A Brief History
The straw skep is a familiar part of the beekeeper’s equipment. Nowadays, it is used primarily to gather summer swarms or winter cobwebs, but for centuries, skeps were used to hive bees all the year round.
The word skep is thought to have come from an Icelandic Norse word skeppa, which referred to a straw basket used to measure grain. But it was the Saxons who first investigated the potential of skeps for hiving bees, and it was the Saxons who brought skeps to Britain when they surged westwards to occupy territories vacated by the Romans after their empire collapsed around 410 A.D. The earliest mention of skeps in Ireland was in the 500’s A.D. when they were used by the beekeeping St. Gobhnait, who drove off cattle thieves by hurling skeps of bees at them.
Before the arrival of the skep, the only purpose-made hive was the alveary – a sharply conical willow or hazel basket weatherproofed with a layer of green cow manure mixed with ashes or sand. The word alveary has Latin roots, but there is no evidence that the alveary itself was a Roman invention, and it may have been something that was in use in even earlier times. Although it was eventually superseded by the skep, this was a slow process and alvearys were still being used by some beekeepers into the 19th century.
Skep beehives of increasing complexity were in common use all the way up until the beginning of the 20th century, when wooden hives, designed around the bee-space discoveries of Rev. Langstroth in 1851 and with all the advantages of removable frames finally tipped the balance in favour of new technology. However, the skep was as reluctant to go as the alveary, and the records of the Cumberland and Westmorland Beekeepers’ Association for 1906 show that 25% of colonies were still housed in skep hives.
Management of Skeps
Having no built-in floor, skep hives were placed on either rush mats or hardwood platforms to keep out the cold and the damp. In addition, they were often tucked into purpose-made alcoves in stone walls known as bee-boles, which kept off the worst of the weather. In winter, straw was stuffed around the sides for insulation, and some bee-boles even had wooden doors that could be closed in foul weather. The “molly-coddling” of bees is nothing new!
Then, as now, beekeepers were fixated with swarming, but whereas we are intent on prevention, the skep-beekeepers depended on their bees to swarm. This was because to harvest the honey the bees were destroyed, so a swarm was greeted fondly as the makings of next year’s crop. With this in view, swarming was encouraged by careful choice of bees – the swarmier the better – and the size of the skep, which would ideally provide sufficient congestion to encourage early swarming: ‘Let your hives be rather too little than too greate, for such are hurtful to the increase and prosperity of Bees’. Because these practices favoured swarmy bees – non-swarmers being eliminated – it seems likely that the skep beekeepers are at least partly to blame for the unreasonably strong swarming instincts still found in some strains of bees.
Throughout the summer, the beekeeper would catch and hive swarms in vacant skeps; then at the end of the season, he would select the heaviest and the lightest of his stocks for the honey harvest – the reason being that the big ones had the most honey while the light ones would be on the weak side and unlikely to survive the winter. The honey harvest involved either plunging bees and skep into water to drown them or placing them over a hole in the ground containing either an arrangement of smouldering brimstone-impregnated papers or hot coals over which the beekeeper would sprinkle ‘flowers of sulphur’ at the appropriate moment in order to smother the bees. An alternative was to burn slices of a dried puffball mushroom. When the bees were stupefied or dead they were shaken out and the honeycombs removed. The remaining mid-weight hives were taken through the winter for the following year. This was skep beekeeping at its simplest, and it was practised for centuries, but then as now, beekeepers were fond of their bees and less destructive methods were sought.
One such method was to “drive” the bees from a full skep into an empty one. The full skep containing honey and bees was turned upside down, and the domed top was wedged into the top of an iron bucket or other suitably sturdy receptacle. An empty skep was then set at an angle to the open end of the upturned skep, in line with the direction of the combs, and fixed firmly in place with skewers called driving irons. The whole arrangement was then covered with a cloth and the sides of the full skep vigorously drummed. The theory was that the noise and vibration would drive the bees up out of the full skep and into the empty one, leaving the combs of honey behind. The beekeeper could then either take some or all of the honey. If he chose to take only some, then he could return the bees to their original skep, and they stood a good chance of surviving the winter. Alternatively, he could take the lot and unite the bees with another stock.
Over the years, certain refinements in equipment evolved, such as caps, supers, ekes and nadirs. In tandem with these came beekeeping systems. One system was to start a May swarm of bees in a large skep with an aperture in the top covered with a straw mat. When the bees had filled this, another similar skep with an open aperture was placed beneath – this was the nadir. Soon the flying bees would be hanging down through the aperture into the nadir where they would begin to draw comb. Eventually the queen would descend and begin to lay there while the top skep would fill with honey. If a strong flow persisted, the straw mat could be removed and a cap, a small skep without an aperture, could be put on the top.
Another system was to start a May swarm as above, but when the bees had the skep filled, an eke or ring of straw about four coils high was placed beneath to give more space for the bees to extend their brood comb while a cap was placed above the aperture over a piece of queen excluder. In the event of a strong flow, another skep with an aperture could be placed beneath the cap and over the excluder. All these additions could end in quite wobbly towers, so each layer would have been held in place with a couple of strategically placed stitches.
From theory to practice
Given the length of time that beekeepers kept bees in skeps and their reluctance to change to the wooden hives, even given what seem to be obvious advantages of same, they must have had their successes. It would be an interesting experiment to put a swarm into a skep or skeps for the summer to try out one of the systems above. There’s a place in my garden where a weatherproof, if scruffy, bee bole can be easily constructed, so all that is needed is to make a suitable skep or two and look out for a nice swarm of bees. If you find a nice big one in early May and don’t know what to do with it….
Alston, F., Skeps, Their History, Making And Use. 1987. Northern Bee Books. Hebden Bridge.
Jones, S., Skeps, tools and accessories. 2007. IBRA. Cardiff.