Beehive designs have made some impressive advances over recent years. But have you ever wondered where the beehive’s journey began? The bee skep was a traditional hive that reigned supreme for thousands of years until it eventually got superseded by the Langstroth.
In this bee skep guide we’ll take a close look at how it worked, its flaws, and even how to make one at home.
What are bee skeps?
Bee skeps were a popular type of manmade beehive used to harvest honey and beeswax. These bottomless dome-shaped baskets were painstakingly handmade by skeppers.
Using cane, they would bind bunches of straw or dried grass into thick rope. As it was made, the rope got coiled into an impressive looking basket. In some countries like Egypt, they used clay resources to make their own version of a skep.
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.
How were skeps used by beekeepers?
Using a skep meant the beekeeping process was much simpler than what is involved with modern hives. Inspections weren’t possible, so the bees were left to manage themselves.
Before a swarm was captured, the hive’s inside was often polished with lemon balm to entice the colony to stay. Bee-friendly herbs were also grown nearby to help keep the bees happy.
A swarm of bees was captured and placed inside the skep to get the hive started. The colony would begin coating the inside walls with propolis for insulation and added protection from pests.
The bees would also build 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 from a skep?
Early versions of the skep were primitive and had little concern for bee welfare.
When the time came to harvest honey the bees were often killed. Beekeepers would commonly burn sulfur to kill the bees before tearing out the honeycomb. The dead bees would often be 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 destroyed along with their brood and food sources.
Over time, beekeepers realized that colony destruction wasn’t good for anyone. This inspired the two-piece skep that 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.
Were skeps an effective beehive?
The bee skep had a couple of fundamental design flaws. The hive was too small and couldn’t be expanded which led to frequent swarming.
The second problem was that harvesting honey destroyed the colony’s home. While bee welfare wasn’t a priority back then, it led to inefficient hive management.
Although skeps had problems, they were provided a useful supply of honey for their keepers. Rather than trying to increase production, their main goal was to harvest enough 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 states within the United States, laws require the beekeeper to open their hive for inspections and mite prevention. As bees build comb on the sidewalls of a skep, this type of hive can’t legally be used for keeping bees. Be sure to check your local laws to get a more specific answer for where you live.
With so many new hive designs on offer, there is little practical reason for keeping bees with a skep. But they will always remain a symbol of determination, used in modern logos, designs, and artwork. The skep also makes an excellent garden feature and can be used as home décor.
How to catch swarms using a skep
Skeps are a handy tool for capturing swarms. To catch them, get suited up, then follow these steps:
- Scrape the swarm of the tree branch into the skep.
- Once you have all the bees, stuff the entrance with a large clump of grass and gently flip the skep around the other way.
- Place the skep on a white sheet and place a stick under the skep to create a small entrance.
- Wait until dusk for all the bees to enter the skep, then remove the stick and use the sheet to wrap up the bees.
- 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 main 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”, meaning a basket measure of grain, in Nordic.
- 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.
- Before the Middle Ages, skeps were made with wicker, dung, and mud.
- Skeps are also known as basketry hives.
- People who made skeps were called skeppers.
- Queen excluders were used in later versions of skeps to allow honey harvesting without disturbing the colony.
- By the 18th century, skeps had holes in the top where glass jars were placed for comb to be built.
- Wealthy homes often contained bee boles which were protective indents built into the outside walls for keeping skeps.
How to make a skep
Making a skep at home doesn’t require a lot of materials, but you’ll need patience. Follow the steps below, once you’ve gathered together the straw, cane, and tools.
- Rye straw or Harding grass
- 5mm rattan cane
- Bucket of water
- Place cane in the bucket of water until soaked thoroughly.
- Use the comb to run it through the straw to remove unwanted seeds or leaves and remove any kinks. Hit the straw with a mallet to make it soft and pliable.
- To make the basket top, insert the pre-soaked cane and insert an end through the bundle of straw. To start the coil, begin by wrapping the cane around the bundle. Wrap the bunch twice then the third time create a binding stitch by putting it through the middle of the straw cluster.
- To sew the coil, create a space in the coil using an awl, then pierce the cane through that gap.
- Add more straw to the end of the bundle using a girth. Make sure it is inserted inside the existing straw so that everything is kept neat.
- 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.
- 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 an old video from the archives showing a traditional skep making method.
The skep was a beekeeper’s go-to hive for thousands of years. Although the contraption had its flaws and wasn’t bee-friendly, it was cheap to make and successfully provided homes with honey.
As new hives were invented, the skep became obsolete. They are still in use in some parts of the world, but most countries no longer allow their use.
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.