Beehive Components: Wooden vs. Plastic

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Ford
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Wooden or plastic? Beekeepers tend to have some really strong opinions on hive bodies and frames when it comes to the material they use. My husband and I have tried out both wood and plastic so I thought I would share a little about what we have experienced.

Hive Bodies and Supers

For the most part, you can purchase equipment for beehives made out of two types of material – polystyrene or traditional wood. When we first started beekeeping, my husband and I decided to try the polystyrene boxes. When more experienced beekeepers found out we were trying them, we heard a lot of comments along the lines of “better you than me”. But to tell you the truth, we have been pretty happy with them. They were easy to assemble – just push them together with a little glue, and let them dry. Give them a few coats of primer and paint, and they were ready to go. They have held up well, and we are still using the original boxes that we purchased 7 years ago. An advantage of polystyrene is that it is thick and well insulated – it helps to keep the bees cooler during the hot days of summer, and warmer in the bone chilling cold of winter. We have not had to wrap our polystyrene hives for winter as we do with our wooden hives. One disadvantage is that they are slightly more expensive than wooden hives, at least at our local dealer.

As our apiary grew, we decide to try some wooden hives. These also went together easily, but required nailing together the corners in addition to gluing them – an extra step. We decided to stain the outside with a clear, marine grade varnish, as the wood grain just looked so nice. Painting them would have been just as easy, though. We do have to wrap these hives for the winter, again, a step we don’t need with the polystyrene hives. And just like the polystyrene, the wooden hives seem to be holding up to wear and tear very well.

Overall, we have been happy with both materials. However, as our apiary grows, we are planning to purchase wooden hives. We feel that they are a more “natural” material. Wood is biodegradable, and comes from a renewable resource, as opposed to the polystyrene, a petroleum product. This probably is the very reason that many beekeepers we know prefer wooden hives

Choosing Frames

Once you have your boxes picked out, you also need to pick out what types of frames you wish to use. We have used both plastic and wooden frames, with various foundation. The first type are Pierco frames. These are solid plastic frames, embossed with a hexagon pattern that encourages the bees to build out comb on the frame. The pros – they come in both black and white. Using the black frames makes it REALLY easy to see where the queen is laying those tiny little white eggs! It is also easy to scrape off old, dark comb and reuse them. They are very durable, and last a long time. There is also no assembly required – just take them out of the box and put them in the hive. Even though they come with a thin coating of beeswax on them, we typically give ours a little spray of sugar water, or coat them in a little melted beeswax to encourage the bees to draw out comb on them.

We have also used wooden frames with beeswax sheets (with thin wire to add extra stability) for foundation. We like these because they are a more natural product. In our experience, we have noticed that the bees seem to draw out comb on the beeswax sheets more quickly than on the Pierco plastic frames. The down side is that in order to reuse the frame you need to cut the entire comb out then scrape any wax or propolis off of the frame, especially where the foundation is attached. This can be a difficult and sometimes tedious process, many times resulting in splitting or breaking the thin wooden frame altogether. Also, we have also noticed that when trying to pry them out of a propolis-encrusted hive body, they break and split more easily than the plastic frames. Finally, unless you purchase a fully assembled frame (at approximately the same cost as a Pierco frame), they require assembly, which can be fairly time consuming.

A benefit of using wooden frames is that you can experiment with a variety of foundation or foundationless options and see what you like the best. Besides a beeswax sheet, you can also use a plastic foundation, similar to the Pierco frames, a thin wax foundation for cutcomb honey, or no foundation at all so the bees can build their own comb on the frame.

Plastic or wood? There are definitely advantages and disadvantages to each. If you are trying to decide which types to use, I would encourage you to talk to beekeepers in your area and see what works for them. If you are able, you might want to give the different types a try, as there is nothing like hands on experience to help you decide what is right for you and your bees.

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