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How Skeps Work

January 19, 2015

Keeping bees in skeps.

These days very few people keep bees in skeps because it is far easier to inspect and care for bees on movable frames in standardised boxes, and because removing honey can be so destructive. There are even a few places (parts of USA for example) where it is illegal to keep bees on fixed combs because of the difficulty of disease monitoring and control.

and, below, an article about making them

Large skep made Jan.2011 for use in an art work, not for bees.


A variation: Copy of a Luneberg Heath skep from Germany, as seen on the IWF website videos

Rye straw and cane were used for this  19th century style skep

Eight cloomed wicker skeps.
These were made in March 2009 for a film company who wanted them for
the Robin Hood movie.
In the film Friar Tuck (the beekeeper) throws skeps of bees into a building where people are hiding. That’s why they had to have handles.
This is only the first batch of the skeps made for the film.
Getting all that cow dung dry in cool damp weather was a problem.

A skep with comb and the bees that built it.
The gap is where a dish of syrup once stood to feed the bees when they were first put in the skep. The older combs are dark in colour, the new are pale. The rim of the skep has been varnished with propolis by the bees.
The skep has been turned almost upside down so that you can see inside.

Here are a couple of wicker skeps, made from willow sticks like a basket.
The one on the right has been coated with cow dung (cloomed) to protect it.
These were rejects from the film project – the director wanted them in brown willow (bark on) and with top handles.

There are various ways of making a wicker hive, Another method is to bind all the stakes together at the top rather than weave them . This gives a big tuft at the top of the hive.
I have put a description of how to make a wicker skep on the page about Willow Baskets.

Clooming, stage 1.  The mix of sand and cow dung (fresh !) is in the bucket, the gloves are there and all you have to do is spread the mixture on the skep by hand, pressing it into the wicker pattern.

Why are skeps not all the same?

The shapes and also the sizes of skeps have changed gradually over time. In the 16th century they were round topped and bell shaped, widest at the mouth.

Then it was realised that a stronger shape curved in again at the mouth so that the widest was a little way up. Skeps were fairly small and became bigger as time went on.

These days colonies are usually bigger than in the past, partly due to selective breeding and also swarm control. Modern skeps can be large.

A skep can have an entrance in any position, often it is a hole halfway up the side and often as a doorway cut in the bottom edge, but many have no visible entrance and a smooth bottom rim. These are either intended for swarm collection or else were stood on a prepared stand that had a groove cut in its top surface to make an entrance for the bees under the skep rim.

Skeps with a hole in the top were usually intended for “storifying”, by having a second skep placed on top so that bees had the run of extra space. Not only were the bees likely to make a bigger colony before they swarmed, but bigger colonies make more honey in proportion to their numbers and tend to store it in an upper space, thus making harvesting the honey without disturbing the main brood area much easier. The beekeeper could take away the upper skep with the bulk of the stored honey and very little if any brood, leaving the colony in good shape and perhaps able to start filling a second replacement upper skep.

Many experimental shapes and sizes of skeps have been tried. Some even had glass windows and opening doors in the sides to allow inspection and observation. Skeps have been made with top bars of wood for combs to hang from, with internal frames to support the combs and with extra chambers added at the sides or below rather than on top. One cunning device diverted bees from living in an upper skep by rotating the lower one which had its entry in one edge of its roof. Flying bees would come home to the position they expected the door and find they were going into the other skep. Clever manipulation of this device enabled the beekeeper to separate flying from non flying bees and to separate brood combs from honey combs as the queen was most unlikely to go out of one skep into the other although the doors were close together most of the time.


Transport of bees in skeps.

These days flat-topped skeps are usually intended for swarm collection.

One advantage of a flat-topped skep appears when it is used for swarm collection because it can be stood upside down (mouth up) when it is full of bees and covered with a cloth and won’t roll about whilst being transported.

