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.
|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)
|Current no. of trainees|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
There are likely to be many beekeepers who make the occasional skep to collect a swarm, but do not publicise it.
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 WW1, 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.
A continuous coil of lipwork((coiling)often bell shaped for keeping colonies of bees in, sometimes flat topped for swarm collection. Straws are dampened and twisted (not necessarily)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.
- 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.
- 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).
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 but they are still used for swarm collection.
- 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. Other grasses and rushes are sometimes used for making skeps.
- Bees for Development
- The National Honey Show
- The British Beekeepers’ Association
- Scottish Bee Keepers 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
- Louise McLean, Northern Ireland
- Martin Buckle, Bedfordshire (possibly not making anymore)
- David Wright, Scotland
- Julie LeFevre
- Nick Mengham, Kent – tutor also known as ‘Mr Bumble’
- Paula Carnell
- Diana Robertson, Somerset
- Bryce Reynard, Inverness
- Paul Hand, Herefordshire
- Robbie Ryder, Family Foraging Kitchen
- Michael Townsend, Kenilworth
Peter Haywood makes skeps very occasionally from purple moor grass. Sarah Webb makes wicker skeps.
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, Scottish Beekeepers Association runs twice yearly skep making workshops.
- Skep beekeeping workshop – Bees for Development
- Skep making demonstrations at events – BBKA. Royal Highland and Agricultural Show, Edinburgh. Local Honey Shows.
- 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
- Paula Carnell – has developed an online course and is selling kits for people to make their own skeps
- Chris Park has created a bee themed podcast which also covers skep making
- Alston, Frank, Skeps: Their History, Making and Use
- Pettigrew, A, A Handy Book of Bees
- Butler, C, The Feminine Monarchy
- Showler, K, The Art and Mystery of Skep Making (booklet)
- Chubb, D, and Brekelemans, T, Skeps (booklet)
- Nobbs, Rev. E, Make a Skep and Revive a Lost Art (booklet)
- Langlands, A, Craeft (chapter on bee skep)
- Vernon, F, Hogs at the Honeypot (history of Hampshire beekeeping)
- Crane, E, The Archaeology of Beekeeping
- Heathland Beekeeping 1 Spring Work in a Heather Skep Apiary xvid
- Hands: Of Bees & Bee Skeps
- Skep Beekeeping in the Heathland – 1978