Choosing Bee Hive Frames - Wooden vs Plastic Frames
When you’ve been a beekeeper for a while, you have your preferences. You might prefer to feed honey over sugar syrup, or not feed your colony at all, and gumboots fit you better than beekeeping boots. You might have discovered that your hives do best in dappled light rather than full sun.
But when you’re first starting, all your beekeeping purchases and management decisions have to be based on your best guess – or advice from people in the know.
Picking the frames for your hives is one of the many decisions you’ll have to make when you buy your first hive - or if you’re looking to upgrade your existing frames. You can choose between traditional wooden hive frames or newer plastic models – each has upsides and downsides. Although some beekeepers use a mix of both, or are slowly transitioning to plastic, most prefer one or the other.
Here’s what you need to know:
Langstroth hives, the most common type of beehive in the world, are made up of rectangular hive boxes – or supers – with eight, nine or ten frames slotted from the top. Most frames have to include a wax or plastic foundation for bees to build their comb on. Without foundation, the bees simply build their honeycomb to fill the space between the sides of the frame.
Frames show the bees where to build, and make it easier for beekeepers as well. In a Langstroth hive, you can easily pull out a frame or two for inspections. If you need to add frames to give bees more build space or remove them for better airflow, that’s easy too.
Wooden frames: benefits and downsides
Beekeepers have used wooden hives for thousands of years, and many still use wood for their frames.
- Buy or DIY:wooden frames can be purchased from beekeeping suppliers or made by the beekeeper. If they break, they’re usually easy to mend.
- Versatility:unlike plastic frames, which usually come with built-in foundation, wooden frames can be used with wax foundation, plastic foundation, or sometimes a small strip of foundation.
- Natural, sustainable materials:as long as it’s sustainably-produced, wood is a natural and renewable resource.
- No chance of contamination:whilst numerous studies show this doesn't happen, some beekeepers are concerned about the risk of plastic leaching into honey products – when used with wax foundation there's little or no chance of the frame contaminating your honey.
- Easy cleaning:wooden frames are easy to scrape clean and reuse at the end of the season.
- Heavy and dense:depending on the type of wood, wooden frames can be heavy, unwieldy and hard to manage. Lifting a super with ten wooden frames, each filled with honey, can be difficult.
- Lack of consistency:although it’s handy to make your frames, you also end up with a less consistent result. Homemade frames may be harder to slot into your hive and pull out for inspections.
- Assembly required:some wooden frames need to be assembled before use, and most need to be strung with wire to strengthen the comb. Unless you buy the frames already strung, this can be a tricky and time-consuming process, particularly if you have many wooden frames to build, string, and add foundation to.
- Not as tough:While wooden hive frames last a while, unlike plastic frames wood will eventually rot or warp in the middle under the weight of the honey comb. Rotting frames in your hive can cause a mess and will be time consuming and expensive to continually change every couple of years or so.
- Price:Although wooden frames are cheaper in kitset form you need to consider the time needed to assemble them and the cost of foundation sheet. This generally means they are a more expensive option over plastic frames (especially if you buy pre-waxed).
Plastic frames: the pros and cons
Plastic bee hive frames are a convenient modern option. They don’t need to be assembled or wired, so they do cut down on beekeepers’ work. They also last much longer than wooden frames, so while they are a more expensive initial investment they do stand the test of time compared to wooden frames which can deteriorate.
- Ready to use: plastic frames often come fully-assembled, with built-in moulded-plastic foundation. Some will also come sprayed with wax, encouraging the bees to build on the plastic.
- Tough and durable:because they don’t split or rot, plastic frames can last for many years if properly looked after. Unlike wooden frames, they don’t need to be repaired or replaced as frequently.
- Light and manageable:plastic frames tend to be lighter and easier to manage than wooden bee hive frames. They’re mass-produced to a standard size, so they always fit into your hive box perfectly.
- Price:Plastic frames do not require assembly and can be purchased with a light coating of beeswax. This can make them a much lower cost option versus buying and making kitset frames or buying wooden frames with wax foundation sheet.
- Pest control:plastic frames may help slow the spread of pests and invasive insects in the hive. These insects can burrow through beeswax and wood, but can’t make it through plastic. This means, if an invasion does happen, you’ll have more time to detect and treat before it spreads throughout the hive.
- Non-traditional materials:Plastic frames can sometimes take a little more time for bees to get used to and they generally need some encouragement to build out the foundation. Purchasing pre-waxed or coating new plastic frames with a thin layer of wax and greatly improve uptake in the hive.
- Environmental considerations: Due to wax and propolis contamination of the plastic, recycling frames is not yet possible. However, plastic is highly durable and it's not uncommon for frames to last upwards of 10 years. When cleaned of old comb plastic frames can often be re-used without the need for disposal - greatly increasing their service life.
- Can’t be repaired:plastic frames usually can’t be repaired if they split or break - but they’re tough, so there should be no reason this happens.
- Wax required:most plastic frames need to be treated with wax before they can be used in the hive. Frames can be purchased pre-waxed, which is often a much more cost effectivce soltujon.
Trial and switch – it’s up to you
Wood or plastic? It’s really up to you. And you’re not stuck with your decision either. If you choose plastic at first, you can always switch to wood if it doesn’t suit you. Or you can buy a mixture of wooden and plastic frames and take your time figuring out what works for you and your bees.
As a general rule, beekeepers with many hives find plastic frames to be the better long term investment as upkeep and replacement costs are greatly reduced.
Looking for frames for your first hive?Check out our range now.