Does your honey have that new-car smell?

I have been avoiding this post­­­­ largely because it speaks more to personal preference than stone-cold logic. Still, I was asked my opinion, so here it is.

I go to great effort to keep plastic out of my hives. First off, I can think of nothing natural about plastic, so if you are practicing so-called “natural” beekeeping, it makes sense to stay away from it.

Plastics are made from petroleum. The chemicals used to improve the flexibility and durability of plastic materials are called plasticizers. Plasticizers are nasty chemicals that tend to evaporate from plastic products as they age or leach into liquids that are contained within them—including food and drink.

The plastic becomes brittle and stiff as the plasticizers leave, and the surrounding materials pick up the smell and taste of the plasticizers. That “new car smell” or “new shower curtain smell” is the perfume of plasticizers. Worse, the migration of chemical seems to happen faster in warm or acidic environments—think beehive.

Some people are more sensitive to the flavor of leaching plastic than others. In blind taste tests, I can easily pick out honey that has been stored in plastic, and I’m sure other people can as well. Believe me, it is not pleasant.

Over my beekeeping years, I have tried to give plastics a chance. I have tried plastic foundation, plastic drone frames, plastic feeders, and plastic sections. But I have moved as far away from plastic as I can. When I open a beehive on a hot day I want to smell wax and honey and brood and nectar—not plastic.

Now if I use any foundation at all, I use wax. I’ve replaced plastic drone frames with homemade wooden ones, I’ve gone back to wooden section boxes, and I try to avoid feeding syrup by keeping plenty of honey on hand. Sometimes I feed pollen patties or candy cakes, but I stay away from liquid feed because of the plastic issue. (Although I admit to using the occasional baggie feeder when I’m out of other options.)

So there you have it—plastic-free beekeeping has become an obsession with me. I can understand those who feel differently because plastic is convenient, cheap, and readily available. Nevertheless, if you are selling honey to those who are interested in organic, natural, treatment-free, or environmentally friendly products, plastic-fantastic honey might not be the best choice.


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  • I always love to receive the emails of your new posts. Until now… Dang! How could I not even have thought about this?? I’ve not noticed the smell…yet, but I do try to be as organic as possible and what you just described is much less than palatable! Leeching plastic, petroleum, yuck. 🙁

    So then, is foundationless my only option for “small cell”? I’ve just last year started introducing foundationless into my hives (all mediums), and they usually pull them as drone cell. I have read that will improve. Should I just cut out the drone cells and let them draw again? I was thinking I’d move them up into the supers. Any input?

    • Well, I didn’t intend to ruin your day. Sorry!

      The other option is to buy small-cell wax foundation. Brushy Mountain sells it for sure, and there may be other places to find it. Any colony that builds its own comb without foundation as a guide will have a much higher percentage of drones. Feral hives, for example, have many more drones than managed hives on foundation.

      I’m afraid if you cut out the drone cells, the bees might just build them back. Not sure. My top bar colony (without foundation) doesn’t raise as many drones as my Langstroths that are without foundation. I don’t know why that is, whether it’s the hive configuration or the bee genetics.

      Your idea of putting the drones cells up top will probably work. Bees freely store honey in drone cells, but whether they will just build more below I don’t know.

  • I agree about smelling and tasting plastic–wonder if it is an inherited gene? My kids started complaining about the taste of plastic back in the days when I made school lunches for them.

    I do, however, feed my bees syrup in glass mason jars when the need arises.

    By any chance did you see the recent exhibit at the Burke Museum: “Plastic: A Love Affair”? It was fascinating.

  • Are hard, brittle or rigid plastics less objectionable than soft, pliable ones? For example, the rigid plastic boxes that are sold to package cut-comb honey. What should I package my cut-comb honey in, if I get any? I also avoid plastic when ever I can.

    Thanks, Dave

    • David,

      At the very minimum, I would look for “food grade” plastic containers; they are supposed to leach less than others. Other than that, I think hard plastics are better than soft ones, but surely there are exceptions depending on how they are made.

