My “farm” sits on the edge of a residential sub-division out in the country on less than one acre of land. My hives are located on a dozen different farms in Cape Girardeau County, though this is not considered to be a migratory operation. Honey is the principal product I market, though lately I’ve also been raising my own queen honeybees to share with other producers. I market my honey through farmer’s markets and a couple of retail grocery stores. I sort my honey by floral varieties/locations, marketed as “Varietal Honey,” and I added a “designer” label, “Hallelujah Honey,” for the gift trade.
The population of beekeepers is in decline. In the clubs and associations in which I maintain membership, I am one of the younger beekeepers (does this qualify as a “youth component” in SARE applications?). I am still considered a “sideliner” with 150 hives, which my wife lovingly describes as a “hobby on steroids.” Like most of the active beekeepers still keeping bees, my operation is supplemented by a “real” job. Sidelines are more than a hobbyist, yet not yet considered to be full-time commercial beekeeper.
I also take time to give free “consultations” with other beekeepers (there are always lots of questions, especially with beginners). I have my name on several lists with public safety agencies to “rescue” swarms of feral honeybees. I give talks to school groups and youth organizations. I maintain the observation hive at the Missouri Department of Conservation campus in Cape Girardeau, MO. I seek to educate as well as produce. The local media gives me calls about once a year to do a feature article of local interest.
Prior to receiving this SARE grant, I have practiced a variety of sustainable practices for approximately the past five years. One of the most productive practices has been a natural approach to an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) system to reduce and practically eliminate chemical miticides and antibiotics. These practices allowed stronger strains of bees to emerge, a biased form of natural selection, and from these “survivor” bees, locally adapted queen bees are raised for the purpose of making increases/spits.
PROJET DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
The goals of this project was to test and evaluate several types and kinds of plastic foundation for the honeybee hive (comparing them to the standard conventional practices of using wax foundation) and evaluate a host of management practices that would accelerate the acceptance of plastic foundation in honeybee hives.
A little background information critical to understanding this project. Wild honeybees living in undomesticated environments, typically the hollow of old trees, draw out parallel plates of wax comb for the purpose of raising young bees (brood) and storing pollen and nectar which is then cured into honey.
Modern apiculture, in an attempt to manage the honeybee for greater productivity and improved health, has adapted square boxes (hives) with parallel slats across the top which we call “frames.” Because these frames can be moved and rearranged within the beehive, the beekeeper is able to better manage the bees and improve productivity to benefit both the bee and the beekeeper.
The honeybee uses these frames as guides to draw out their wax comb. As a further inducement to facilitate more efficient management, these frames are often lined with a thin sheet of pressed beeswax, called “foundation,” often reinforced with thin wire. The bees readily accept this foundation and draw out the comb and the beehive buzzes along harmoniously.
But wax foundation has drawbacks. In an attempt to improve upon the principles of the moveable frame, thin sheets of plastic foundation have been inserted in the frame to replace the wax. Additionally, the wood frame has also been replaced with plastic frames. The beekeeper is given the option of using a) wood frames with wax foundation, b) wood frames with plastic foundation, or c) all-in-one plastic frames and foundation.
While plastic appears to be the antithesis of all that is natural and the wholesome correlation of the romantic notions of nature’s perfect product, plastic foundation holds critical benefits and advantages over the conventional wax foundation. Plastic foundation favors the beekeeper and yet honeybees greatly prefer wax foundation. Because the honeybee is reluctant to utilize plastic foundation, beekeepers have been frustrated and have missed out on the benefits of plastic.
The purpose of this project is to experiment and evaluate options with plastic foundation, including several strategic management practices to overcome the honeybees’ reluctance to accepting plastic foundation, and to create the opportunity where the benefits of plastic foundation are now accessible to the beekeeper. It is the intent of this project to improve the sustainability of modern apiculture, and hopefully keep more beekeepers in business as both honeybees and beekeepers continue to decline in numbers.
The research/educational component of this project began with a solicitation of the major manufacturers as to how best to utilize their product. Information received via e-mail was vague and fairly general. They all pretty much said the same thing of keeping hives strong and healthy, don’t mix wax foundation with plastic foundation in the same box, and apply the foundation to the hive during a major nectar flow, and best results come when plastic foundation is placed in the middle of the row of frames where bee activity is more concentrated.
