12 June 2014
The Short Answer (TSA)
“Beeskepmaker” is an archaic term describing a maker of beehives. But that’s not quite the whole “answer.” Today, when you talk about beehives, people think of the almost universally popular Langstroth Hive or the major challenger to the Langstroth, the Top Bar Hive.
But a “beeskep” isn’t just an old fashioned word for a beehive. The beeskep is distinct style of behive. To make beeskeps, the artisan must also have the skills of a basket weaver.
A beeskep is made of straw woven into a sort of a cord, something like a rope, and, then coiled to form a basket of a special type – a basket that was designed and used as a beehive by early commercial beekeepers.
The skep was kept open-end-down on a stone slab. And, these skeps were built to last. One might remain in its place on the beekeeper’s stone slab for a century. English skeps were often made out of wheat straw. German immigrants brought bee skeps and skep making to the New World. In America, rye straw was used to weave the coiling material used to build the skeps.
If the traditional skep was used as a container instead of a beehive, it would have held a half a bushel of grain. In fact, the skep is believed to have got its name from the Norse word skeppa, which describes a half bushel container used to measure-out grain.
Beeskep makers are very rare today. But the few that still survive are kept quite busy. Skeps are popular among amateur beekeepers, who do not keep bees for profit or even a private honey supply. That was the big problem with skeps and why these hives are no longer used by commercial beekeepers.
The skep, the outer shell of the beekeeper’s hive, could last for decades. But to harvest honey or beeswax from the skep, the beekeeper had to destroy the internal combs of the hives – the parts built by the colony of bees. Then, the colony had to begin again from scratch.
This old way of beekeeping wasn’t very efficient after the introduction of modern commercial beehives. The modern hives have “drawers” or “top bars” that allow bee keepers to unobtrusively remove honey combs and harvest the honey. Only one of several combs is disturbed. The other combs of the hive, particularly the brood comb in which the colony nurtures young bees, remains undisturbed.
Unoccupied skeps are also quite popular as decorative pieces for lawns and gardens. So, the few beeskep makers of the 21st century aren’t suffering for business.
Video: A “must watch” — “Skep Making” – a video conversion from one of those charming black and white films from an earlier era showing a skep maker at work.