For thousands of years, bee skeps have been an integral part of traditional beekeeping. These dome-shaped baskets, typically made of straw or dried grass, provided a simple and effective way for beekeepers to house their colonies. They are less commonly used today. But, the honey bee skep remains an important part of our history and culture.
No one knows for sure where the idea of this type of beehive began. It is believed that the word skep originated from the Nordic word “skeppa”, which refers to a basket measure of grain.
What is a Bee Skep?
A honey bee skep is the term used to describe a traditional beehive – often made of straw or grass.
They had a distinctive dome shape that was wider at the bottom than the top. Most skeps had an open bottom and were placed on a flat surface as a base.
These round domed-shaped hives, are also called Basketry hives. This makes sense because they look like an upside down basket.
You will find the design referenced in many pieces of art and literature back through the ages. Also, religious materials often depict these unique shapes.
In fact, ancient civilizations speak about several different gods of bees and seeing a domed shaped hive is not unusual.
How Skeps Were Made
Artisans typically made skeps by twisting long pieces of straw together to create a long thick rope. They, then coil the rope into the traditional domed shape creating thick, sturdy walls.
Archeologists have found records of skeps made of clay in parts of Egypt dating back to the middle ages.
But, the most common materials used in skep construction was straw or wicker. Other popular materials used include: dried grass, reeds or canes. The exterior might be coated with a layer of mud or dung to protect the grasses/straw.
The raw materials used shared some important characteristics. They were sturdy enough to protect the hive, yet flexible enough to all some important hive ventilation. Most importantly, the materials used were those available locally.
These traditional hives were popular with those hoping to harvest honey and beeswax. Early straw bee skeps were smaller in size than our modern hives.
But, several different styles of the woven spiral design were used. One popular size skep measured about 16 inches (41 cm) in diameter and 14 inches (35 cm) in height.
Some have a wide base and are not very tall – while others are narrow at the bottom and much taller. In some regions, larger models were more popular.
The outer covering provides a hollow cavity inside with room for the bee family to build sheets of honeycomb. There is no floor, the hive sits on a wooden platform or a rush matt.
With the straw basket sitting on the platform, the foragers must have an entrance to their home. How did they get in and out of the bee skep?
Often, a small opening near the bottom of the structure gave the honey bees a front door. Some beekeepers raised them slightly off the bottom, allowing workers to come and go all around the base.
This type of beehive provides the colony with protection from rain and cold drafty wind. Though the design differs a lot from our modern styles of beehives, the skep will always hold a place in the heart of beekeepers.
Advantages of Using Skeps
Though modern beekeeping has mostly left the bee skep to the dust of history, they are not without their advantages.
They were less expensive to acquire – assuming the keeper had skill to build them. He only needed acquire the raw materials. Other advantages to skeps:
- lightweight and easy to move
- made from non-toxic material
- natural comb built by bees – no frame or foundation needed
- materials provided insulation to protect colony from weather
As with any aspect of managing honey bee hives, this traditional hive has some disadvantages too. The most profound disadvantage of keeping bees in a skep is the difficulty of hive inspections. Other disadvantages include:
- not as durable or long lasting as modern hives
- more susceptible to pests (wax moths) due to no inspections
- colony was often killed at honey harvest – comb destroyed
Swarming was a big problem for beekeepers using straw hives. The small cavities became over-crowded quickly in the Spring.
Captured swarms were placed in the straw skep. They usually had no structures inside to guide comb construction (unless the beekeeper inserted sticks through the skep to aid in stabilizing).
The beekeeper did not view this as a problem. Most were only concerned with producing enough honey for the family. Today, beekeepers try to reduce swarming in colonies to increase honey production.
Advances of Using Skeps in the Apiary
As beekeeping techniques evolved, we tried to find better way to manage apiaries. To minimize colony destruction, keepers developed a two-piece version of a skep.
In addition to the base (eke), a smaller top part (cap) could be easily removed. A type of queen excluder (made from reeds) formed a physical barrier to keep the queen bee out of the top portion.
This allowed the keeper to harvest honey from the top without disturbing the brood nest. A great improvement for the colony.
As beekeepers learned more about working with bees, they became more interested in practices that promoted colony health and stability.
It became a common practice to grow an herbs in the apiary. Not only did some of the provide food for the hives – they were also believed to be good for them.
Lemon Balm was also used to polish inside of the skep – to hopefully encourage swarms to stay. A process similar to worker bees coating the inside of the hive with propolis to seal out drafts.
The idea of keeping bees in a skep has never completely lost it’s appeal. A type of hive originating in Germany is called the Sun hive. It is made of straw and looks very much like an upside-down skep. They are still popular in some areas today.
Beekeepers are adventurous folks. We are always looking for better ideas of ways to help our colonies live better lives. Proponents argue that this hive style promotes more natural beekeeping.
Yet, if you are interested in getting started in beekeeping, I urge you to choose a more modern approach. A great choice for beginners is the Langstroth hive.
Interesting Facts About a Bee Skep
Traditional Importance of Skeps
For most of us, keeping bees in a straw hive is not the best idea. Trying to keep colonies healthy in hives that are easy to inspect is hard enough.
While not the most practical hive style for modern beekeeping, the skep has earned a place in history. It is the iconic symbol of humans and bees working together.
Honeybees are not native to North America. The first bees in the US were brought over by early colonists. The new world offered an abundance of wood and few artisans skilled in skep construction.
Therefore, beekeepers transitioned to various wood hives. After the modern beehive, (the Langstroth hive), attained popularity – stacking boxes built to standard Langstroth beehive dimensions made keeping bees easier. Skep beekeeping become less popular.
Making a Mini Version
People still love them today – even though they are not best for a bee colony. They are a popular feature in garden art and home decor.
If you are really interested in skep-making, consider a small version first. You can make your own mini beehive skep crafts with just a few materials.
With a few more tools and some patience – you can use the idea to make a larger version. But please don’t try to keep honey bees in there – okay?
In most states in the U.S., it is not legal to keep bees in a skep. Regulations mandate that beehives must have removable frames to allow for hive inspections and mite prevention. However, this is not possible since the comb is attached to the side of the walls.
Yes, they are still popular in some parts of the world. But, most beekeepers in developed countries use modern hive styles.
Beekeepers shape soaked strands of straw (such as rye straw or grasses) into a coil and wind them spirally around a mold. They use a hollow tool called a “girth” to add length to the straw coil. After that, they use thin lengths of cane to stitch the thick coils together and lock them in place.
The material used for construction and the climate determines the lifetime of a skep. Most hives last several years when placed outside.
For most skep beekeepers, pieces of honeycomb were cut from inside the skep using a knife. This causes great disturbance to the colony. In the earliest days, the colony was killed (using burning sulfur)when the honeycomb was harvested.
Bee skeps are not well-suited to beekeeping in cold climate. The straw or grass material does not provide enough insulation against Winter cold.
A Final Word
Though skep beekeeping is not as popular as it way in times past, it still holds a place in the hearts of all who love honey bees. An icon symbol of a more simple time, it is not likely to be forgotten. And bees skeps are still used in some areas today.