If you look at the history of beehives and the designs that have been used over the years, you can see how many advances have been made and how far the craft of beekeeping has come.
However, if you have not looked that far back, you might wonder how the first beehive was designed and how it works. The first beehive we know of is the bee skep.
This is a traditional hive design that was used for thousands of years and was only replaced when the Langstroth became popular. If you want to learn more about bee skeps, keep reading!
What Is A Bee Skep?
Bee skeps were one of the first and more popular types of man-made beehives, and they were used for harvesting beeswax and honey as well. These are dome shaped baskets that do not have a bottom.
They were crafted painstakingly by skeppers. They were usually made by using cane to bind together bunches of straw or long dried grass up into a thick rope. Once this rope was made it would be coiled into a basket essentially being the bee skep.
In countries like Egypt, they actually used clay and similar materials to make their own version of a bee skep. The structure, compared to modern beehives is relatively simple and this is mainly due to how it is empty inside compared to other beehives that are full of boxes or frames, or something similar.
This design also meant that there was not much protection for the bees inside. There would usually be an opening on the bottom of the dome which would let the bees enter and leave whenever.
How Are Bee Skeps Used?
While the bee skep design is simple, so was the method of working with them which is a lot easier than a modern hive. However, there was no chance for inspections because of how the hive was constructed, this meant that the bees had to manage for themselves instead.
The inside of a bee skep would be polished using lemon balm before a colony was captured as this would entice a colony to stay. You would also grow bee friendly herbs nearby the skep as well to encourage the bees to stay.
So, a colony of bees would be captured and kept inside the skep and this would get the hive started. This swarm would start to coat the inside of the skep using propolis which was used for insulation and would also protect the bee skep against other pests.
Then the bees would start to build a comb which would be attached to the walls. Since these bee skeps did not have frames to keep the comb stable, some beekeepers would poke sticks through to help keep the comb inside of the bee skep stable.
How To Harvest Honey From Bee Skeps
This is one of the more controversial aspects of bee skeps, and is why bee skeps are seen as a more primitive version of beekeeping. So when it was time to harvest the honey and the beeswax from a bee skep, the bees would usually have to be killed.
The most common method of killing the bees would be using sulfur, and then they would tear out the honeycomb from the bee skep. The dead bees would then be fed to chickens after.
There was also another way of killing the bees which was used, especially if there was no sulfur to use. The skep would be placed into a vice, and then this would squeeze out the honey.
This means that if any bees did somehow manage to survive, their home and their food source would be completely destroyed.
After a while beekeepers realized that killing a whole colony was not really a good idea for anyone involved. This is when a two piece bee skep was designed which has a top extension that could be removed.
The top part was called the cap and the bottom was called the eke. This design still encouraged bees to build honeycomb inside, however, the honeycomb would be built inside then the removable top section similarly to how a modern day super works.
Are Skeps Effective?
It is worth noting, especially after the previous section, that of course bee skeps had some fundamental flaws of design, even the updated version. For example, the hives were often far too small and this often led to swarming quite frequently.
And then of course there is the question of the honey harvesting completely destroying the home of the colony. Of course people did not care as much about bee welfare back then, it was still seen as an inefficiency and they made the process of beekeeping a lot more awkward.
But, even if bee skeps were seen as inefficient, they still were a method for people getting a supply of honey. The goal was not to increase production, but to just have enough honey to sweeten the dishes being made at home, this meant that this was never done on the massive scale modern beekeeping is done at.
Can You Still Use A Bee Skep
It is a common law in most states in the US that if you are beekeeping you have to be able to open your hive to inspect it to prevent any chance of mite infestation.
You have seen that bees are building comb on the sides of the skep, and this means it can not usually be legally used to help keep bees. Because of this, you will want to check your local laws before you even consider using a bee skep.
Of course, there is also the question of why you would want to use a bee skep? There are a lot of other hive designs available, so it is now seen as very impractical to keep bees in a skep.
However, you will still find bee skeps being used as a symbol in the modern day with plenty of different logos and artwork using them. They are also a good garden feature since you do not have to harvest the honey, and you can even use them for home decor.
Catching Swarms Using A Skep
You can also use a bee skep to capture a swarm if this is something you need to do for whatever reason. First you will want to make sure you have a beekeeping suit on. First you want to scrape a swarm from a tree branch into your skep.
Once the bees are in, you want to stuff the entrance of the hive using a clump of grass and then flip the skep. Then place it onto a white sheet and place a stick under it to make a smaller entrance.
Then wait for dusk so all the bees enter the skep, then you can remove the stick and wrap your skep in the sheet. Then you can transfer the bees into a hive and use whatever method to get them accustomed.
Other Common Hive Types
If bee skeps are the only other type of beehive (see also: Different Types Of Beehives)that you are aware of, you will be happy to hear that there is now a much wider variety of beehives available, and a lot of these answer issues that were present with bee skep.
The most popular bee hive that is used in the USA is the Langstroth type of bee hive. However, if you want to look for some alternate options, some beehives that are worth researching include; warre bee hives, top bar bee hives, and flow hives!
Facts About Bee Skeps
It is worth keeping in mind how long bee skeps were the primary method for beekeeping. They were only overtaken in popularity by the Langstroth, and this was not invented until the 1800s meaning that the bee skep dominated for centuries before being replaced.
Due to its age, it is also very hard to work out the origin, or the inventor of the bee skep as well. However, we can work out that the word skep is derived from a Nordic word being skeppa. A skeppa was a basket that was used specifically for measuring grain.
In Northern Europe, beekeepers stopped using logs for beekeeping, and started using bee skeps throughout 800 to 1200 AD. You can also find that bee skeps were commonly used as a wedding gift for any Dutch newlyweds and were a sign that they would be starting a new life together.
Utah also used the symbol of a skep as the official seal of the state. It is also known that before the Middle Ages, a skep would usually be made using dung, wicker, as well as mud.
You can often find people referring to skeps with other names, with one of the most popular other names being a basketry hive. You can find that historically people who made bee skeps were called skepper.
There were also queen excluders used in the more modern versions of skeps, and these would allow easy honey harvesting without having to disturb the colony too much.
But, by the 18th century, you could find that skeps would also have glass jars placed on top to build comb in as well. You could also find that wealthier homes would have bee boles which were indents in the walls outdoors specifically for keeping skeps.
How To Make A Bee Skep
If you want to make a bee skep for whatever reason, (if you are using it to harvest honey, check your local laws), luckily this does not need too many materials, however you will need patience to make one.
What Materials Do You Need?
To make your own bee skep you will need some rye straw or harding grass dried out. You will also want a 5 mm rattan cane to use as well. You will need a comb, girth, mallet, and awl, as well as a bucket of water as well!
First you want to place your cane in your water until it is properly soaked. The run the comb through your straw to ensure there are no leaves, seeds, or kinks in it. Then hit is with a mallet to soften it.
To make the top insert you cane through the bundle of straw and start a coil. Then wrap the cane around the straw, wrap this 3 times using a binding stitch the last time.
Sew the coil using your awl and pierce the cane through the gap. When making new rows interlink your stitches, and keep the coil uniform. For more detailed instruction, you can find historical guides, or modernized video guides as well!
Hopefully this guide has given you all the information you need about bee skeps. The history behind this method of beekeeping is incredibly interesting and there is a lot you can learn.
Modern beekeeping using skeps can be quite difficult, however it is possible, so if you want to use a skep, we recommend looking up modern guides from people who are still using this method today!
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