Beekeepers are an opinionated bunch, with very strong views on what is right and what is wrong when it comes to beekeeping practices. When you bring up the question, “What’s better? Plastic boxes, wooden boxes or expanded polystyrene boxes?” you will find most if not all of the old-timer keepers will say: “Wooden, without a doubt!”
Almost gone are the days when trees from old forests are cut down to make bee boxes—beekeepers are conservationists, they love the environment, so wood from hives is nearly always sustainably sourced. We can all sleep soundly at night knowing that forests are not being destroyed to make our beehives! Typically, boxes are made of hoop or radiata pine, which make the boxes cheaper than plastic and easy to assemble once cut into the specific lengths. With these sustainable methods, we can keep keeping bees the old-fashioned way: 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. Humans 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 forever and starts to rot. In the early 1900s, beekeepers 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 10 times longer than usual. Later, the boxes were not only wax-dipped but also painted straight afterwards on the exterior sides to further preserve the wood.
In the last 40 years, we naturally want things to be easier to suit our fast-paced, time-poor lives. So, a few companies around the world have started to make hive boxes out of plastic and polystyrene. The main advantage with these hives 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 were slow to take off is that these hives are more expensive to produce and their material – plastic or expanded polystyrene – negatively impact the environment. I have heard beekeepers profess about the extra thermoregulation benefits of plastic, but bees had this process already down to a fine art long before we kept bees in boxes. Bees create their own metabolic heat when they have surplus honey.
Another disadvantage of plastic hives and from my personal experience is that the inside surface is incredibly smooth, and plastic can 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 and poly-type hives is the potential of toxic fumes. I’ve had several swarms abscond from new plastic and poly hives despite old frames with wax foundation being used along with pheromone lures to keep them in the hive; however, 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 are another item used in modern beekeeping. For the bees to respond to the plastic, they need to be brushed with melted beeswax for them to draw from. This is the same reason why the flow hive frames might not be as successful, as the bees don’t like plastic and are forced to use the foundation and not create it like a natural, pure beeswax foundation. The bees certainly do know best and can’t be tricked with plastic foundations. 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.
The popularity of expanded polystyrene hives is on the rise, with brands such as the Paradise Honey BeeBox and the Lyson range both gaining popularity. Both brands of polystyrene beehive system have been evolving to meet the challenges of harsh winters. The Paradise Honey beehives are manufactured using high-density expanded polystyrene to provide maximum protection from the winters. This type of hive is getting a lot of momentum in Australia as they also thermally protect the bees in our harsh summer temperatures.
When it comes to these hives, the beekeeping community can be very divided! Each system has its negatives and positives – there are reports of bees chewing the polystyrene hives more aggressively than they would when compared to wooden hives, but there are also reports that bees can produce up to 35% more honey in poly hives as they don’t need to consume extra stores due to their high insulation properties.
If you have a hive or thinking on getting bees, remember that we are their keepers and bees always come first: let’s think of what’s best for the bees and not what is best for us.