Will Harper’s Skep FAQ v3

May 2019 UPDATE: This is a long forgotten resource, being resurrected from a Mac home page – back when being a .mac subscriber gave you web space, like an Apple version of Geocities – and subsequently, my old Glamorgan University Comp Sci Home Page, back in the mid 90s. For now, I am just resurrecting it from archive.org, because (due to many social and technical breakdowns) I lost (or thought I had) the old stuff. However, I’ve rekindled my interest in Skeps and Beekeeping of late, so here it is for now, and hopefully it will be extended. So many old resources for Skep Making and ‘natural’ beekeeping seem to have disappeared of late; this humble offering was an early casualty, so I hope it’s return is greeted warmly. Look forward to improvements to what was written nearly three decades ago, when the Internet was still young.

Mike Reddy’s Skep FAQ

June 1995 UPDATE:

I received a lovely letter in my capacity of Master Will Harper, Beekeeper to Kentwell Hall in Suffolk (one of my reenactments roles) regarding a swarm of bees found by a visitor to the site during one Summer. The text is as follows:

Master Will the Beekeeper, Kentwell Hall, 
Long Melford, 
Suffolk.

28th June 1995

Dear Master Will,

Master Cedar Cowpar has told me that by the ancient lore of Beekeeping, the wild swarm belongs to the one who spots it first and that consequently the swarm that you so neatly captured on Sunday last, by the butts, belongs to me and my companions, my daughter Anna and Beverley her friend. He said that we should write and tell you what we wish you to do with the bees, and that also by ancient lore, woever receives the bees has to give something in return.

We would like you to have the bees, and we think that the ancient rhyme says the right thing

“… if the bees do swarm in June then ’tis worth a silver spoon…”

We shall be happy with a silver-coloured one.

We wish you well and that the bees may thrive.

Thank you

Golda pp Anna + Beverley

NOTE: : Although dealing with skeps, the majority of this material was gathered for the purposes of investigating Mediaeval and Tudor beekeeping practices. Therefore, some of the facts contained here may not be so wide-ranging as other more complete sources, or may disagree with material appropriate for other time periods. Any other errors are probably mine.

Master Will Harper celebrating St John’s Day (Mid Summer) 1994, at Kentwell Hall, Suffolk

General History

Beekeeping has always been an integral part of the British Economy. Even today, after 150 years since they were in common usage, images of traditional straw-domed beehives are still found and recognised in many places. The bible, many mediaeval texts and numerous examples of folk-lore refer to beekeeping:

“The better the wheat and the wool, the better the honey” – Anon

“Heaven flows with milk and honey” – Exodus 3, v.8-13

One 14th century example [Rawl c1370] from the Bodlean Library, is an almanac, predicting wars, plagues, famines and the productivity of beehives. So, it is clear that the produce of bees was of great economic significance.

Although we now see honey as a rather expensive sweetener, compared with sugar – At anything from £2 to £20 per Kg it loses hands down to a 50 pence bag of sugar – The main product of Mediaeval and Tudor apiarists was the wax, used by chandlers to make candles for the Church until the Reformation in 1536 when King Henry the 8th in his obsession to gain a male heir all but destroyed the market. Honey was still the reserve of the richer families and was used in baking, medicines, polish and the manufacture of Mead (the oldest alcoholic drink!).

In fact, mead was the weakest of a number of honey derived beverages, collectively known as Meth (not Meths!) or Hydromel. The strongest was Methaeglen, a one time favourite of Queen Elizabeth the 1st. Such was the importance of the drink to the Royal Court that Welsh mead makers were immune from all prosecution while making it! They could, literally, get away with murder!

An early (not too tidy) one bushel skep (approx 24” in height and girth)

The main difference between beekeeping is that now we have techniques for separating the honey from the brood – a legal requirement for selling in fact – with the movable comb hive. Although, tree stumps and clay pots have been used around the World, in Western Europe, the most popular hive was a conical basket called a skep – derived from the Anglo Saxon “Skeppa” which means basket – made of woven wicker baskets (with a coating of cloome or daub), or long straw coiled and stitched with blackberry briar. The straw skep is said to have started with tribes west of the Elbe in Germany [Crane]. The earliest remains may have come from possibly a twelfth century skep found in 1980 during an excavation at Coppergate, York. [Crane].

Extract of wall painting in the Kentwell Hall Chapel (not available for public display)

Skeps need not be made with long wheat straw. Reeds and sedges could also be used, presumably dependent upon locally available materials. Skeps have been known to last 150 years. Skeps were usually set upon tables to protect them from damp and scavengers. The platforms would be made of wood, as stone would be likely to chill the bees.

Close up of the entrance, showing base of hackle and skep daubed to the stool

An extension to the front would provide an increased landing area, with a groove to allow access to the hive. Alternatively, bees could gain entry if the surface was uneven, through a hole cut in the side or the base of the skep, or by raising the side of the skep with sticks (often used in Summer to facilitate many bees coming and going).

Full view of hackle used to protect the skep over Winter, made of abundant local reeds

Protection from the elements would be by a ‘hackle’ or reed wigwam affair.

New wax comb from a recent swarm in one bushel skep

For a typical skep, 6-8 combs would hang vertically, being attached to the top and sides. This makes it almost impossible to easily examine the brood or remove the honey without destroying the comb. Skeps were usually measured in pecks, a measure used for stored grain and perhaps a throwback to the original use for skeps. Butler mentions one and two peck versions – 10 by 15 inches and 14 by 15 inch respectively – The small size was probably because the cramped space would encourage swarming, a vital process for replacing the harvested skeps.

