Beehive Foundation

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When setting up a new beehive, one of the first decisions will be which type of beehive foundation to use: beeswax foundation or plastic. If you purchase an assembled hive, that decision may be made for you. But, at some time you will have to decide which to use. Both types of foundation will work well – there is no wrong answer. But, I will attempt to wade gently into the debate of which is best: beeswax vs plastic and let you decide.

Whole sheet of beeswax foundation with crimped wire and a section of plastic foundation.

Successful beekeeping demands that you develop a basic understand of the parts of the beehive. In reference to foundation, the one you choose will determine some of the management tasks that you will face later.

Understanding Hive Foundation

Most beekeepers use foundation in the frames of their beehives. The two top choices for hive foundation are: beeswax and plastic.

Both are flat sheets embossed with cell patterns. They fit into the corresponding frames for the different box sizes (deep, medium, shallow).

Foundation provides a starting place for the honey bees to build comb. This helps ensure that comb is built within the provided wooden (or plastic) frames.

When a beehive inspection is needed, these frames and the comb they hold can be removed from the hive with minimal damage.

Some beekeepers who promote natural beekeeping, allow their colonies to build comb without foundation. This practice of foundation-less beekeeping has its pros and cons too – but that is a story for another day.

Wired beeswax foundation in a wooden frame for a hive.

Beeswax Foundation: Pros and Cons

Pros

  • natural
  • loved by bees
  • customizable
  • with or without wire

Natural

Beeswax foundation is the traditional choice. It is made of natural beeswax that has been harvested from the hive. It consists of materials that honey bees are familiar with.

Bees Like It

With a natural scent and texture, beeswax foundation is very attractive to bees. They tend to build comb readily on wax foundation when hive population and incoming food allows for wax production.

Customization

Beeswax foundation can be purchased with imprints of different cells sizes. It is also very easy to cut and fit into different frame sizes or applications if needed.

Wire Reinforcement

It is common for beeswax foundation to contain crimped wires that offer support and stability. Frames in the brood box and frames in the honey supers may contain wire supports.

This makes honey extraction possible with the wire supporting the heavy weight of comb with honey. Additional support options can be used: such as cross wiring or support bars to make brood comb even stronger.

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Those beekeepers wishes to product comb or chunk honey – use beeswax foundation without wire. This allows them to cut out the chunks of beeswax and honey.

Cons

Using foundation made from beeswax is not without its challenges – it does have some disadvantages to consider.

  • fragility
  • time
  • danger from pests
  • cost
Holes in frame foundation where bees have chewed away wax.

Fragile

Beeswax foundation is very fragile compared to plastic foundation. It is easily damaged during shipping and is brittle in cold weather.

It may also be damaged if you place frames with foundation on a hive during a nectar dearth. If the bees need wax, they might take it from the sheet of foundation. Not a big deal but certainly aggravating!

While it is not as common today as in years past, you can install horizontal cross wiring to make beeswax foundation more sturdy.

Time Consuming

It takes longer to install beeswax foundation into frames. Not a problem if you only have to do 10 but a bigger deal if you need to do 100.

Susceptible to Pest Infestation

Natural beeswax foundation is vulnerable to damage from several honey bee pests. Wax moths and Small Hive Beetles can make a mess of frames of comb in a short time.

This results in time consuming cleaning of the hive and re-installation of new wax into the hive frames.

Cost

The beekeeper using beeswax foundation instead of plastic foundation may end up spending more. Over time, old honeycomb is rotated out of the hive and the bees made to build new.

This is done for health purposes – old black honeycomb results in poor colony health. With wax foundation, new sheets must be purchased and installed.

Yellow plastic foundation in bee frames and new frames with foundation in hive kit.

Plastic Foundation: Pros and Cons

Available from different suppliers, you can purchase plastic foundation for your hive in white, yellow and black. All work well – black foundation may have a slight advantage when looking for white bee eggs.

