Category Archives: Equipment

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.


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Although eventually superseded by the skep, the process was not immediate and the alveary was still being used by some beekeepers into the 19th century.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


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 © 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

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

Isle of Man Horse Power

If, like me, you went to the recent BIBBA conference on the Isle of Man you must also have noticed the horse drawn trams but did you know they too are threatened with extinction?

Kewin brings in the No.65 Douglas Horse Tram
Magnificent Kewin brings in the No.65 Douglas Horse Tram (

Manx Horse Power

Personally I was charmed and delighted by these lovely Clydesdales trotting along the promenade on hairy great feet with their ears all pricked and eager. In fact I was so charmed and delighted by them I looked them up on the Blithering Internet when I got home and was incredulous to discover that the Powers-That-Be in Douglas are planning to scrap them!

Click the photo above for a close up, look at that lovely, lovely horse and ask yourself how on earth can that be? Continue reading Isle of Man Horse Power

Useful Arnia Hive Scale Data

At this time of the year (spring) remote hive monitoring really comes into its own. I have an Arnia Hive Scale at one of my apiaries and it gives me a good idea what is happening not only in the monitored hive but also a rough idea of what is happening over there.

Since I installed it 2 months ago, apart from a sudden vertical jump when I put a super on to accommodate the growing population, it had been recording a steady decrease in weight but for the last 3 days it began to register an increase!

Here, have a look at this… Continue reading Useful Arnia Hive Scale Data

Arnia Remote Hive Monitors – Installing

After you have fired up your Gateway and Monitors and made sure they are communicating with each other and with the Mother Ship as per the previous article – the very first step is to make sure you have a mobile signal at your intended apiary. If you don’t check this, your carefully assembled set-up may have to be carefully disassembled. Continue reading Arnia Remote Hive Monitors – Installing

Arnia Remote Hive Monitors – Set Up

An Arnia hive monitoring kit, even at its simplest, consists of several components. The first thing you must do, before you take it to your bees, is fire it up and make sure  all the constituent parts are working and that they are speaking to each other.

The set up isn’t difficult, the detailed instructions are clearly written in the User Manual but you wouldn’t want to do it out there in the weather with outraged bees. So here’s what you do. By the way – click any of these photos for a close up: Continue reading Arnia Remote Hive Monitors – Set Up