Category Archives: Things to do in November

Make your own Bee Skep

Once upon a time, all beekeepers would have made their own skeps using materials they could find locally. The theory of skep-making is simple enough: a length of straw rope, tapered at each end is coiled into a basket shape and stitched into place with a tough binding. It is a time-consuming and messy business though and should be done either outside in the elements of a warm, breeze-free day or in the corner of a garage or workshop. I should add that it takes practice.

Materials

There are two categories of materials:

  • the coil of rope forming the body;
  • the binding holding it in place.

A variety of different materials can be used for each, depending on what is readily available – selection  below. Click image for close up.

Four Bee Skeps, small domed grass, small domed oaten straw, two swarm skeps
Small domed grass skep with blackberry binding, small domed oaten straw and lapping cane, two swarm skeps
The Rope

The rope can be straw, grass, rush and even heather – almost anything fibrous which is relatively long, tough and flexible can be used. Some materials are more durable than others and generally, the tougher the material the more difficult it will be to work.

Oat straw makes a good lightweight skep and was the most commonly used material in this far flung corner.  Wheat or barley straw will also suffice you just need to find some with nice long stems.

Rushes such as the common soft rush Juncus effusus are soft and easy to work with but the central pith will take up atmospheric moisture and the skep will soon rot.

Purple moor grass, Molinia caerulea, is an exceptionally tough and durable upland grass found throughout Britain and Ireland and used for skep making in Scotland. There’s a lot of that around here so that’s what I started with. You can use either the leaves or the flowering stems and the plant obligingly sheds both in the autumn so you can go along and just pull it up by the handful. The leaves are nice and soft and easy to work but the flowering stems tend to be a bit brittle. They are easier worked if they are a little green when gathered but once dried no amount of soaking will de-brittle them enough to make them turn tight corners but they can be incorporated into the skep walls.

Click here for more on Purple Moor Grass

The Binding

Whatever the chosen material for the rope, the binding would traditionally have been bramble or sometimes nettles.

Brambles aka blackberry or Rubus fruticosus were were traditionally used, probably because they grow almost everywhere and they are so tough but the preparation is labour-intensive: the fronds should be one year old growth and no older as the stems become woody and tough with age; these need to be cut in the late summer or early autumn and stripped of leaves and thorns before being split lengthways, de-pithed and stropped to improve their pliancy. Finally they can be hung somewhere cool and dry to season.

Nettles have their own problems.

There are modern alternatives. Jute or other hairy strings are convenient and cheap but their durability is variable and some sources suggest that the hairiness and the smell of oils used in their manufacture are irritating to the bees. Synthetic baling twine is the cheapest of all and can be used if you don’t mind blue (or orange) but it will degrade in sunlight and your skep may burst asunder at a vital moment.

Lapping or binding cane is a renewable rattan product from the Far East and is a reasonably priced alternative, there is little preparation and it comes in the post. If lapping cane is used, ideally it should be pre-soaked for several hours to increase its pliancy.

Tools

  • A bodkin or marlin spike to pierce the rope;
  • A section of cow horn or the neck of a plastic bottle to hold and funnel the material into a continuous rope of uniform thickness;
  • Scissors;
  • Tape measure;
  • Long nosed pliers.

Method

The skep is begun from the centre with the inside of the basket towards you. Work progresses outwards in a flat spiral then gradually the coils are directed upwards to make the walls, finally tapering off at the rim.

The first and most difficult thing to do is to get started.

