they do not see as suitable for their living spaces. Plastic foundation used in beekeeping is coated with wax. The wax covers the plastic and gives bees a starting point on which to draw comb. The wax used to coat plastic foundation must be authentic beeswax. It helps with plastic foundation acceptance by honeybees.
Advantages of Plastic Foundation
- Plastic foundation is stronger than wax foundation. It does not sag in warm temperatures or break easily during honey extraction. The foundation stays straight for a long time and guides bees to build cells of your preferred size.
- Pests and parasites such as hive beetles that burrow through comb are easily controlled by plastic foundation. They can attack one side of a beehive frame but not reach the other side. This is because plastic foundation stays in the middle of the frame and is resistant to the burrowing efforts of these pests and parasites.
- It is easier to manage cross comb when using plastic foundation than on wax foundation. With plastic, you only need to scrape cross comb off the foundation. Wax foundation presents challenges because you have to be very careful not to damage the foundation layer of the beehive frame.
- Manufacturers of plastic foundation have made the foundation sheets available in different colors. White and black are favored by beekeepers. The black foundation helps you see the eggs and larvae of honeybees with ease. White plastic foundation makes stored honey easily seen.
- Plastic foundation sheets you buy from various sellers are usually brand new. They have not been used in other beehives elsewhere. This ensures that you are not bringing in contaminants from other beehives into your apiary.
Disadvantages of Plastic Foundation
- Plastic foundation requires coating with wax. In cold weather, the wax and plastic get cold to different temperatures and separate easily. This is because wax cools slowly while plastic gets cold faster. Built comb may fall off the foundation and cause you losses in honey and crushed honeybees. Other times, bees take wax coating from plastic foundation and use it to build comb elsewhere in the beehive.
- Residues of plastic may enter honey and wax. This renders them unfit for consumption. Beekeepers should produce and sell off beehive products that are safe for use. The use of food-safe plastic must be adopted by all plastic foundation manufacturers.
- Bees are not naturally drawn to plastic. They have to be tricked into drawing comb on plastic foundation. Beekeepers who are in it for conservation and those who want to practice natural beekeeping are not suited using plastics in their beehives.
- The wax used to coat plastic foundation comes from sources that you do not know. It may contain contaminants and residues of chemicals that are not food-safe. They may harm your honeybees or make your beehive products unsafe for human consumption.
- Getting wax from plastic foundation is easy, but you may not get all the wax you should be harvesting. You cannot boil wax foundation, so you have to scrape the wax off the foundation. Take care not to scrape too deep and damage the plastic foundation. Bent cell tops discourage bees from drawing comb. If you damage the foundation, you may render sections of it useless to bees.
- Plastic foundation is heavy. Manufacturers want their plastic foundation to be the strongest and most durable. You may miss the weight difference when working with a single box or beehive, but not when you are dealing with a truckload of beehive frames.
Wax foundation is a natural way to start bees drawing comb on frames. It is great with wooden frames. It does not readily work with plastic frames that some beekeepers use in their beehives. Wax foundation is best used with wired frames. This is because the foundation and comb drawn over it may sag in hot weather. The entire comb may also be flung off the frame when honey extraction is done using rotary extractors. A wired frame holds wax better and the frame can be used repeatedly over many seasons. Comb drawn over wax foundation is continuous with the foundation. It does not separate easily.
Wax is a great material to have in a beehive. It helps bees regulate temperatures in the beehive. Wax does not get hot or cold quickly. It tends to remain in a temperature range that is great for bees. Beekeepers in cold regions are better off having more wax in their beehives, not less.
Advantages of Wax Foundation
- Wax is the natural way to go in beekeeping. It avoids the risk of contaminating your honey and other beehive products. Beekeepers use wax foundation confidently and are sure they are not putting their honeybee colonies next to materials they do not like.