Pros

  • durability
  • ease of use
  • resistant to pests
  • long lasting

Durability

There is no debate – plastic foundation is more durable than beeswax. How could it not be? A sheet of sturdy plastic will resist punctures, tears and breaking more than a fragile sheet of beeswax.

Easy to Work With

Along with durability comes ease of use. The beekeeper can throw a pack of 10 sheets of plastic foundation in the back of the car without worry.

And installation of plastic foundation is a breeze. Using grooved top and bottom bar frames, the plastic simply pops into place.

Pest Resistance

Plastic foundation is resistant to pest infestation. While pests may damage the wax comb built on top of the foundation surface, the plastic base stays intact.

After comb is damaged by wax moth larva or beetle larva, a beekeeper can scrape off the damaged comb – leaving the foundation sheet in place to use again.

Longevity

Plastic foundation has a longer life compared to beeswax. It is strong and needs less frequent replacement, leading to a savings in cost, time and labor.

Cons

As durable and efficient as plastic foundation can be – some beekeepers have concerns about using it.

  • artificial
  • chemical concerns
  • environmental impact

Artificial

Plastic foundation lacks the natural scent and texture of foundation made from beeswax. Bees may be reluctant to draw comb on plastic initially.

Beekeepers must monitor comb building on new frames to ensure it is being built correctly and attached to the foundation sheet.

If a strong nectar flow is not happening, you may need to provide sugar water for bees building on plastic for a longer time.

Chemical Concerns

Some types of plastic foundation may contain additives or chemicals that could leach into the hive. You should research the manufacturer of your foundation and insist on food grade quality products. Ask exactly what their foundation contains.

Environmental Impact

Plastic foundation contributes to plastic waste and possible pollution (as with any plastic use). If environmental concerns are extremely important to you – you might avoid using plastic foundation.

Beeswax or Plastic?

So, which type of beehive foundation is best for your bees? There is no simple answer. Both beeswax foundation and plastic can be used in your hive.

The bees will do well on both once the comb is drawn out. And there are things you can do to make plastic more attractive to bees. Some beekeeper brush melted beeswax onto sheets of plastic foundation to increase acceptance by bees.

To make a good decision, consider the aspects that are more important to you. Costs involved, the amount of time you have available and even the number of hives in your apiary are all valid considerations.

Beekeeper Charlotte placing new frames into a hive box.

Personal Recommendation

As a Master Beekeeper, I have used both beeswax and plastic foundation in my beehives. I do not prefer plastic.

Why? Because my bees do not prefer it. They have always chosen natural wax foundation over plastic when given a choice in my hives. That’s all I need to know.

That said, there is certainly no harm in using plastic foundation. Some beekeepers love it and it can be the best choice in certain situations. However, it is not my choice and some others feel the same. But, you may enjoy the advantages of plastic and that is ok.

FAQs

Is beeswax foundation better for bee health compared to plastic?

While both types of foundation can be suitable for bee health, beeswax foundation is often preferred by beekeepers aiming for a more natural hive environment. Bees have a natural affinity for beeswax, and it lacks the potential chemical additives that may be present in some plastic foundation products.

Does plastic foundation require less maintenance than beeswax?

Plastic foundation typically requires less maintenance than beeswax due to its durability and resistance to pests and degradation

Can beeswax foundation be recycled or reused?

Yes, beeswax foundation can be recycled or reused after it has been removed from hive frames. Beekeepers can melt down old beeswax foundation to create new foundation or other beeswax products.

Does plastic foundation affect honey quality or taste?

Plastic foundation is considered safe for honey production and does not impact honey quality or taste

Which type of foundation is more cost-effective in the long run?

The cost-effectiveness of beeswax vs. plastic beehive foundation depends on various factors. Plastic foundation may have a higher upfront cost but its resistance to damage may result in lower long-term expenses compared to beeswax foundation.

Final Thoughts

In the end, whether you choose beeswax or plastic beehive foundation, what matters most is the health and productivity of your colony. Both types of foundation serve the same fundamental purpose: providing a base for bees to build comb and raise brood. By understanding the pros and cons of each option, you can make an informed decision that best suits your beekeeping goals.

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