I also solicited three nationally known, university-level experts as to their opinions as to how to make plastic foundation more appealing to the bees. They concurred with the manufacturer recommendations and all three likewise gave the same generalized information. One addition, however, was the encouragement to add a layer of extra melted beeswax to the surface of the frame.
As I questioned local beekeepers in three different associations, the overwhelming response to plastic foundation was one of frustration. This feeling resulted from the expectation that there should be no difference between the management for wax and plastic foundation. However, once the bees started to “grab a hold” of a plastic frame, the progress would continue. The critical portion of my research asked the question, “How do you get the bees to take that initial step?”
The process of evaluating the research was to insert frames plastic foundation and wax foundation into an existing beehive, and on a weekly basis, measure the coverage of drawn comb, even partially drawn comb, on the plastic foundation and the wax foundation respectively. A piece of clear plexiglass was cut to match the size of the frame, and then scored vertically and horizontally with a glass cutter to produce a grid work of 1” squares. Two sizes of plexiglass were used to measure the brood frames (9 – 1/8” depth) and the medium super frames (6 – ¼” depth).
Data was collected as the frame was pulled from the beehive and measured. Only full 1” squares were counted from week to week. The data was tabulated and averaged, then computed to a percentage with wax foundation attributed as a “par value” of 100% and plastic then given a respective comparison. In some cases, plastic performed equally as well as wax.
The logic behind this was to give plastic foundation a relative value when compared to wax. Wax is the conventional standard, and while plastic offers a host of benefits and advantages to the beekeeper, unless the bees accept the plastic, all of these benefits and advantages are lost. The point and purpose of this project is to find ways and evaluate the options of accelerating the acceptance of plastic foundation.
My first part of the research involved establishing packages and swarms (which are just bees and a queen) into a single-story brood chamber using either all wax or all plastic foundation within the box.
Four 3-pound packages of honeybees were purchased in mid-April. Two packages were started on ten frames of wax foundation and two packages were started on ten frames of plastic foundation. All packages were fed 1:1 syrup to accelerate the wax-building process. Packages showed a decidedly strong preference for wax foundation, scoring wax 100 and plastic 20. The relative comparison indicates that packages established on wax foundation were five times further developed than packages established on plastic foundation.
Seven feral swarms were caught in the summer of 2007, and while each was started at different times during the months of May and June, with some differences attributed to variations in the weather and subsequent nectar flows. Three swarms established on wax foundation scored 100 and four swarms established on plastic foundation scored 35. This relative comparison indicates that swarms established on wax foundation are three times more advanced than those established on plastic foundation. Like packages, swarms were offered 1:1 syrup, but because of a nectar flow, syrup usage was slower than that of packages.
I interpreted these results of this first part of my research to conclude that it is a horrible, up-hill battle to establish packages and swarms on plastic foundation. In both cases, there is a sense of urgency on the beekeeper’s agenda as these newly established colonies need to draw comb on the foundation so the queen can lay eggs and replenish the adult bees that will begin to die from normal attrition. In my opinion, it makes no sense to attempt to establish hives on plastic foundation.
So for the second part of this research, I looked at existing colonies and how adept these colonies were at accepting plastic foundation. Two basic designs were used: one experiment involved setting a full brood box of brand new foundation (all-wax and all-plastic) on top of an existing brood box filled with brood and bees. The second design was to intersperse frames of wax and plastic into the colony in between existing frames of drawn comb and brood.
When placing a box of bare foundation over a brood box filled with brood bees, it is the natural tendency of the bees to move upward. However, bees were quite reluctant to move into the new plastic foundation. They continued to expand largely in the bottom brood box. Ten colonies were given plastic foundation and ten colonies were given wax foundation. Four of the colonies given plastic foundation swarmed due to the congestion of brood and incoming nectar in the lower boxes. After the initial part of this experiment, these swarmed colonies were given was foundation. Swarmed colonies have a weakened work force due to the depletion from swarming, which in turn, reduces the colony’s population and subsequent production.
The first lesson is to do everything possible to reduce swarming, and if your colony does swarm, plastic foundation is not a good choice. And conversely, the second lesson is, if plastic foundation is used, it may encourage the colony to swarm due to the reluctance of the bees to draw out the plastic foundation.
