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What is a bee skep?
A skep is a traditional style of beehive that was used for centuries, especially in Europe. Skeps have the shape of a thimble or an upside-down flowerpot, with a rounded top and an open bottom. Skeps come in various shapes and styles, each just big enough to hold one honey bee colony.
To make a skep, a beekeeper collected multiple strands of straw, dried grass, or cane. He then bundled the strands to form a thick rope, tying them tightly together as necessary. The resulting rope was coiled, round and round, and coaxed into a basket-like shape, which was tied together with more tough strands.
Depending on local customs, some beekeepers lined their skeps with clay or dung and allowed it to dry and harden. This extra layer strengthened the walls and provided the bee colony with extra protection from rain and cold drafts. Alternatively, some keepers made skeps entirely from clay.
The skep had one opening, usually near the bottom, for the bees to come and go. If there was no hole, the beekeeper simply used a shim to elevate one side of the skep enough to allow bee passage. Beekeepers often seasoned new skeps with lemon balm or some other bee-attractive herb to entice a new colony to stay.
Homeowners kept skeps in shelters called boles
Before the widespread use of commercial sugar, it was common for families, especially in Northern Europe, to keep a hive of bees for both honey and beeswax. They placed their handmade skeps on benches, rocks, hand-woven mats, or any available flat spot.
Because of the fragile nature of skeps, wealthy families often had little indentations built right into the exterior walls of their homes to provide a sheltered place to keep their skeps. These platforms were called bee boles, and they offered extra protection against wind and rain. Many bee boles still exist today, treasured reminders of a time gone by.
Skeps were less popular in North America
Historians agree that the first honey bees to reach the North American colonies most likely made the transatlantic journey in straw skeps. But once honey bees became established in the New World, beekeepers used the material that was most readily available: wood.
Some folks kept their bees in wooden boxes, while others simply removed long sections from any tree that housed a colony of bees. The beekeeper would stand these sections—known as gums—on end and tend the bees at ground level. Some people still use gums in rural areas of the country.
How beekeepers managed skeps
Most often, beekeepers populated their skeps with swarms caught in the wild. Once the queen was placed in the skep, her workforce would follow. The workers furnished their new home with parallel combs hung from the ceiling and attached to the walls, while the queen got to work laying eggs. Before long—and before varroa—the colony was thriving.
Because the bees cemented their comb to the inside of the skeps, the combs were not movable. So once the colony became established in the skep, the beekeeper was done until harvest time. Even if the beekeeper turned the skep on its side, it was nearly impossible to see between the frames, so an inspection as we know it was virtually impossible. It was a much simpler form of beekeeping.
Harvest time was traumatic for bees and their keepers
In the early days of beekeeping, harvesting honey was much cruder than it is today, and keepers often killed their bees to do it. History shows several brutal harvest methods:
- Some beekeepers burned sulfur to kill the bees so they could harvest the honey
- Other beekeepers submerged the entire skep in water until the bees drowned
- Sometimes the entire skep—comb and all—was pressed to remove the honey and the bees
Over time, less destructive techniques developed. One improvement was a two-story skep (much like a modern-day honey super) that allowed the bees to store honey above the brood nest. Used with a type of queen excluder, the owner could harvest the honey without killing the bees.
Other downsides of keeping honey bees in skeps
Besides being hard to harvest and difficult to inspect, skeps were also small and insubstantial. Their small size meant only a small colony could live inside, and small colonies swarm frequently and have trouble keeping themselves warm.
In addition, the skeps were easily damaged by wind, rain, and snow, meaning they required frequent replacement. They were also easily raided by hungry birds and mammals who enjoyed eating everything, including brood, adults, and honey.
Is skep beekeeping legal?
Most jurisdictions do not specifically mention the word “skep” in their regulations. However, many disallow any hive that does not have movable frames, so you need to read between the lines. Just because skeps are not listed by name, doesn’t mean they’re okay.
The objection that agricultural officials have against non-movable frames is that it is difficult to easily and adequately inspect the brood nest for diseases such as American foulbrood and European foulbrood. Agricultural officials try to keep the landscape as free of disease as possible, so any form of animal husbandry that could spread disease and damage agricultural productivity is discouraged. And rightly so.
Before you start skep beekeeping, be sure to check your provincial or state agricultural regulations and read them carefully. If you’re unsure what it all means, ask someone in the department. Do not depend on hearsay from local beekeepers.
Even if skepping is legal where you live, it’s not a good way to start beekeeping. New beekeepers especially need to learn about their bees by scrutinizing the brood nest, the queen, and the behavior of the workers. Because skeps limit your ability to see what’s happening in the hive, I believe skepping, even when it’s legal, is an advanced skill. Wait until you’re ready.
A universal symbol popular in the arts
Skeps continue to be popular with artists, engravers, painters, and apparently seal designers. A straw skep is a universal symbol of determination and industry that is associated with the honey bee. The state of Utah has a skep in its official seal. And until recently, so did Radford University in Virginia. I’m sure there are many more.
Because we have so many excellent options for modern beekeeping, skeps are probably best used as garden ornaments, home decorations, and intriguing bee art. A contemporary bee colony has many more threats than the bees of yore. So give your bees a leg-up with a modern home and up-to-date management practices.
Honey Bee Suite