A cloth for shutting in a swarm has to be thin enough to allow the occupants to breathe easily without letting them force an escape. The best shape in my experience is a square of cloth big enough to cover the mouth of the skep and reach part of the way up the sides. It has a short string attached to each corner and each string has a large nail tied to the end. Spread the cloth on the ground under the swarm, shake the bees into the skep and put the skep right way up on the cloth. Let the stragglers in by putting a stick under the edge so it makes a doorway. When all bees have gone in, take away the stick, pull the nails one by one up the side of the skep to stretch the cloth tight and stick the nails into the skep wall to hold it tightly closed, like a bee-filled drum.

Transport the bees cloth end up so they get plenty of air. This is important because bees in transport tend to produce a lot of heat and can sometimes be killed by getting too hot.
This also applies when transporting whole beehives and occasionally someone has the horrifying experience of a colony that gets hot enough to melt the wax combs and release the honey so that hundreds of bees die in mass of melting wax and honey. Hives travel better on the open back of a truck where they get plenty of cooling draught rather than in a car in the warm. The same applies to skeps of bees.

The following article was written for a beekeepers’ magazine. Feel free to copy and use it.  There is now another page with more detailed instructions.
Download button at foot of page.


Getting started
Having kept bees for about 28 years now, my interest has gradually shifted around the different aspects of the craft. I have long since got over the eagerness to bottle as much honey as possible and sell it at every fete. My keenness to make candles has lessened and I have tried every job in my local association (except Treasurer!). The interest in the bees themselves has stayed with me, and judging honey shows is always interesting, but one aspect of beekeeping has taken over a large slice of my time.

How I started Skep making
Taking children on camping holidays after I retired from teaching I one time found myself camping in south Wales helping people who were busy creating a 17th century farm (You may have seen TV programmes about living a year in17th century style – made there and showing various things I have had a hand in). As I was the only beekeeper in the company this led to me making a couple of skeps to fit in the boles built into the farmhouse garden wall. I had never made a skep before but lack of experience has never stopped me trying something new.

A Little History
Back in the 1640s there was no cane or special straw to be had at the craft shop – you had to find the materials yourself. I visited my local thatcher Martin Wilmott who grows his own tall wheat, I read the booklets on skep making written by George Hawthorne and Karl Showler, I also read the accounts written 350 years ago to know what a skep looked like in those days. I visited my friend Ian Beaty who has made many beautiful skeps, picked up some good hints, sorted Martin’s thatching straw to get it ready for work, made myself the few tools that were needed and then I set about my own version. My first two skeps were knobbly bumpy things – probably quite like what a farmer might have made at home all those years ago. I taught myself to strip and split brambles to make the binding. For straw I’ve also used rye and even (free) wild oats.

Bramble for Binding
Splitting bramble is a steady job. Wear gloves! In winter, walk the hedges and look for long straight brambles that have no branches. Cut them at the base, pulling them upwards out of the hedge, and then run them through the holes in an old spanner to break off all the thorns quickly. Next scrape the bark and outer layers off using your pocket knife. Starting at the base, split the stem in half with the knife. Start with a cut, but from then on twist the knife to extend the split. The way to keep straight is to always push against the side that is getting thicker, which makes the split veer back towards the centre. Then split the halves into quarters. If you have ever used a froe to split timber, this is the same idea on a small scale. By the way, don’t bother trying to split bramble with a cleave – it works fine on willow for baskets but bramble is far more awkward to handle. Lastly, scrape the pith off the quarter stems, producing long flat tough woody strips about 5mm wide. These will be a bit too stiff to use, so have a short stick or the handle of your knife and run them over it like a belt over a pulley – inside in always – which will make them much more flexible. I wind each strip into a circle and hang them up to dry until I need them. A long walk with the dog usually results in just four bramble strips. You’ll need about 60 for a skep, so start collecting.

Extra Tool for Bramble
The scraping and flexing is rather hard on the hands, so I have recently added an invented tool to my kit. This is a stout hazel rod cut to about 15cm long, and then cut endwise to give four stumpy “fingers” at one end. Trimmed to fit, these bend the scraped bramble nicely when it is threaded in and pulled through. It saves wear and tear on the hands.