‘Hefting’ or lifting the skeps was an acquired skill for judging the weight of honey so that the beekeeper could decide which to destroy. The medium weights would be left to swarm the following year, while the lightest and heaviest would usually be taken; the lightest would not survive the Winter without feeding, the heaviest as the brood would possibly be too large for the stored honey, or would eat the profits!

The dastardly deed itself would have been performed in one of two ways: The first was simply to immerse the skep in water, though impure water would almost certainly taint the honey. The second involved using the smoke from a sulphur fire to asphyxiate the bees. The technique required digging a hole slightly smaller in diameter than the base of the skeps. A fire would be built up in the hole, then sulphur added just before the skeps would be placed on top. After a short time, the dead bees could be shaken out, however leaving the skep too long might melt the comb or flavour the honey.

Clearly, this approach was wasteful for both bees and drawn comb, as well as being quite upsetting for us to consider, spoilt as we are with our modern hives. A precursor of the Super was a ‘cap’, a skep placed on top to allow honey to be harvested without destroying the brood comb. Alternatively, an ‘eke’ (a ring of four coils of straw) or a ‘nadir’ (a skep with a hole in the roof) could be placed below to increase the size of the hive.

Another technique was to drive the bees, but this could only be profitably done in Autumn because of the reduced brood comb. Furthermore, the bees would need to be joined to an existing colony as they would not survive otherwise. It is interesting to note that all the expert authorities of the time disapproved of this approach.

Comb was extracted in three parts:

  1. Sheere honey and wax (equivalent to our supered comb)
  2. Second honey and sandarach (mixed brood and honey)
  3. Dry wax

Interestingly, no mention of pollen is made in the distinctions, though it was understood that bees collected and stored it.

The honey was extracted through a cloth bag. The first or ‘run’ honey was the best quality, the second came from wringing the cloth, while the meth was obtained by washing th ecloth in warm water. The latter was used for the mead.

£6-9 for a barrel of best honey 
£5 for a barrel of Heath honey

It was generally understood that raw honey was not so fit as that heated for half an hour with a little water to aid removal of impurities.

Miscellaneous

“The better the wheat and the wool, the better the honey” – Anon

“Heaven flows with milk and honey” – Exodus 3, 8-13

Reckoning for good honey: Oil is 9/10ths the weight of wine, honey is 3/2ths the weight of wine.

Alchemically, honey is hot and dry, easily absorbed, acting as a cleanser (both internally and externally). Honey can be used to heal in the following ways:

opening obstructions; clearing humours and flegma from chest and head; loosening the belly ad purging foulness; helping urine; improving appetite; nourishing and purifying the blood; stirring up heat in young and old; prolonging life; preserving things. It is often used by physicks to add to medicine and for embalming. It can improve maladies; work against serpent and dog bites, as well as poison; guards against falling sickness. Honey is most fit for old men, all women and children who are generally rheumatic, flegmatic ad cold of humour. Honey is not so well for young and hot (!) men, unless part of a fast.

Smoking is not a recent phenomenon, though bellows smokers are only a hundred and fifty years old or so. Virgil in Roman times stated:

“With sprinkled water first the city choke, And then pursue the citizens with smoke.”

Primitive smoker filled with bark and leaves dates back to Roman Times

Primitive smokers, or chafing dishes date from Roman times, and so are well within the remit of Tudor beekeepers, being mentioned in Southerne and Butler in some detail. Before that time, it was likely that burning branches would have been used as they are today in some African nations. Interestingly, the pottery smokers built at Kentwell by the resident potters was seen by a volunteer who has worked in Africa and inspired her to make one to show when she returns to the continent as a possible alternative to wielding burning wood. Nice to know that the ‘cutting edge of Tudor times’ still has its uses.

Sources

B & K Books of Hay-on-Wye is run by Betty and Karl Showler (the B & K being their fore-names presumably). Karl is well known for being an authority on ancient bee books. He also explored the use of skeps in his own apiary, with semi-regular reports in his regular column “In the Apiary”, printed in the UK monthly magazine “BeeCraft” in the 90s. Judging from the catalogue, they have hundreds of bee related publications. The only time I tried to visit the shop, which is run from their own home, they were out. My fault as potential customers are advised to ring first; I’ll know better next time! You can contact B & K at the following address:

B & K Books of Hay-on-Wye, 
Riverside, Newport Street, 
Hay-on-Wye, via Hereford. 
HR3 5BG 
TEL: 01497 820 386

References

Many of these are available from IBRA’s extensive library.

Butler, Charles “The feminine monarchy, or The historie of bees”, 1609, A facimile is available from Northern Bee Books.THE book of Tudor beekeeping. The copy I have has been read and re-read.

Crane, Eva “The archaeology of beekeeping”, 198?, IBRA. An excellent source on the history of beekeeping throughout the ages.

IBRA, “British bee books: A bibleography 1500-1976” 1979, IBRA. Again, a facinating list of references from the year dot. Numerous plates from various publications

Southerne, Edmund “A treatise concerning the right use and ordering of bees”, 1593, A facsimile is available from IBRA. The first original book in English entirely on beekeeping. 

*** Scan in the cover ***

MS Rawl. D939, part 4. “Prognostications from an English calander” in ‘IBRA Slide Set 1: 45 slides Mediaeval Manuscripts’. Sadly, no longer available to buy, this slide set can be borrowed from IBRA for a fee.


To do:

  • Driving bees and driving irons.
  • Bee boles
  • British bee books relevant to Tudor times
  • Putting a lot of pictures in the right places:


All material and images are (c) Mike Reddy 1995, 2005, 2019. All rights reserved. 
Last updated 12th May 2019 by Mike Reddy

Dr. Mike Reddy