What Is A Bee Skep? A Complete Guide

A row of bee skeps with a flower garden in the background

Beehive designs have made impressive advances over recent years. But have you ever wondered where the beehive’s journey began? Bee skeps were a traditional hive that reigned supreme for thousands of years until the Langstroth eventually superseded it.

In this bee skep guide, we’ll examine how it worked, its flaws, and even how to make one at home.

What are bee skeps?

Bee skeps were popular manmade hives used to harvest honey and beeswax. Skeppers painstakingly handmade these bottomless dome-shaped baskets.

They used cane to bind straw or dried grass bunches into thick rope. It was then coiled into an impressive-looking basket. In some countries, like Egypt, they used clay to make their own version.

The bee skep was a basic structure that was empty on the inside. Its walls provided limited protection for the bees and little else. Usually, one opening was left towards the bottom of the dome to allow bees to enter and exit.

A skep in the back yard
A traditional skep in the back yard of a home.

How did beekeepers use them?

Skeps were simple to use compared to modern hive designs. Colonies were left to manage themselves as inspections weren’t possible.

The hive’s inside was often polished with lemon balm to entice swarms. Bee-friendly herbs were also grown nearby.

A swarm of bees was captured and placed inside the skep to start the hive. The colony then began coating the inside walls with propolis for insulation and added protection from pests.

The bees also built comb that was attached to the walls. Although skeps didn’t have frames, beekeepers sometimes poked sticks through the structure to help stabilize the comb.

How was honey harvested?

Early versions were primitive and had little concern for bee welfare.

When it came time to harvest honey, the colony was usually wiped-out. Beekeepers burned sulfur to kill the bees before tearing out the honeycomb. The dead insects were frequently fed to the chickens.

If sulfur wasn’t available, another option was to place the skep in a vice and squeeze out the honey. Any bees that survived had their home, brood and food sources destroyed.

Over time, beekeepers realized colony destruction wasn’t an effective way to keep bees. This inspired the two-piece skep, which included a removable top extension (cap) or a bottom section (eke). This design encouraged bees to build honeycomb in the removable section, like modern-day supers.

Today, skeps are often used for aesthetic value.

Were skeps effective?

The bee skep was inefficient in comparison to modern hives. It was small and unexpandable, which lead to frequent swarming. Another significant problem was that harvesting honey destroyed the colony’s home.

Although skeps had problems, they provided a valuable honey supply for their keepers. Their main goal was to harvest honey to use as a sweetener in their home. This didn’t require vast quantities.

Can I use a skep for beekeeping today?

In most U.S. states, beekeepers must open their hives for inspections and mite prevention. Skeps don’t have moveable frames, so they may not be legal where you live. Always check local laws before using them.

With so many new hive designs, there is no practical reason for keeping bees with a skep. However, they make an excellent garden feature and can be used as home décor.

Skeps remain a symbol of determination, used in modern logos, designs, and artwork.

A traditional bee skep hanging from a tree branch
A skep can’t be inspected by beekeepers.

How to catch swarms using a skep

Skeps are a handy tool for capturing swarms, but don’t try this is you’re new to beekeeping. To catch them, get suited up, then follow these steps:

  1. Scrape the swarm off the tree branch into the skep.
  2. Once you have all the bees, stuff the entrance with a large clump of grass and gently flip the skep around the other way.
  3. Place the skep on a white sheet and place a stick under it to create a small entrance
  4. Wait until dusk for all the bees to enter the skep, then remove the stick and use the sheet to wrap up the bees.
  5. Transfer the bees to their new hive and use your preferred method to make them at home.

Other types of hives to check out

Fast facts about skeps

  • Skeps were the primary type of hive until the invention of the Langstroth in the mid-1800s.
  • The inventor of the skep is unknown.
  • The word “skep” is believed to have derived from “skeppa,” which means a basket measure of grain in Nordic languages.
  • Beekeepers in Northern Europe stopped using logs and turned to skeps around 800-1200 AD.
  • Skeps were a common wedding gift for Dutch newlyweds to symbolize starting a new life together.
  • The state of Utah uses a skep as its official seal.
  • Skeps were made with wicker, dung, and mud before the Middle Ages.
  • Skeps are also known as basketry hives.
  • People who made skeps were called skeppers.
  • Later versions used queen excluders to allow honey harvesting without disturbing the colony.
  • By the 18th century, these hives were had openings at the top to accommodate glass jars for comb building.
  • Wealthy homes often contained bee boles, protective indents built into the outside walls to keep their hives.
Indentations with skeps inside for protection from the elements
Homes often had indentations for placing skeps in.

How to make a skep

Making a skep at home doesn’t require a lot of materials, but you’ll need patience. Once you’ve gathered straw, cane, and tools, follow the steps below.

Materials needed

  • Rye straw or Harding grass
  • 5mm rattan cane
  • Comb
  • Girth
  • Awl
  • Mallet
  • Bucket of water
The materials used to make a skep.


  1. Place the cane in the bucket of water until soaked thoroughly.
  2. Use the comb to run it through the straw to remove unwanted seeds, leaves, and kinks. Hit the straw with a mallet to make it soft and pliable.
  3. Make the basket top by inserting the pre-soaked cane end through the bundle of straw. To start the coil, wrap the cane around the bundle. Wrap the bunch twice and create a binding stitch through the middle of the straw cluster.
  4. To sew the coil, create a space using an awl, then pierce the cane through that gap.
  5. Add more straw to the end of the bundle using a girth. Ensure it is inserted inside the existing straw so everything is kept neat.
  6. As you create new rows, interlock the stitches with two stitches from the above row that you previously coiled. Be sure to keep each coil a uniform size.
  7. Once you reach the final quarter of the skep, leave a six-inch gap with no stitches in one of the coils. Finally, cut out the opening where you left the space.

Here’s a video showing a traditional skep-making method using an innovative tool.


If you enjoyed learning about skeps, check out our complete guide to the different types of beehives. It is amazing how far hive designs have come.

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