Plastic vs wooden
Beekeepers are an opinionated bunch, with very strong views on what is right and what is wrong. When you bring up the question, ‘what’s better? Plastic boxes or wooden boxes?’ you will find most if not all of the old timer keepers will say wooden without a doubt. I agree with them so here is why.
When I refer to plastic hives I also mean anything not natural like ESP or expanded polystyrene. For the purpose of the article I will call them all plastic.
Almost gone are the days when trees from old forests are cut down to make bee boxes, beekeepers are conservationists so wood from hives is nearly always sustainably sourced. We can all sleep soundly at night, knowing that forests are not being destroyed. Typically boxes are made out of hoop or radiata pine which make the boxes cheaper than plastic to make and easy to assemble once cut into the specific lengths. Keeping bees in wooden boxes goes all the way back to when bees evolved and started to create their hives in the hollows of old or new trees. We have just made the hives easier to manipulate with the boxes and the frames inside. The problem that arose was that wood does not last for ever and starts to rot. In the early 1900’s bee keepers worked out that if the wooden boxes were dipped or more appropriately cooked in wax for around 10 minutes at 160.c this would preserve the wood over 10 times longer than usual. Later on the boxes were not only wax dipped but also painted straight afterwards on the exterior sides in order to further protect the preservation of the wood.
In the last 40 years we naturally want things to be easier so a few companies around the world have started to make hive boxes out of plastic. The advantage here is that minimal if any assembly is required and the boxes last longer than wood which saves time for the beekeeper. The problems and why they have not taken off is that its more expensive to produce and creates negative impacts on the environment when something plastic is made. A good example of this is the cost of the flow hives, while they do look very well made, the cost is more than triple the cost of a similar Langstroth hive. I have heard beekeepers go on about the extra thermoregulation benefits of plastic but bees have this already worked out long before we kept bees in boxes. Bees create their own metabolic heat, yes they might consume a little more honey in a wooden hive but not massive amounts.
Another disadvantage of plastic hives and from my own personal experience is that the inside surface is incredible smooth and plastic has the ability to sweat and even create mildew. Not scientifically proven but this extra moisture in the hive could increase diseases like nosema and chalkbrood. Another experience with plastic type hives is the potential of toxic fumes. I’ve had several swarms abscond from new plastic hives, old frames with wax foundation were used along with pheromone lures to keep them in the hive but the bees were not happy and left. Is it possible that the bees could smell an unnatural fume from the plastic? I am not sure but it does point that way as the same happened when a nucleus colony was placed in a plastic hive and the colony absconded.
Plastic frames is another used item when it comes to beekeeping. In order for the bees to respond to the plastic they need to be brushed with melted beewax for them to draw from. This is the same reason why the flow hive frames have not been a massive success as the bees don’t like plastic and are forced to use the foundation and not create it like natural pure beewax foundation. The bees certainly do know best and can’t be tricked with plastic foundation. Given the choice 100% of the time bees will start working on the real wax. Other than that it’s quick to assemble plastic frames and they cannot be destroyed by wax moth.
If you have a hive or thinking on getting bees we are their keepers, lets think on what’s best for the bees and not what is best for us. By keeping them more naturally like mother nature intended we are keeping them healthy and happy.