On this first design, the score for plastic foundation was 10 and the wax foundation was 100, which as I’ve interpreted, means an existing colony with wax foundation is nearly ten times better and more productive than topping the colony with plastic foundation.
The second design of the second part was to intersperse frames of wax and plastic into the brood nest, alternating frames of brood with newly inserted frames of foundation. This also meant adding a second brood box with the addition of the frames. This second design was much, much more conducive to accelerating the acceptance of plastic foundation. Again, then hives were given wax foundation and then hives were given plastic foundation. When plastic foundation was set between two frames of brood (eggs, larvae and sealed pupae), the bees readily and unhesitatingly drew out the foundation. The score for this method was 100 for plastic and 100 for wax. This result was expected, in part, because the brood nest attracts the younger “nurse” or “house” bees who still have the ability to make wax from their wax gland. Further, this warm environment is more conducive to brood production.
Frames of foundation that were on the outside walls )in the number 1 or 10 position) were largely ignored, the bees preferring to move up more than out, a process sometimes described as “chimney” affect. Even wax foundation was challenged, though on a comparison score, 100 on the wax and 70 on the plastic, the differences were not that great. When the frames were pulled from the outer edges and placed in the middle of the brood nest, the bees were eager to draw out the foundation. When drawn comb was moved to the outer edges, the bees readily accepted its placement.
I draw three conclusions from this part of the experiment. First, when placed between two frames of brood, plastic foundation is not a hindrance. Second, a large part of the comb-drawing behavior happens in the middle of the boxes and interspersing frames works best in the middle of the box, thus outer frames need to be worked inward. Third, once drawn out, bees readily accept the drawn comb irrespective of its origin.
This par of the research confirms that plastic is compatible with the bees, but it takes extra management skills, time and energy to work the plastic into the bees’ approval.
The third part of this research involved the honey supers, the boxes above the nest that the bees utilize for honey storage and which the beekeeper removes to harvest the honey. Forty hives were used for this part, and likewise as in the second par, when a super of plastic foundation was merely set upon the top of the brood boxes, it was largely ignored, the bees preferring to store incoming nectar in drawn comb rather than draw out new plastic foundation. The wax foundation was readily accepted, as one would expect. I gave scores of 30 to the plastic foundation and 100 to the wax foundation. Acceptance of plastic was increased to 60 when the super was placed under an existing super of drawn comb, a practice we usually call “bottom supering” as opposed to “top supering.”
When mixed, alternating wax and plastic in the same box, the scores were wax 100 and plastic 100. The bees so preferred the wax foundation that the drawn comb on the wax foundation was greatly exaggerated and lengthened to draw close to the untouched plastic. The advice not to mix plastic and wax foundation in the same box was confirmed.
Additionally, supers that had entrance holes drilled in the ends were also more accessible. While statistics were not kept separate, supers with plastic foundation were recollected as having higher scores for the plastic, especially if bottom supering was involved.
Two generalized suggestions (more like collective ignorance) were tested to entice the bees to draw out plastic foundation. One suggestion was to spray the frame with a fine mist of 1:1 sugar syrup. My initial attempts were frustrated by the thin coating of wax on the plastic foundation. Any syrup, even 2:1 syrup, only beaded up and rolled down the plastic foundation.
Following a second suggestion, adding more wax to the plastic foundation proved to be highly beneficial. I melted blocks of beeswax (taken from my cappings) in a crock-pot overnight. A double-boiler would have been more time efficient. A 4” foam paint roller (manufactured by Rubbermaid) was dipped into the how was for about three seconds. The roller absorbed some of the wax. The roller was then immediately applied to the plastic foundation. About 2/3rds of a medium frame was covered before the roller was squeezed of its wax. The roller was soaked a second time, for another three seconds, and the rest of the frame was covered. The process was repeated on the other side.
I used a digital postal scale to measure the amount of wax applied, in addition to the sprayed-on wax coating applied by the manufacturer. Frames were weighed prior to application, and then weighed after application.
The results were surprising. When a super of ten plastic frames was set on top of a brood box and three frames had extra wax applied, the bees immediately jumped on those three frames to draw out the comb. Once drawn out, the bees quickly moved to adjacent frames of plastic foundation.
