The straw skep is a familiar part of the beekeeper’s equipment. Nowadays they are used primarily to gather summer swarms and winter cobwebs but in the past, skeps were used to hive bees all year round.
The word skep is thought to have come from an Icelandic Norse word skeppa meaning a straw basket and grain measure: their original purpose being a half-bushel grain measure, although Saxon beekeepers are thought to have been hiving bees in them since early Christian times. Skeps came to Britain when the Saxons surged westwards to occupy territories vacated by the Romans after their empire collapsed around 410 A.D. presumably reaching Ireland soon after.
Before the arrival of the skep the only purpose-made hive was the alveary: a sharply conical willow or hazel basket weatherproofed with a layer of green cow manure and ashes or lime. The word alveary has Latin roots but despite the etymology there is no evidence that the alveary itself was a Roman invention and may well have been in use here before they came. Although eventually superseded by the skep, the process was gradual and the alveary was still being used by some beekeepers into the 19th century.
The earliest mention of skeps in Ireland was in the 500’s when they were used by the beekeeping St Gobhnait, head of a convent at Ballyvourney, Cork who drove off cattle thieves by hurling skeps of bees at them.
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