  • First take a soaked length of lapping cane and form a simple knot and – holding it this way up with the long end to the left…Skep Centre
  • Take 3 straws and, working with the thin ends lay them across the active length of cane (the one on the left) then bring the cane over and pass it through the loop trapping the straws thus;First Straws
  • You need to stop now and think because the direction in which you start the binding is very important – once begun it cannot be changed. If you are right-handed you will probably load material into your rope from the left, leaving your right hand to do the stitching. The inside of the skep is facing you;
  • Continue binding the straws to the centre by passing the cane though the centre each time and slightly overlapping the previous stitch until you have completed a full circuit and it should look someting like this from the inside…First circuitAnd like this from the outside… an eyelet with the smallest possible hole in the middle.Skep Centre for the outside
  • You can now start catching the stitches of the previous coil and as you do so, you need to start adding straws – this time add them one at a time butt end first – push them into the middle of the others until they grip.
  • With the scissors, trim the working end of the cane to a point and use the bodkin to ease a passage beneath a stitch then push the cane through. Pull tight and repeat, binding the coils to one another as they expand.Second circuit
  • Loading the rope is important. Keep loading one or two straws at a time, gradually building it up until it is thick enough to fit the horn or plastic guide. From then on it is important to maintain a snug fit in the guide by loading little and often. Do not allow the guide to become slack as this will introduce a weakness. Too tight and you’ll get a bulge.
  • Give the rope a twist as you go and this will further tighten the structure;
  • As you progress away from the centre, the stitches will become further apart so you should add stitches periodically by tightly circling the rope once with the lapping cane between stitches and holding it tight until the next stitch locks it into place. If you are making your own skep the size is completely up to you but generally a swarm skep has an outer diameter of about 14” and height of 10” and will take about a day to make. Harking back to grain measures – a 15”x10” skep holds one peck, or a quarter bushel, while one of 14”x15” will hold about 2 pecks – half a bushel.  Which size you choose depends on your average swarm size – 1 peck or 2!
  • Start the walls about 2” before you have reached the required base diameter because it will take a couple of laps to round the shoulder fully. Up until now you have been binding coils one to another in a flat disc but now you need to change the both alignment of the coils, one upon the other, and the positioning of the stitches. Remember you have the inside of the skep towards you.
  • Finishing off is just a matter of finding the right place to stop so there isn’t a lop-sided look. Once that is decided, stop loading the rope but continue the stitching until the rope tapers off to a point then just tie off the end and thrust it out of sight.

Click here for guidance on how to add a new binding cane

Click here for more on Purple Moor Grass

Click here for Skeps and Skep Beekeeping

Click here to order a skep

Click here for Skep Making Course 2016

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Bees and Mahonia

Bees on Mahonia

Rather a murky late winter’s day, 8 degrees C and misty with it. Despite that, the bees were flying quite strongly at around noon when I took this photo.

This is Mahonia, a very tough flowering shrub which the bees love. Some Mahonias are scented but this one isn’t – I think its full name is Mahonia x media ‘Charity’. Mahonias like this one come from North America originally but are now well established in parks and gardens everywhere – which is good for the bees. It is sometimes known as Oregon grape as the fruits look like grapes, being dark blue with an attractive bloom like sloes, or grapes – not edible though I think.

The bees don’t get a crop from it – obviously – but it really seems to cheer them up in the winter. It cheers me up too. It flowers from mid-November though to mid-January and whenever the temperature climbs sufficiently they will venture out and forage for a little fresh pollen or nectar.

Mahonia with Bees

Mahonias need to be cut back regularly in the spring after flowering to keep them from getting too leggy. You can be quite savage with them as they are very tough but aim to take about 25-30% of the stems down per year. The bits you cut off can be stuck in the ground and about 30% of them will root.

Click here for Bee Trees – Hawthorn

Click here for Bee Trees – Hazel

Click here for Bee Trees – Ivy

Click here for  Bee Trees – Horse Chestnut

Click here for  Bee Trees – Sycamore

Click here for Bee Trees – Willow

Click here for Bee Trees – Lime

Click here for Bee Trees – Poplar

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Wax-moth Hell

This is the time of year for scraping down the stack of equipment that got thrown into the shed during the active season – I know this because that’s what I’ve been doing this afternoon. Once started I realise why it takes so long to get down to it because it really isn’t nice. Not nice at all.

There should be a course -‘Entomology for Beekeepers’ because the assortment of creepy crawlies to be found in the detritus at the bottom of a beehive is bewildering and horrifying – like Doctor Who with maggots. Continue reading Wax-moth Hell

Beeswax Mountain – Candle Making

Beeswax is a by-product of beekeeping  and there are dozens of things you can do with it. Each time you visit your bees and scrape those bits of brace comb off the top bars or the crownboard – instead of flicking them into the undergrowth, save them in a bucket and when you have enough you can render it into blocks of clean wax which can be stacked in a cupboard and in a very short while it will be bursting out the door.

