Choosing Frames: Wood or Plastic?

In this brief article, I’ll walk you through the basics of frames, letting you know what some of the choices are. There’s that word “choices” again. I will share my own personal preferences. After all, this is my blog. As usual, there isn’t a right and wrong choice.  Each has its own merits, and I’ll  give you the up and down sides of each.

The frame is the heart of the beehive. It holds the foundation which will become the nursery where new life will spring up, the living room where bees will communicate, and the pantry where food will be stored.  It will be pried and lifted out of the hive during your inspections. Some will sustain the g-forces of the extractor during the honey harvest.

When choosing frames, you can go with wood frames and wax foundation, all plastic frames and foundation, or combinations of both. 

A brief word about foundation. Wax foundation is made from beeswax which is rolled into sheets and embossed with the hex cell shape to give the bees a starting point for drawing the cells.  Plastic foundation also has the cell shape embossed in the surface. It is then covered with a light coat of beeswax to encourage the bees to use it.

Later on, in an article about frame assembly, we’ll explore the varieties of wooden frames, but for now, we’re going to lump them in the general category of wood.

What are some of the benefits of wooden frames?

1. Wood is a natural and renewable resource.

2. Bees will readily accept wood. After all, they’ve been living in trees for ages.

3. Wood is fairly easy to work with and smells really good.

4. You get a great sense of accomplishment when you put frames together.

5.  Unassembled wooden frames take up a lot less space than plastic frames. 

6. Old or broken frames make great kindling in the outdoor fireplace

The drawbacks:

1. Wood can split or sometimes warp.

2. Wax moths can damage wooden frames.

3. The biggest drawback to some is the fact that assembling wooden frames is time intensive. (although a few years back, I won the frame nailing contest at the MA state beekeepers field day by assembling 10 frames in just about 15 minutes flat.

Plastic frames, and even whole hives made of plastic have come into fashion with some beekeepers. You have choices of black or white frames made by a variety of companies and you can even buy special green large cell frames in which drones will be raised for integrated pest management or raising drones for breeding of queens.

The benefits of plastic frames:

1. No assembly required. You just pull them out of the box, drop into the hive and you’re ready to go.  If you tend to procrastinate and your bees are arriving tomorrow, or if someone calls you saying they have a swarm in their yard free for the taking, or your own hive has just swarmed, ready made frames can come in handy.

2. If wax moths get into your hives, they can’t chew into the plastic frames. You can scrape damaged wax off down to the foundation and re-use.  I’ve also heard from other beekeepers that you can clean them with a pressure washer.

3. Plastic frames hold up well in the extractor. You don’t have to worry about them coming apart as they are spinning.

The Drawbacks:

1. Plastic is not a renewable resource. It is a petroleum-based product.

2. Bees don’t always accept plastic frames as easily as wood to start out with.

3. If you are unlucky enough to get american foulbrood, acceptable options are either burn and bury the equipment or have it treated with radiation. Burning is not an option with plastic frames.

You can install sheets of plastic foundation in some wooden frames. You’ll want to use grooved top and bottom bars in this case.  Depending on the components, you may have to assemble top and sides, then slide foundation in and put the bottom bar on.  Some sheets are flexible enough to pop into a fully assembled frame.

Walter T Kelley bee supply makes a patented frame with a slotted top bar and a grooved bottom bar. You just slip the foundation in from the top, add support pins or wire and your ready to go.

So what do I usually use? Ah….Well, years ago, when I was first married, our local tech school offered a variety of night courses. I signed up for woodworking and fell in love with the smell of freshly cut pine boards and began a life-long love of working with wood.

When I started beekeeping, I decided to try a little un-scientific experiment in my backyard. I placed two hives there, both wooden, and installed 3 lb packages of bees. The only difference was one hive, including the supers, had all wood frames with wax foundation, and the other had all Pierco brand plastic frames. During most of the season, every time I checked the hives, the one with wooden frames was quite ahead of the plastic one. But, by the end of the season, the hive with plastic frames caught up and they each produced an almost equal amount of honey, so I can’t say one is better than the other in that respect.

So, you’re still waiting for my answer. My preference is wooden frames with wax foundation. Again, especially for beginners, I think it’s important to actually participate as much as possible in the prep work that goes into getting bees. The more hands on you become, the more in tune you are with the ways of the bees and workings of the hive. The smell of pine and sweet beeswax, the gluing and nailing of frames, and the installation of the foundation are all part of an experience that will remain embedded in your mind forever. And one other thing; you will be proud of your accomplishment. That’s all for now. I’m going to eat a spoonful of honey.  Happy Beekeeping!


About Beekeeping in the Berkshires

Here at Berkshire Farms Apiary we've been keeping bees and making honey since 2005, with hives in most of the surrounding towns. We also make pure beeswax candles, lip balm, and hand salve, as well as give presentations. As secretary of the Northern Berkshire Beekeepers Association, I am very active in the local beekeeping community.
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3 Responses to Choosing Frames: Wood or Plastic?

  1. kevin maher says:

    hi tony. my name is kevin maher i live in salem ,ma. i recently developed and patented a plastic frame that accepts wax foundation. im wondering what your thoughts are with this new combo ? thanks

  2. Leo Herbette says:

    I just found this article and am interested in Kevin Maher’s patented design for a plastic frame that accepts wax foundation. How to I get in touch with him.

    It isn’t something I have seen. You can check with the well known suppliers like Betterbee, Mann Lake, Dadant, Brushy Mountain, and Bluesky Bee Supply.

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