Bending  a strip of bramble.

The inner side is nearer the camera, on the inside of the bend.
Pulled back and forth a couple of times, this makes the bramble flexible ready for use or for storing dry until needed.

Starting the Skep
Skeps are made from the top down, but upside down! In other words, you begin with the middle of the bees’ roof. Starting a skep is the trickiest part. You have a bunch of straw in one hand and a strip of bramble in the other and have to conjure something in mid-air. Wind the bramble a few times round the straw, starting at the bases, and then twist the straw like the first turn of a snail shell. You now have the bramble in position to thread it through the centre and pull it tight. Have another go – you need several tries to get it right! The tuft of straw ends tells you which is the inside of the skep. Some work on the inside, some outside – it works the same. Just keep on the same way until the skep is complete. Once you have wrapped the straw round and threaded the bramble through a couple of times, the start of the structure is established and you can get down to the slow coiling that sews the skep together. Every stitch should go over the straw wreath and through one of the stitches of the previous row, so that the stitches all interlink in one continuous spiral knot.

The Skep Maker’s Basic Tools
Here you will need two essential tools, the two tools you cannot buy but must find or make for yourself. One is a short tube (cow horn? plastic bottle neck? serviette ring?) which holds the new straw together. It slides along and you poke in extra straw each time it gets loose, so that a continuous wreath of straw of the same thickness is fed into the skep wall. The second is either a tube (bird bone – mine are turkey and swan bones) cut on the slant so that you have a U shaped spike to push through the straw or a broad spike – an awl – for making holes This is your needle and makes a channel so that it is possible to slide the bramble through.
To make your own fid I have found a 15cm piece of 15mm copper water pipe, suitably cut, filed, shaped and given a handle, is a good but less authentic tool. See the picture below.

Sewing the continuous spiral
So from here on just spike a hole, wrap the bramble round and through, pull it tight and repeat – about 500 times. Getting the smooth curve of a nice skep takes practice but you will easily make a usable basket at the first attempt. Joining new bits of bramble is done by doubling the ends together for a few inches and tucking the new one in to hide its end.

Skep ToolsClockwise :
at 1 o’clock an elderberry stick as needle; easy to make, works OK but wears out fast:
at 3 a swan wing bone with added wooden handle
at 5 copper pipe with wooden handle, my favoured tool, polished by much work.
at 7 and 9, swan and turkey bones
at 11 a thin piece of aluminium tube. This is good but wears away fast.

at 2,4,6,8,10 and 12 various horn, wood and plastic tubes and bottle necks used as gauges for the straw wreath

Historical shape variations
Back in 1640 skeps were about 2 Winchester bushels in volume and a domed shape, widest at the base. It was soon suggested that narrowing the base slightly made stronger skep, and by the 19th century holes were sometimes left in the flat top so that skeps could be “storified”, like putting on supers. In 1770 Thomas Wildman proposed cylindrical skeps with wooden bars across the top to support combs. His idea was to stack them and remove the top one as it was filled with honey. This was about the first suggestion for working bees in replaceable parts of a hive, but did not catch on. I would not advise anyone to try keeping all their bees in skeps and probably only experienced beekeepers should try it at all. This is because fixed comb beekeeping poses a number of problems, from how to control swarming and how to get at the honey, to how to do effective disease control. There are places where skep beekeeping is illegal for just those reasons. Take pride in making your own skep for collecting swarms but leave it at that, unless, like me, you can persuade someone to pay you for demonstrating at craft shows or other beekeepers to buy your products. Making skeps has led me into wicker skeps and willow basketry, but that’s another story. Every hobby leads to another!

Recommended reading: “Skeps, Their History Making and Use” by Frank Alston. Reprinted by Northern Bee Books and well worth having, especially for Richard Alston’s excellent drawings. 1490 words.

Click here to download this file

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