Plastic foundation used in frames of bee hives has been an on and off hot topic for decades. As usual, it is often presented as a false dichotomy of should use or should not. The reality as most of us know lies in each situation in the objectives of the beekeeper and the needs of the colony.
We should know pro’s and con’s of plastic foundation and when it’s inclusion is an asset and when it’s not really contributing anything of use or actively working against objectives and/or needs.
Some colonies have been known to actively resist drawing out comb from plastic foundation. Other times, bees seem to go right to it, working with it ideally.
Plastic foundation offers good purpose to beekeepers in that it doesn’t blow out like less supported combs can during extraction. It also can encourage bees to draw combs neatly inside the frame structure and reduce or inhibit cross comb development.
Plastic foundation can resist or avoid “slumping” in high temperatures in a hive which essentially is a partial collapse of comb. In that case, bees can be killed, including the queen. “Slumping” can also lead to forage resources spilling onto the bottom board and drawing pests such as ants, wasps, SHB and more. Plastic foundation, properly drawn out, can avoid those situations.
Plastic foundation can also work as great guides to help bees keep new combs straight. Add to that the rapidity of drawing out cells in high need scenarios such as installing a package, swarm or trapout that needs to get established ASAP. Having plastic foundation installed can get the queen laying eggs sooner and forage stored more rapidly.
I’ve listed some “pro’s” of plastic foundation and situations which benefit from the inclusion of it. So what are some “con’s” of plastic foundation and not practical or ideal use situations?
Some colonies just resist drawing out plastic foundation. Some ways to make it more appealing to bees that I know of are to heavily wax by rubbing it or applying melted beeswax onto it. Spraying a sugar syrup on it has been effective in some cases to induce drawing out comb, but not always.
Sometimes bees will make a tremendous mess of things by drawing out wax perpendicular to the face of the frame resulting in cross-combing and difficulty in pulling frames during inspections.
There are those who say that it just isn’t “natural” for plastic foundation to be in hives. One could argue that being in hives with removable frames isn’t natural either. Also, bees will draw out comb from a number of parallel surfaces from other combs regardless of what is made from. After doing countless cutouts, I have seen comb drawn on glass, wood, plastic, and metal. Bees don’t care, as long as they have someplace to build comb.
Most plastic foundation is embossed with entirely one cell size. There are various cell size foundation sheets that can be ordered now. “Small cell” which is the size bees “naturally” produce under otherwise un-influenced situations, regular or common cell size which runs slightly larger and drone cell size is available as well.
Many natural beekeepers argue that bees will draw out multiple sized cells on each comb to meet various colony needs. This is correct. With some planning and manipulation, using at least two sizes of cells on plastic foundation can be workable.
Keep in mind, I am not necessarily arguing for or against the inclusion and use of plastic foundation in beekeeping. I simply want to help make the decision about it’s inclusion as informed as possible.
Do I use plastic foundation as a self described “organic” beekeeper? In some situations, yes. Mostly to get cut outs and swarms started as soon as possible. Occasionally to get combs started straight. If they have good comb I can transfer of already have straight comb drawn out, then I won’t bother with foundation. I see it as a facilitation, not a replacement or default setting.
As long as the effort is made to keep the plastic cleaned every so often to have clean wax drawn on it, it is a good tool. Personally, I wouldn’t rely on it for every frame in every hive. Then again, my beekeeping goals and objectives are somewhat different than the conventional beekeeper.