Are you a hands on type of person that keeps honeybees and fancied trying your hand at making your very own traditional skep? Over the centuries skeps were used to house honeybees, Initially they were made from wicker plastered with mud and dung but from the Middle Ages they were made of straw. In northern and western Europe, skeps were made of coils of grass or straw. In its simplest form, there is a single entrance at the bottom of the skep. Again, there is no internal structure provided for the bees and the colony must produce its own honeycomb, which is attached to the inside of the skep. Skeps have two disadvantages; beekeepers cannot inspect the comb for diseases and pests, and honey removal is difficult and often results in the destruction of the entire colony. To get the honey beekeepers either drove the bees out of the skep or, by the use of a bottom extension called an eke or a top extension called a cap, sought to create comb with just honey in it. Quite often the bees were just killed, sometimes using lighted sulfur, to allow the honeycomb to be removed. Skeps could also be squeezed in a vise to extract the honey. As of 1998, most US states prohibited the use of skeps because they can not be inspected for disease and parasites.
Later skep designs included a smaller woven basket (cap) on top over a small hole in the main skep. This cap acted as a crude super, allowing the harvesting of some honey with less destruction of brood and bees. In England such an extension piece consisting of a ring of about 4 or 5 coils of straw placed below a straw beehive to give extra room for brood rearing was called an eke, which was used to give just a bit of extra space.
A person who made such woven beehives was called a “skepper”, a surname that still exists in western countries. In England the thickness of the coil of straw was controlled using a ring of leather or piece of cows horn called a “girth” and the coils of straw could be sewn together using strips of briar. Likenesses of skeps can be found in paintings, carvings and old manuscripts. The skep is often used on signs as an indication of industry (“the busy bee”).
In the late 18th century, more complex skeps appeared with wooden tops with holes in them over which glass jars were placed. The comb was built in the glass jars, making the designs commercially attractive.
Follow this tutorial to learn the art of making a traditional skep here.