History of Bee Skeps

miniature bee skep kit from Buttercup Miniatures
© F H Powell 2007

Bees have been kept for their honey from ancient times. Although honey was originally collected from bees’ nests in hollow trees, people soon decided to make artificial nests for the honeybees to live in. This made collecting the honey much easier. The earliest and most simple man made form of beehive is the bee skep. A hive in its most basic form is a hollow space where the bees can create their own internal structure from honeycomb (a mass of hexagonal cells made from beeswax, excreted from glands in the female worker bees). This honeycomb is where the honey is found along with stores of pollen and eggs, larvae and pupae of the bees.

Early hives were made from straw and clay and mimicked the natural cavities bees would choose in the wild. Several paintings survive showing ancient Egyptians performing various tasks associated with beekeeping.

By Medieval times intricate straw skeps were being made. As these were not weatherproof many were covered with thatch or a render similar to that used on house walls (a mix of mud, dung and lime). The basic design was very similar in all cases an upturned bowl with a small hole either part way up or at the base for the bees to enter and exit the hive. Some bee skeps were placed in specially created niches known as bee boles in walls. In cottage gardens skeps often had an old earthenware pot placed over them to keep rain out. However, the major drawback to the bee skep was there was no internal structure in the skep so the bees had to create their own using honeycomb, and it needed to be virtually destroyed, and with it the nest, to remove the honey. Sometimes the beekeeper would invert the original skep and place a new skep on top, thus allowing the bees chance to colonise the new skep before destroying the old one.

The shape of the beehive evolved over many years but is often cited as coming from a design mastered by Thomas Wildman in 1770. His design removed the need to destroy the nest to retrieve the honey. By 1851 the Langstroth hive had arrived with its removable frames that allowed easy removal of the honey and is the one most recognised today.

Today skeps are illegal because tests cannot be performed on bees to check for parasites etc without destroying the colony. Modern beehives have removable frames within them, thus allowing tests on small parts of the honeycomb.

A kit to make a 1/12th scale bee skep is available from our web shop.