The HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Bee skep making

 

The making of lipwork baskets for collecting bees and for beekeeping (see also straw working). Skeps are called ruskies in the North East of Scotland.

 

Status Endangered
Craft category
Historic area of significance UK
Area currently practised UK
Origin in the UK Medieval based on archaeological evidence, but possibly Bronze Age or even late Neolithic. A piece of lip-work basketry has been found in a peat bog in Ireland dating to the Mesolithic era.
Current no. of professionals (main income) 0
Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
6-10
Current no. of trainees
Current total no. serious amateur makers
Around 6-10
Current total no. of leisure makers
Around 51-100
Minimum no. of craftspeople required

 

History

A ‘skep’ is a basket. Consider the second syllable of the word ‘basket’ – a ‘bee-skep’ is a basket for bees, from the Anglo Saxon ‘Skeppa’ and ‘Sciob’ in Irish. Bee skeps can be split into two categories:

  • Wicker skeps also known as an ‘alveary’ – possibly the preferred way of crafting bee-skeps before the Anglo-Saxon era.
  • Lip-work skeps made of straw – possibly the preferred way of crafting a bee-skep after the Anglo-Saxon era (but there are photos of wicker skeps being used for beekeeping in Herefordshire as late as 1880).

There is no evidence for beekeeping until the Roman Era, and nothing in the archaeological record has been interpreted as a skep until much later. However, it’s possible that we were have been keeping bees in skeps since the Bronze Age, possibly the late Neolithic era.

Skep beekeeping waned in the UK after WW2, when a government restocking scheme only gave a subsidy for bees in boxes, not skeps. Skep still continued to be made for swarm collection – walls got thinner, capacity and shapes changed and continue to change to this day. Some have handles, some have doors, some have wooden rims etc.

 

Techniques

A continuous coil of lipwork, often bell shaped, sometimes flat topped. Straws are dampened and twisted and bound with lapping. Lapping can be split bramble, willow, hazel, dogwood etc. Skeps for beekeeping need a floor (usually wooden, sometimes stone) and a shelter.

 

Local forms

  • The ‘Hampshire Pot’ or ‘New Forest Pot’ is a skep from that region traditionally made from. There are many varieties, but none other have a regional name.
  • Skeps upon the Yorkshire moors were commonly made of ‘purple moor grass’
  • Within skep beekeeping itself there are many different ways to ‘dress’ and ‘stick’ a hive.
  • There are many ways to shelter a skep of bees.
  • Working with split materials/ making lapping: split bramble, split willow, split hazel, split ash, de-laminating oak and scoring into long laps etc.
  • Working with soft rushes and sedge.
  • Daubing a wicker skep.
  • Skep-beekeeping.
  • Hackle making (a straw cone hat that protects a skep).
  • Bee bole construction (an alcove for bees).
  • Bone working (a traditional needle or ‘fid’ is made of a sharpened bone from a large bird, often a goose).
  • Horn working (the traditional gauge for the straw is made of cow horn).
  • Driving bees (a way of moving bees from one skep to another).

 

Sub-crafts

 

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Skep-beekeeping has had a gentle resurgence in the last 10 years, but it is a very small special interest group.
  • There is not a great demand for bee skeps.
  • Imported skeps can be bought cheaply online and from various beekeeping suppliers.
  • Skep making is time consuming, and at a UK craftperson’s hourly rate would be too expensive for the current market.
  • There are difficulties in obtaining cereal straw that has not gone through a combine harvester.

 

Support organisations

  • Bees for Development
  • The National Honey Show
  • The British Beekeepers’ Association
  • The Natural Beekeeping Trust
  • Guild of Straw Craftsmen

 

Craftspeople currently known

  • Chris Park, Oxon/Wiltshire – maker, tutor and skep beekeeper
  • David Chubb, Gloucestershire
  • Tina Cunningham, Wales (taught by her father David Chubb) – also makes wicker skeps.
  • Martin Buckle, Bedfordshire (possibly not making anymore)
  • David Wright, Scotland
  • Julie LeFevre
  • Nick Mengham, Kent – tutor also known as ‘Mr Bumble’
  • Paula Carnell
  • Bryce Reynard, Inverness

Peter Haywood makes skeps very occasionally. Sarah Webb makes wicker skeps.

 

Other information

There is no viable profit to be made in skep making. There is however a possibility of supplementing one’s income through teaching skep making to beekeepers and suchlike. 6 good and active workshop leaders can perpetuate the skills to many, and every now and again an exceptional student appears and one knows they will go on to make more and have the right attitude to teach.

As long as there are beekeepers, there will be a need for skeps to collect swarms, and skep making workshops are always popular. Chris Park, a visiting lecturer to beekeeping associations on skep-beekeeping and beekeeping history, for example, teaches 60-80 new students a year.

Current initiatives to preserve bee skep making skills:

  • Skep making workshops – National Honey Show, BBKA Spring Convention, Bees for Development
  • Skep beekeeping workshop – Bees for Development
  • Skep making demonstrations at events – BBKA
  • Beekeeping History Trust – research and experimentation, newsletter and E-zine
  • Acorn Education – research and experiments with skep making, various styles of skep, various styles management and a well established skep apiary

 

References