I’ve been doing that for 12 years now and the cupboard is full of wobbly stacks of it and the time has come to do something with it. The options include the following: Continue reading Beeswax Mountain – Candle Making

A Good Bee Book

If you haven’t already done so – read Ted Hooper’s book this winter: Guide to Bees and Honey. It’s the first and the finest bee book I ever read. I sat down in the conservatory one winter’s day and read it from cover to cover like a novel. By the time I had it finished I was hooked and come spring I had bees – swarmy bees from Old Tom. That was 12 years ago now and Poor Tom is long gone – only his swarmy bees live on in the trees and woods hereabouts and of course in my apiary.

But back to Hooper. Well illustrated chapters cover everything the beeginner needs to know about bees and beekeeping including biology and life cycle, hives and equipment, forage, honey harvest and lets never forget pests and diseases. As a reference book it will always be there to guide you through seasonal management including swarm control and queen rearing.

If you only buy one bee book, let it be this one.

Then move on to Snelgrove.

Click here for more about Snelgrove

Click here for how to improve those swarmy bees

Click here for a better look at this wonderful painting above by Nikolay Bogatov (1854-1935)

Is this were I stick an advert and a link to Amazon?

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Things to do in November

So the clocks have gone back and the nights are drawing in; the bees are all stocked up and strapped down ready for whatever winter will bring. What is left for the beekeeper to do? Maintenance that’s what: –

  • Supers and honey frames should be scraped clean and stored wet to scupper wax moths, stack them on a floor with a queen excluder on it to keep the rats out, put a couple of sheets of newspaper between supers and top with another queen excluder and a roof or a sheet of plywood. The newspaper stops any moths, or caterpillars making their way from super to super. Make the stacks as airtight as possible so the honey won’t draw in water or your supers will be dripping by spring. Last year I wrapped the stacks with clingfilm and that worked a treat. If possible start your stacks in the middle of the floor so you can walk all the way round that way you’ll know if there are vermin at work – a rat can chew right through a super;
  • Get a cat or a better still a couple of kittens – they cost nuppence ha’penny to feed, they’re a joy to watch and the vermin hate them;
  • If you have somewhere light and airy and cold to stack them, so much the better – wax moth are creatures of the dark – light unnerves them;
  • Empty boxes need to be scraped clean and given a light going over with the blow torch;
  • Brood frames also need to be scraped clean of wax and propolis; old frames with black wax or gaping holes should be stripped down – don’t re-wax till you need them though or the wax will go all hard and the bees won’t work it properly they’ll just draw out weird abstract waxworks with wings and flaps – but you already know that! If your shed is like mine, empty frames can be stored out of the way in between the rafters;
  • Frames can be fumigated using acetic acid – click here for how to do that;
  • Spare gear that’s unoccupied needs to be looked over and repairs made where necessary;
  • All the wax scrapings should be put aside for rendering later;
  • If you’re into propolis – it will chip off best when the weather gets really cold;
  • Think about candle making – I am;
  • Think about next year, make plans and write them down before you forget about it;
  • Improve your bees! Go through your Colony Assessments and do your Colony Appraisals so you know which queens to breed from next year and which to use for your drone rearers;
  • Make new gear;
  • Order a book for the winter;
  • Don’t forget to check your bees after high winds;
  • My bees are still working the last of the ivy here so the queen will be laying away albeit slowly – you need to be aware of that if you are thinking of treating with oxalic acid in the deep midwinter – you’ll need at least 3 weeks after the ivy has finished for all that to hatch out otherwise you are wasting your time.

I’m off out to my shed now.

Click here for Winter Oxalic Acid Varroa Treatment

Click here for Acetic Acid Fumigation

Click here for How to Improve your Bees

Click here for Colony Assessment

Click here for Colony Appraisals

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