From these encouraging results, additional wax is a highly beneficial management technique. It would appear that additional was attracts the bees to draw out the foundation, and it also appears that it was not necessary to rewax all ten frames, thus saving some time and energy. If five of ten frames were waxed, alternated with unwaxed frames, a beekeeper could greatly accelerate the acceptance of plastic foundation.
This part of the research again confirms plastic foundation is compatible with the honeybees. However, it takes more time and energy to apply additional wax to the foundation. I wrote to the four manufacturers of plastic foundation sharing my findings, encouraging them to apply additional wax at the factory. One wrote back and thanked me, with no other indication they believed me or mentioned how they would change their process. Another wrote back and said their equipment (spray application) was not compatible with more wax and additional wax would only increase costs, plus the increased weight would cost more in shipping expenses. However, they were encouraged, and encouraged me to add all the wax I wanted to my own frames on my own time in my own garage!
Overall, there was not noticeable difference between manufacturers of different plastic foundation. Options for color 9you can buy either black or white plastic) made no discernable difference, though beekeepers have strong preferences. The bees preferred plastic foundation in the middle of the super. Different plastic frames all in the same box were pretty much treated the same, and irrespective of which ones were in box by any particular manufacturer, the four frames in the middle of the super were always drawn out first. Secondly, the all-in-one frame/foundation combination was compared to wood frames with plastic inserts. The wood frames showed a slight preference by the bees.
I co-opted fourteen beekeepers from the two closest beekeeping associations as participants in this project. Upon explaining my purpose for the SARE grant, I found potential participants fell into three broadly-generalized categories.
The first category was what I named the “Resistant Rejectionists.” These beekeepers tended to be older and more traditional and wanted nothing to do with my project. “Too much work,” was the common complaint. They did not believe plastic held any potential to improve the sustainability of modern beekeeping. They would stick with the old-fashioned methods of wax foundation.
The second category was the “Confident Obstinates.” These beekeepers agreed to accept the supplies provided by the SARE grant, but were quick to add, “This won’t work because we know it won’t work, but because you’ve asked us, we’ll give it a try.” Results demonstrated and confirmed their suspicions. They were right. Plastic foundation did not work for them, but their results also showed a minimal level of participation and involvement bordering on benign neglect. The responsibility for the success of plastic foundation was laid squarely at the feet of the bees, in their opinion. Their lack of success was more of a “here’s how not to do this” methodology, and did confirm the reality that a beekeeper cannot manage wax foundation the same as plastic foundation. It takes more work, but in my opinion, the benefits warrant the increased work. I did include their results in my data, but their outlook and apathetic approach to plastic foundation was helpful in the larger conclusions of this project.
The third category was the “Open Opportunists.” These beekeepers tended to be younger (relatively speaking as beekeeping is an aging profession) and open to the possibility of progressive ideas. These producers possessed a longer-term outlook, seemed to hold a more aggressive perspective toward shifting to sustainable practices, in part for the necessity of their survival, and showed a marked commitment to good stewardship of the investment of time and energy (on both their part and the part of the honeybees).
The beekeepers in this last category were the fourteen participants that I felt would keep good records and share information with me for my project. Unfortunately, most of their record keeping systems were fairly subjective and anecdotal as they found my system of scored grids on plexiglass to be too tedious and a little “anal.” However, their general observations were part of the overall impression of what worked and what did not work.
I did not utilize my local extension personal as I initially though I would, in par, because as this project unfolded, the time and intensive nature of collecting the data simply absorbed my full attention. Visiting with other beekeepers, inspecting their hives along with much of the other stuff of a busy beekeeper kept my focus fairly narrow. The amount of time it took to conduct my research was greater than my initial estimates.
Much of my results have already been stated previously. Overall, plastic foundation has benefits over wax foundation, provided the beekeeper can overcome the reluctance of the honeybee to draw out the plastic foundation. My biggest attraction to plastic foundation has been the savings in time, energy and labor that had been previously invested in the tedious assembly of wood frames and wired, wax foundation. Upon further review, what I save in time and energy has been replaced to a large degree with a higher level of management skill, intentionality and awareness. Incorporating plastic foundation into a beekeeping enterprise is not quite as easy nor simple as it portends, nor is plastic foundation for the beekeeper who tends their bees with a “let alone” method. However, I perceive plastic foundation to outlive its was counterpart, its reusable nature saving time and energy, not to mention the resources of wood and fuel to make and ship the replacement parts of the wood frames.