  • I agree…plastic should never be in an environment where it can be continually heated for long periods of time as the plastic does break down. I would encourage everyone to avoid plastic anything in the hive, especially frames and foundation. The bees really don’t care whether it’s plastic or wood, so it is up to the bee manager to make the appropriate choices. Besides, wood frames will last indefinitely and by going foundationless, the combs can be harvested to help the bees maintain a more clean chemical-free environment. Remember, wax combs made on plastic foundation or wax will absorb all chemical contaminants, where they remain for years and become a compound effect to the colony.

  • If you’re eschewing plastic, why don’t you beek in a top bar? I’ve been to both a beekeeping school and assoc. meeting where beekeepers showed a real dislike for the idea of top bars. What gives?

    • Julie,

      I don’t think I understand your question. You are saying that beekeepers dislike top-bar hives–I get that–but what has that got to do with plastic? Are you asking why beekeepers dislike top-bars? Or why don’t beekeepers who dislike plastic use top-bars? Or something else? BTW, I keep both top-bar hives and Langstroths.

  • Rusty,
    What I’m saying is all the beekeepers that I’ve met so far are using Langstroths and have a real disdain for top bars. At my last beekeepers association meeting someone mentioned there was someone in the room who exclusively used top bars. I spent the rest of the evening trying to find that person. It was similar to stalking the elusive wapiti. One guy sneeringly told me that top bars were for hobbyists. He thought I would be insulted (hee-hee). I am a hobbyist and I would love to see more people keeping a garden hive. The way I see it is the more beekeeping hobbyists there are the more swarms will be cast off, the better the chance of the species surviving. I also meant that if you’re trying to avoid plastic, it seems as though top bars are definitely the way to go and so much less expensive to build. I didn’t realize that you kept bees in both types of hives until you replied, and I haven’t gone back and read through all your posts. The ones I’ve read have been very helpful and informative. I was especially interested in the section supers and using one above the brood chamber to keep the queen from the honey super. I’d love to try it. Thanks for your reply. I was very humbled by the loss of my single hive this year. I was confident that I’d done everything right, but I’m starting over with a very clean slate.

    • Julie,

      Here’s a story about my top-bar hive, with photos. The bees that moved in that day, nearly three years ago, are still there. I never do anything with them, just leave them alone. Year after year, that is my most trouble-free hive. When I need queens or brood or nurse bees, I steal them from the top-bar hive. Every year I take a shook swarm from it, too. It doesn’t seem to matter, that colony just keeps going and going. The swarm saga continues.

  • Another little tidbit of info that I picked up at the Northeastern Indiana Beekeeper’s Association was that the hives that were thriving this spring were from previous year swarms. It doesn’t speak very well of our beekeeping managing techniques.

    • Julie,

      Swarming provides a break in the honey bee brood-rearing cycle which results in a break in Varroa mite reproduction as well. Many beekeepers use this fact to their advantage by making splits, artificial swarms, requeening, or sequestering the queen. Anytime you can slow the increase of mites, you give your bees a leg up. Swarms often do well their first winter because of this.

      • Yes, I’ve heard of sequestering the queen in order to break the mite cycle. How many days does that require? The number 21 sticks in my mind, but I’m not sure that’s correct. It’s all a moot point for me now, first I have to get them to successfully winter over. Do you agree there’s truth to the idea that top bars may be better because comb is built from fresh wax each time and the bees have autonomy in building their cell sizes?

        • Julie,

          Twenty-one days sticks in my mind as well, but I don’t think that is exactly accurate. I’ve been working some numbers around and I hope to write a post about it.

          In the meantime, I don’t know what to tell people about top-bar hives. Mine is nearing eight years old and it still has the original combs in it, largely because I’ve never figured out how to harvest honey from it. All 23 frames are always loaded with bees, brood, pollen, and honey so I don’t mess with it. The bees in there thrive like nobody’s business, so I just use it as a source of bees, brood, or queen cells that I need for my Langstroths. But I don’t take honey–much easier to use Langstroths for that.

  • Help! The honey we buy is raw, and comes in a jar, and still over time, it starts to smell like pure plastic! Why does this happen, and how do we prevent it?