Within the heavy standardisation of beekeeping practices, there is a lot of space for beekeepers to apply their preferences. One such place is with foundations. The options are ‘no foundation at all’, wax or plastic. Beekeepers opting to work entirely without foundations are not so common, and generally do not operate commercially. Wax and plastic are much more popular and also similar in terms of operation and yield. It is this similarity that makes us ask ‘which foundation is right for me?’
Close to nature
Wax is the more established and natural material for foundations. As wax is produced by bees, they have an easy time accepting it and drawing comb upon the cell footprints of the foundation sheets. However, wax is also brittle and easily broken. This makes working with wax foundations more time consuming and a little more delicate. For example, in the honey extraction process, wax foundations must have low RPM’s, as applying high RPM’s will result in the foundation separating from the frame. For commercial beekeepers, this makes the process less efficient.
Though not a natural material, plastic is much stronger than wax. This is the primary benefit. Most plastic foundations are made of polypropylene and slot into specially built wooden frames. To assist the bees in com drawing, plastic foundations are coated with a thin layer of wax. These foundations do not sag or become brittle with temperature changes and so, can easily be reused. Being stronger also makes plastic easier to work with and faster to install.
The economics of beekeeping
For beekeepers looking to reduce costs, re-use and efficiency are huge positives. The lifecycle of wax foundations is considerably shorter than plastic. To maintain good colony health, it is good practice to replace wax sheets every 2 to 3 years, though it is not uncommon for commercial beekeepers to replace wax sheets every year. In comparison, plastic can be repeatedly used. At the checkout counter, plastic and wax are competitively priced. However, as plastic has a far longer life span, it is the cheaper option.
But how does the foundation material effect yield? The 2015 study titled “The use of Plastic Combs for Brood Rearing and Honey Storage by Honeybees “ ( B. F. Detroy, E. H. Erickson) found that plastic supers yielded slightly less honey than wax.
«Wax production was greater and honey production slightly less in honey supers furnished with plastic combs than in supers with the same number of wax combs drawn on foundation. Yields of both honey and wax decreased as the number of plastic combs in a super was increased from 9 to 11.»
Plastic in the hive
Another thing to consider is whether there are negative impacts of using plastic foundations? One study that sought to explore the relationship between foundation material and communication, used laser vibrometry to compare the transmission of dance vibrations of combs built with beeswax foundation vs. plastic. The study titled ‘ Does plastic comb foundation hinder waggle dance communication?’ (Seeley, Reich, Tautz), discovered that plastic foundations negatively impacted the transmission of waggle vibration‘ (2005). However, this didn’t reduce the effectiveness of communication.
«We found that combs built with plastic foundation are markedly poorer at transmitting the 250 Hz vibrations produced by dancing bees. Nevertheless, we found no evidence of reduced effectiveness of dances performed on combs built with plastic foundation vs. combs built with beeswax foundation. Evidently, a comb built with plastic foundation provides a fully suitable substrate for waggle dance communication.»
It really is not a case of one option being better than the other, but rather, which is better suited to your philosophy on beekeeping and your objectives. Wax foundations are natural and could give higher yields. On the other hand, plastic foundations are stronger, easier to work with and can be used indefinitely. Each has their pros and cons, and so, it is up to each beekeeper to evaluate each option, and to decide what fits best for them.
Does plastic comb foundation hinder waggle dance communication?
Thomas Seeley, Adrian Reich, Juergen Tautz , 2005.
“The use of Plastic Combs for Brood Rearing and Honey Storage by Honeybees “ ( B. F. Detroy, E. H. Erickson)