All posts by Gimlet

Skeps and Skep Beekeeping

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.

Origins

The word skep is thought to have come from an Icelandic Norse word skeppa meaning a straw basket. Their original purpose was as a half-bushel grain measure. Saxon beekeepers are thought to have been hiving bees in skeps since early Christian times. They came to Britain after the Romans left, around 400 A.D. and they brought their skeps with them. Presumably they came to Ireland at about the same time.

Before skeps the only purpose-made hive in these parts was the alveary: a sharply conical willow or hazel basket weatherproofed with a layer of green cow manure mixed with ashes or lime. The word alveary has Latin roots but despite these origins there is no evidence that the alveary was a Roman invention.

Although eventually superseded by the skep, the process was not immediate and the alveary was still being used by some beekeepers into the 19th century.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.

Skep-beekeeping

Having no built-in floor, skep hives were placed on either rush mats or hardwood platforms to keep out the cold. In addition they were often tucked into purpose-made alcoves in stone walls known as bee-boles. In winter, straw was stuffed around the sides for insulation and some bee-boles even had wooden doors which could be closed in foul weather. There is nothing new in the molly-coddling of bees!

Then, as now, beekeepers were fixated with swarming but whereas we are intent on preventing swarming, the skep-beekeepers depended on their bees to swarm and indeed encouraged it by careful choice of the size of the skep – colder and wetter northern and western regions tending towards a smaller skep to ensure the necessary congestion for the native bees.

Skep full of bees
Skep full of bees

Throughout the swarming season, beekeepers would catch and hive swarms in vacant skeps, the more the merrier. At the end of the season they would select the heaviest and the lightest of their stocks and suffocate the bees to remove the combs of honey.

The method involved placing skep and bees over a hole in the ground containing either an arrangement of smouldering brimstone-impregnated papers or hot coals over which he would sprinkle ‘flowers of sulphur’ at the appropriate moment.  An alternative was to burn dried slices of common puff ball (Lycoperdon giganteum), the fumes of which would stupefy the bees.

The remaining mid-weight hives were taken through the winter for the following year.

An alternative, less destructive method was to ‘drive’ the bees from a full skep into an empty one. The full skep containing honey and bees was turned upside down – the domed top wedged into the top of an iron bucket.  An empty skep was then set at an angle to the open end, fixed firmly in place with skewers and the whole arrangement covered with a cloth.  The sides of the upturned full skep were then vigorously drummed. The theory was that the drumming noise would drive the bees up out of the full skep and into the empty one leaving the combs of honey behind for the beekeeper.

Into the present

Skep beehives were in common use all the way up until the beginning of the 20th century when the advantages of wooden hives with removable frames based on the bee-space discoveries of Rev. Langstroth in 1851 saw the wooden National and Commercial hives finally take over. Even in the face of this competition, the skep was slow to go and the records of the Cumberland and Westmorland Beekeepers’ Association for 1906 show that 25% of colonies were still housed in skep hives.

Copyright © Beespoke.info 2014.  All Rights Reserved.

Click here for more about Skep Beekeeping

Click here for How to make your own Skep

Click here for more about my skeps or to order a handmade Irish skep

Bee Flower – Coltsfoot

Coltsfoot is in bloom now – 9th March 2017.  It is an Irish native and a member of the aster family – their asterness is obvious in this rather poor header photograph.

I didn’t realise the bees visit this plant but here is the evidence – note the lemon yellow pollen loads.

Honey bee visiting Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) note yellow pollen loads
Honey bee visiting Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) note yellow pollen loads

Coltsfoot is unusual in that the flowers come out before any leaves are visible. The heart shaped leaves come along later and are not at all like a dandelion.

It is thought that Coltsfoot flowers are a cure for coughs.

Click here for more March bee flowers

Copyright © Beespoke.info, 2017.  All Rights Reserved.

Irish Beekeepers Protest

Beekeepers of Ireland rise up and protest against the Heritage Bill before it all goes up in flames!

Gorse in full bloom
Gorse in full bloom

Meet outside Dáil Éireann with Gerry Ryan et al at 12.30 on 2nd March 2017 and let our Senators know we are against this stupid Bill!

Click here for more about the Heritage Bill

Click here for the full text of the  Seanad debate on this Bill in November2016 and which will be continued this Thursday

Heritage Bill?

The Heritage Bill, due before the Seanad this week (21st February 2017 ) seems to have nothing at all to do with Heritage other than to extend the period landowners or County Councils can burn, cut,  grub or otherwise erase the natural bit from the landscape. That natural bit is the bit our bees rely on.

This the part of the bill that will most affect us:

“…permit to the burning of vegetation in March, during such period or periods and in such areas of the State as the Minister may specify. Section 8 also provides for the amendment of section 40 to allow landowners or their agents to cut, grub or destroy vegetation in any hedge or ditch during August, subject to such Regulations as the Minister may make….”

I don’t need to tell you that the gorse (aka furze) is in bloom in March and our bees are all over it gathering vital early spring forage. If it is grubbed out and burnt at all, but especially in March, our bees, wild bees and other insects will all be deprived of a valuable early spring pollen source.

Gorse in full bloom
Gorse in full bloom

As for cutting, grubbing and burning in August – well I  also don’t need to tell you that – although our honey crop may be in, our bees are busily working all the other flowers in the hedgerows for as long as the weather allows in their build up for winter. Blackberry, for one, can flower well into October.

Let’s not forget that the heather will bloom all the way through August and into September. Heather is defined as scrub too.

Ling heather (Calluna vulgaris) honey
Heather in August

Hedgecutting usually means  decapitating mature hawthorn trees so there will be no flowers for the bees on such victims for several years.

Then there’s other important bee trees – willow and hazel – otherwise known as scrub. We need all of this stuff!

Let’s not forget the ivy either!

This bill is due before the Seanad this week – 21st February 2017 -and beekeepers need to make their feelings known to their TDs, Senators and MEPs before it is all too late:

All TDs

Fine Gael

Fianna Fail

Sinn Fein

Independent Alliance

Labour

Greens

Senators

MEPs

Detail

Here’s the section or the ‘Heritage’ Bill that will have most effect on bees, birds and other wildlife – vertebrate and invertebrate:

Part 3
Wildlife

Section 7 sets out definitions relating to the wildlife primary legislation.

Section 8 provides for amendments to section 40 of the Wildlife Acts. The new provisions under section 8 give the Minister power by Regulations to permit to the burning of vegetation in March, during such period or periods and in such areas of the State as the Minister may specify. Section 8 also provides for the amendment of section 40 to allow landowners or their agents to cut, grub or destroy vegetation in any hedge or ditch during August, subject to such Regulations as the Minister may make.

Section 9 relates to updating references to Inland Fisheries Ireland and to current fisheries legislation.

Section 10 provides for clarification of the powers of authorised officers of the Department and An Garda Síochána under the Wildlife Acts.

Section 11 provides for the updating of penalties for offences under the Wildlife Acts and the introduction of fixed payment notices for certain offences.

 

Christmas – Bees and Wintering

Christmas is one of the four quarter days which mark the changing of the seasons.

The four quarter days are:

  • Lady day or the Feast of the Annunciation 25th March;
  • Midsummer’s day around 25th June;
  • Michaelmas 29th September;
  • Christmas 25th December – lest we forget – fat chance.

They all approximately coincide with either an equinox or a solstice.

Continue reading Christmas – Bees and Wintering