CBKA ‘Bit of a Do’ 2018 – Skep beekeeping

The final talk of our annual joint Cornwall Beekeepers Association & West Cornwall Beekeepers Association Bit of a Do day this September was Chris Park on skep beekeeping.

Chris keeps bees on organic farmland around the Oxfordshire / Wiltshire border and the Upper Thames valley. After researching and experimenting with varying styles of skep beekeeping, Chris teaches and lectures on skep making, beekeeping and beekeeping heritage / history around the UK. He says that the practice of skep-beekeeping is not everyone’s cup of tea, but it can be educational, rewarding and bee centred, in his experience creating healthy and happy stock.

Chris comes across as quite a romantic character, into folklore and going back to old ways of doing things. He told us that before Britain was inhabited it was called the ‘sea-girt green space’, or ‘Clas Myrddin‘. And then after it was inhabited it was called the ‘Honey island’, or ‘Y Vel Ynys’. Chris has written online about what that name means to him: ‘The Honey Isle by Chris Park‘.

The history of skeps – ‘skep’ means basket and is an old type of woven beehive which is rarely used nowadays apart from for catching swarms. They were made from many materials in the past, with wicker and straw being popular options. Skeps need to be placed under a shelter to stop them getting wet and rotting. Rich men used ‘bee boles’, alcoves in a wall. Poor men used wooden shelters. To try and make them more weatherproof, skeps were dressed with cows dung and hog saliva!

Bee boles at the Lost Gardens of Heligan

Bee boles at the Lost Gardens of Heligan

He made some observations about the benefits of skeps to his bees:

  • The comb is renewed every 2-3 years when it collapses or the bees die out/move on, so the bees are on fresh, chemical free comb
  • There is less manipulation and hive inspections involved, so less stress for the bees
  • The bees possibly seem a bit calmer in skeps – a visiting bee inspector remarked that they were the calmest bees he’d ever seen
  • Skeps have fewer winter losses, he finds

And also about the disadvantages:

  • Time spent (my notes didn’t cover time spent on doing what – maybe on making the skeps?)
  • Difficult to inspect brood comb
  • You lose any swarms
  • More etiquette involved in where you site skeps, as you can’t predict when they’ll swarm

There are some practical things which can be done to improve on the basic dome shaped traditional design. Putting cross sticks inside supports the comb, otherwise it can fall out when you look inside the skep and then put it down again. Chris learnt this the hard way the first time he put a skep down and then heard a thump as the comb landed down too. You can use an open mesh floor or tray underneath for ventilation and catching varroa. You can also make a multi-layered brood skep with a removable super skep on top, to make harvesting honey less intrusive.

Not many beekeepers use skeps other than for swarm collecting nowadays, but there are a few people out there doing skep beekeeping still. The Dartford association have bee boles in their apiary walls. (While writing this post I discovered this 2013 article: ‘Dartford beekeeper recounts his war ordeal‘, which has a picture of William Mundy, the Chair of Dartford beekeepers, with the bee boles and skeps. He was held as a prisoner of war during the Japanese occupation of Singapore; after managing to catch a swarm he was able to donate honey to the prison hospital so that it could be used to treat wounds and burns).

If you want to read more, check out these articles by Chris for the Dave Cushman website:

Bee bole and skep at Heligan gardens, Cornwall

Bee bole and skep at Heligan gardens, Cornwall

Emily Scott, CBKA member

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