The initial reaction to my proposed project (as I’ve previously categorized my participants) brought out a subtle but powerful truth: utilizing plastic foundation in beehives requires a different and more complex set of management skills, and as a consequence, begs the question as to whether or not the price of acquiring this set of management skills is worth the benefits of switching to plastic foundation from the conventional wax foundation.
Further, this question begins to probe the real issue as it pertains to sustainable agriculture, namely, are we willing to adjust and improve our management practices to meet the ever-changing challenges that confront the ecological, economical and social influences?
What I found was more or less a non-committal shrug of indifference on the part of older beekeepers. As most beekeepers are not dependent upon beekeeping for their livelihood, few are willing to put in the extra effort to make plastic foundation a reality, despite the benefits. If it gets to be too much work, they concede, they’ll sell their equipment. And besides, they conclude, their just getting too old for this line of work.
One of the benefits of the SARE grant was to provide the opportunity and invite producers to engage in alternative practices, and at the same time minimize the potential negative impact if the experimentation and implementation of sustainable practices did not live up to their potential capacity. SARE grants invoke a creative response to persistent and resistant challenges and, at least for me, move us to explore fresh options without fear of failure. These grants challenge us to knock boldly on new doors that we would not necessarily choose to open for ourselves.
I feel my project demonstrated the initial purpose, however, the results pushed beyond the scope of the acceptance of plastic foundation to query the character of the producer’s patience and perseverance. And this revelation for me was enlightening, and somewhat disappointing. With this in mind, I would be hard-pressed to recommend my project to just anyone (especially the “Resistant Rejectionists” types), unless they first have a clear vision of their long-term commitment to keeping honeybees. If beekeeping is subjected to a “survival of the fittest,” we may be but one generation away from realizing the true potential of this project.
I think, in my own mind, this project has imparted and disclosed a hidden key to success that suggests mere knowledge is not the final answer to a producer’s success. If it were, then monkeys could sit down at typewriters and produce quality scripts for television shows. Success in sustainable agriculture has many intangibles. Adaptability and flexibility, along with a desire to survive and become sustainable are among these intangibles.
It’s easy to add an additional layer of beeswax to your plastic foundation. For my application I melted my own beeswax from cappings in a crock pot. I bought a used crock pot at a garage sale just for this purpose.
Next, I went to my giant big-box, discount retailer that specializes in products made in China. I purchased a Rubbermaid 4”/100mm foam roller for about three dollars (and yes, it was made in China).
For my research, I weighed each frame on a digital postal scale, using grams as opposed to ounces to simplify the math. I weighed the frame, applied the wax, and then weighed the frame again making note of the two weights. Later I sat down with a calculator to subtract the two weights to find out how much wax I was adding, and then averaged the amount of wax added.
The range of the wax added to medium frames ran from lows of 40 grams upward to highs of 60 grams. A lot depends on how much pressure you use to squeeze out more or less wax from the roller. It’s not an exact science and the variables of wax temperature, frame temperature, roller pressure and overlaps will dictate how much wax is applied. I felt I was generous with my application. The difference in the weights of wax application was insignificant to the bees’ acceptance.
In my applications, the average wax added to the medium frames was 48 grams, which worked out to be about 1.7 ounces per frame. Brood frames took about 72 grams on average, and that works out to be about 2.5 ounces per frame. To figure out how much total wax you need, you can take my figures and multiply them by the number of frames you want to coat. That will give you a start.
If you want to push the economics further, I sold some beeswax to a candle maker for $3.00 a pound. At that price, I’ve increased the cost of my medium frames by 32 cents (for 1.7 ounces) and my brood frames by 47 cents (for 2.5 ounces), not including my time and labor. But at this investment, with the increased acceptance, I feel it is well worth the extra wax. And it makes good use of my beeswax.
How do the costs of plastic foundation really add up? For the conventional wood frame with crimp-wired, wax foundation, with supporting horizontal wires, the average costs for wood frames 82 cents and the average cost of crimp-wired, wav foundation is 89 cents for an average total of $1.71 per frame.
