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Skep Beekeeping

An ancient way of keeping bees

Most modern beekeepers are aware of the existence of skeps and skep beekeeping, but how many know much about it or its history? Prior to the general use of the moveable comb hive, that rapidly became popular in the last quarter of the 19th and the first quarter of the 20th centuries, the vast majority of beekeepers used skeps.

Skeps were made from a variety of materials, depending on what was available locally. This could be rushes, grasses, straw, or wicker using willow and hazel. Although there were local variations, many regions had their own distinctive styles.

Skep beekeeping was easy for many country folk, many of whom worked on the land on very low wages. There was little cost, as the materials were available and plentiful. There were no frames, foundation or queen excluders needed and the bees cost nothing if you could collect the swarms yourself.

Skep beekeeping was totally sustainable, because many colonies swarmed at least once a year and often threw off a cast too. Apart from seasonal work, the womenfolk and elderly were probably at home most of the day, so could keep an eye out for bees swarming. To harvest the honey the beekeeper would either kill the colony by "sulphuring" or "drive" the bees into another skep, so saving them.

Many skeppists were involved with livestock in their daily lives, either in their work or at home where they may have had chickens, ducks and possibly a dog or two they used in their work. When you are brought up with stock, it doesn't matter if you are dealing with pigs, cattle, sheep or bees, the principles are similar. These people were observant. They may not have known much about what was happening in the colony, but they probably knew when it was likely to swarm by its external behaviour.

The advent of the moveable comb hive made beekeeping much easier and more productive. It was easier to detect disease and combs could be reused, rather than be destroyed. In the U.K. at least, beekeeping was transformed in a relatively short time.

There is a continued, indeed rekindled interest, in skep beekeeping. I have heard quite well known beekeepers express horror at "going backwards", but I don't hold that view. I think there are things we can learn from all other ways of keeping bees. I think many others agree with me. It is interesting that I have just checked up on the workshops that are available at the 2015 National Honey Show. There are skep making workshops, which have sold out way before the more conventional workshops. That should tell you something.

The buttons on the top left will give you further information. There are three PDFs by Chris Park, that in a slightly edited form were published in BBKA News. They appeared as four separate articles between November 2012 and February 2013. The extra article in BBKA News was presumably due to the space available. Apart from a little tweaking and the addition of photos they appear here as Chris sent them to me. Although in three articles they are effectively one, so for continuity they should be read in order.

I am grateful to Chris Park for allowing me to use his material. I hope you enjoy reading it. Apologies for the photo of my dog Nell, but she is well known!

Roger Patterson.