- The yield of wax with wax foundation is high. You can melt down the entire comb and reuse only that which is needed to prepare the next batch of foundation. Wax foundation also allows beehive frames to be boiled for decontamination, sterilization and cleaning purposes.
- Honey consumers that want comb honey can only get it when the wax foundation is used. Some consumers prefer their honey in the comb; uncapped and unextracted. They prefer that the honey be sealed in wax, not in plastic. Comb honey sells for slightly more than extracted honey. Beekeepers that successfully produce comb honey get better returns on their beekeeping investment.
- Wax foundation gives you hands-on experience in beekeeping. It helps you connect better with your honeybee colonies. In wiring frames and embedding the wire in wax foundation, you appreciate the work that bees do to produce the great fruits of beekeeping that you enjoy. While this does not make beekeepers using plastic foundation any less of beekeepers, those using wax foundation can rightfully claim better experience at traditional and natural beekeeping.
Disadvantages of Wax Foundation
- Wax foundation requires wiring the frames and embedding wire in the foundation. This is the only sure way to add strength to the foundation and drawn comb. Beekeepers without experience have a difficult time wiring their frames. Others find the exercise tedious and time-consuming.
- If you do not produce your own wax foundation, you have to buy it from other beekeepers or beekeeping supplies sellers. This wax coming from sources outside your apiary may contain undesirable contaminants. It could harm your bees and cause you losses due to unsafe beehive products.
- Pests and parasites that burrow through wax go through wax foundation easily. They can run through a frame and even move through the beehive with little obstruction. The larvae of wax moths and hive beetles are the main perpetrators of this damaging behavior in a beehive. An entire beehive that uses wax foundation can be reduced to nothing within a short time by these two pests of honeybees.
How do the Two Compare?
Plastic foundation wins on strength and durability but wax foundation wins on acceptance by bees, ease of use and excellent wax yields. The biggest risks with plastic foundation are bees rejecting the foundation and its heaviness. With wax foundation on wooden frames, the worst that can happen is loss of the foundation when you harvest wax from beehive frames.
An argument often advanced by supporters of plastic foundation is that it helps keep burrowing pests in check. Larvae of wax moths and hive beetles cannot go through plastic foundation. An infestation is easily limited to one side of a beehive frame. However, an infestation of these pests of bees will not start or be localized to one side of one frame in the beehive. The most that plastic foundation will do is slow their advance through the hive by a small margin. Larvae crawl around frames with plastic foundation and through the entire beehive. Beekeepers must be alert to infestations before they take hold in the beehive. Early detection and control of pests, parasites and diseases of honeybees is the only way to ensure you do not suffer the huge losses they cause. This is assisted by timely beehive inspections and proper management practices.
From a strictly business point of view, plastic foundation is better when you are aiming for profits. It gives you better chances at reusing frames than wax foundation. If you can avoid warping and cleaning frames without damaging the foundation, you are sure to have the foundation for years. If you use plastic foundation in your beehives, you might as well consider using plastic frames. Those that come molded with their foundation give you better overall strength than wooden frames with plastic foundation. If you are going the plastic way, go fully plastic.
It is possible to wire frames in large numbers and use them over many years of beekeeping. Spending the time wiring frames and embedding the wire into wax foundation is a sacrifice any beekeeper should be ready to make for their honeybees. Once bees draw comb on these frames, you can use them without harvesting wax from the frames. You will still want wax from your beekeeping and this can be done by removing a few of your usual frames and putting in frames with no foundation. The bees will draw comb over the frames and you can have your harvest of wax.
Foundation is useful in beekeeping due to its speeding up of drawing comb. It also helps beekeepers decide the size of bees they want and produce them. Using foundation in beekeeping also helps beekeepers put their frames back to use soon after extracting honey. Foundation ensures that the drawn comb remains intact on the frames during honey extraction. Use this guide on plastic vs wax foundation to make an informed decision next time you are picking foundation for your beehive.
Do you prefer plastic or wax foundation? Leave a comment below and let us know.