Then you also have your labor. If I place an estimated opportunity cost of $10 per hour (or if I could talk my kids into working for this rate), and as I’ve roughly timed myself at assembling, wiring and installing wax foundation at 32 frames per hour. My labor costs add another 31 cents per frame. I come up with a total cost of $2.02 per frame.
For the wood-bound, plastic foundation frame, the “hybrid,” I have an average cost of the wood frame at 82 cents, with the average cost of plastic inserts at 98 cents for a total cost of $1.80 per frame.
I can sit down and assemble and insert about 45 frames in an hour’s time. If I want to coat these frames with melted wax, I’m going to add another 47 cents for wax, and using my costs of $10 per hour to add 22 cents per frame for assembly labor, and 13 cents for waxing labor, I come up with a cost of $2.62 per frame.
The all-in-one piece frame/foundation averages a cost of $1.83 right out of the box. If I add my opportunity costs of the additional wax, and that once I get set up, I can easily coat 80 frames in an hour (that’s about one per minute). So I add an additional 47 cents for wax and 13 cents for waxing labor for a total of $2.43 per frame.
Interestingly, a couple of companies sell pre-assembled “hybrid,” wood-frame and plastic foundation frames averaging $2.40 per frame. Adding my wax and the associated labor costs would push these expenses up to $3.00 per frame for pre-assembled, wood frame, plastic foundation “hybrid” frames with my addition of another wax coat.
Here’s how it shapes up. The first column shows how the three frame formats stack up from pure, out-of-pocket costs. The second column provides the additional opportunity costs for wax and labor, if that is something important to you. If you don’t wan to “reimburse” yourself for you labor, then use the first column with represents the true, actual “out of pocket” costs.
Plain wood-frame, wax foundation $1.71 $2.02
Hybrid wood frame, plastic foundation $1.80 $2.62
All-in-one piece plastic frame/foundation $1.83 $2.43
Pre-assembled wood-frame, plastic foundation $2.40 $3.00
These are average prices for small quantities of brood frames. They will give a relative comparison of the costs but you can fine-tune and make adjustments for medium and shallow frames. If you have wax cappings sitting around with no other available market and if you don’t necessarily want to charge yourself for your own labor, then you can take those costs out of the picture.
In terms of intrinsic economics, wax-foundation frames will eventually wear out and need replacing. Plastic, all-in-one frames, unless they warp abnormally, are good for years and years. The real savings is for the beekeeper who is committed for the long haul. The savings in terms of economics can be worked out, but the larger picture, ecological savings of trees milled and fuel consumed, and the social savings to time and convenience are present, but it’s hard to put a dollar figure on them.
The bottom line is not always in dollars and sense, but in the bees’ acceptance. Wax foundation is undoubted preferred by the bees, and without additional management practices to accelerate the acceptance of plastic foundation, wax foundation will lead to higher productivity levels.
The difference, in economics, boils down to the level of management and the dedication of the beekeeper to “make it work.”
The outreach component of this project was largely educational. A webpage has been reserved as http://www.plasticfoundation.homestead.com (still under construction). Photos will be posted at this web-site and accessibility will be open to all.
Access to this site has been shared on the three major forums of www.bee-1.com, www.beesource.com and www.beemaster.com and meta-tags have been installed too.
Two articles have been submitted to the two leading journals, American Bee journal and Bee Culture. Publication dates have yet to be set but will most likely be later in the spring of 2008. Copies of those submissions are also included in this report.
I have made a Power-Point presentation and offered my talk to the Missouri State Beekeeper’s Association. My two local bee associations, the Jackson Area Beekeepers Group and the Parkland Beekeepers Association have both been part of this process. I have been invited to give my presentation to the Parkland’s beginning beekeeper course set for early January of 2008. At this time of winter, these clubs slow down and I anticipate presentations to be given in the spring of 2008.
A presentation was given at the Small Farm Trade Show, November 2nd, 2007
I cannot say I have anything I would want changed in the format. I cannot fully express how blessed and fortunate I feel to be a part of the SARE projects. Given this opportunity to be chosen to work on a project in which I feel a particular passion towards, and having an organization like SARE confirm their faith and trust in my vision is almost overwhelming.
What excites me about a SARE grant is the license to be creative, to think outside the box, and to live/produce with a greater sense that what we do today matters to what we will be able to accomplish tomorrow.