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Framing the Question

Bee Culture – 2006

By Dick Marron

An artist and author named Eric Sloane wrote a book entitled “A Reverence for Wood.” If you haven’t read it, find a copy and give it a look. You’ll find some interesting facts in it no matter how plasticized you have become. Facts like how the hardwood forests were denuded to make charcoal in the urgent need for steel in our new industrial age. They were even mining wood from the New Jersey bogs to meet the need. Now they mine them for specialty woods. Wood doesn’t rot just because it’s wet, you know. It deteriorates when a pathogen gets involved. Sailing ships have passed the hundred year mark without rot problems.

It’s also one of the strongest (for its weight) and worker-friendly material there is. One can carve it, layer it, steam and bend it; lathe it, glue it, paint it and stain it; nail it, screw it, pin it, drill it –you get the idea.

I was a die-maker that worked with wood in the early ‘50s. We used 13/16 maple plywood and worked down to 1/128th of an inch in tolerance. That’s the thickness of a piece of tissue paper. I made 20 top-feeders five years ago and used them a lot. Only one leaked and that was fixable. (Find the plans on Beesource.com) I like wood. I could make frames from scratch but store-boughten ones are so cheap it’s not worth it.

So there I was. After spending about a thousand dollars in gas I finally got to my New Mexico RV retreat (from Ct.) and settled down. It was time to catch up on my Bee Culture reading. I got to what is usually a good page, Kim’s “Inner Cover.” That’s the one in which he opines that plastic frames are better than wood. (It made me sit up and start feeling grumbles.) Then he goes on to list the ways in which they aren’t better. (He’s a fair guy).

  1. They can’t be mixed in the same super with wax foundation
  2. One can’t put a super of plastic below a super of wax.
  3. They can’t be put on unless in a honey flow.
  4. They are routinely produced without enough wax.

Let me add that they are heavier and that you can’t even add a frame here or there within a super of drawn (plastic) comb. If a piece of comb tears from the plastic the bees will never repair it. I got the message early. The bees don’t like them and will work almost anything else first. Good beekeepers the world over think that replacing comb often keeps disease at bay. With wood you can slice out the comb and slip in a new sheet of foundation. I’m not sure what you do with plastic but I’m guessing it would be a lot of work and then the bees might not work it!

Beside the above I have a couple of suspicions. In a cold winter I don’t want a slab of plastic in the middle of the cluster. If the bees are clustered on four frames, there are four cooling fins sticking out in all directions trying to soak the heat out of my bees. Also, they may have an interfering effect on heat transfer within the cluster.

Another thing: When bees dance they vibrate the comb. This is part of the language. Since my bees have no ears, I assume they sense these vibes with their feet and extract information from them. It seems like a sure bet that this behavior evolved to be use with wax and not the heavier plastic. If you see your bees watching a dance and then flying off in all directions, in confusion—now you know what to blame. The lost bee-hours could be significant.

Now I’m not dumb enough to thing that this is an even battle. I certainly wouldn’t expect any plastic users to change. No one with a need for a large number of frames will consider anything else. But Kim, they aren’t better—they’re just easier and therefore faster. It seems to me that the further we get from what is normal for the bees, the more problems we can expect. Rectangular, moveable frames in hives five feet high are already a long way from “natural.” Don’t even let me get started on plastic hives. Wood, at its worst, is a renewable resource.

Kim, beginners are reading this magazine. I know, I remember being one. I think most of them came to beekeeping because the rest of their lives already had too much “efficiency” in them. Beekeeping is a sort of pastoral pursuit that should be a change of pace from the marathon. I want to see them get connected to the history of the art. As a beginner I made my first equipment buys based on catalog reading and other ads. That’s how I got my experience with plastic. I’ve still got a couple of undrawn supers waiting for just the right conditions to get them drawn.

Whenever I make and wire a frame I think of how the old-timers did it. It would be a winter job and the family would be involved. For some it was done by lamplight. There’s a great scene in “Fifty Years Among the Bees,” where the farmwife is crowned champion at folding the basswood boxes for comb honey. Sure it’s repetitive, but that’s part of the charm. On another evening this same family might shell walnuts or make candles.

Our club* has an “equipment day” on a Saturday in spring. People with new stuff to build, show up with it, and get help from the old guard. It’s one of our more popular workshops and it goes for hours. To see a woman, who may never have held a hammer, proudly displaying her first frame is special. I wouldn’t miss it.

Making that frame is part of her entry fee. It will mean more each time it is moved. Even if it comes apart, because she had trouble with the 10th nail, it was still worth it. And it can be fixed. Try fixing a plastic frame when you’ve snapped an ear off.

I don’t like wiring either and I’m glad that foundation now comes with the wires embedded. I still crosswire the deep frames. But… there’s something meditative about rote work. While the hands are busy the mind can wander. Who knows what thoughts will come; what decisions will quietly solidify. It’s a handy mental therapy. If you don’t like something and you do it anyway it’s also part of the price one pays to join the ‘keepers union. It builds character.

Beekeeping shouldn’t be like buying a computer game where you unpack it and plug it in and are entertained. I don’t like computer games either. Made of plastic! Bah!

* Backyard Beekeepers Assn, Weston, Ct

Dick Marron is a retired psychologist, living in a beeyard in Ct.