I’m stepping into a new adventure in beekeeping this year: I’m switching most of my hives over to skeps—straw hives for bees.
Skeps have been used for hundreds of years in the keeping of bees. In other countries, they are still in use. In the United States, virtually no one uses this method. Why? Skeps are not easy hives to manage. There are no wooden frames you can simply pull out and inspect. In a step, you invert the hive and peer in from the bottom, gently sorting the combs and seeing what you can see.
In many states, skeps are no longer legal because the traditional step style does not have removable combs for inspection. I guess inspectors don’t relish turning over a hive and peeking through the bees and comb.
Skeps are traditionally small hives. Mine hold about 32 liters—an ideal size from the bees’ perspective. They encourage swarming, which a lot of beekeepers don’t like. You can’t leave them out in the rain, or the whole hive will melt. There are no viewing windows.
To collect honey from the hive without destroying the bees, they must be “drummed” into a fresh hive, which is no small undertaking.
So why, do you ask, would I become so enamored of these ancient, folksy hives? Let me try to explain. Each of us must determine what kind of a beekeeper we want to be, and after keeping hives for five years now, I haven’t been at all happy with the hive styles I’ve been using (Warres and Top Bars). I find all of our wooden hives to be essentially flimsy and utterly without insulation, which is a problem here in our wet, dark Northwest winters and sometimes equally wet summers.
Bees’ preferred “Best Hive” would be a tree cavity, which has enormous thermal insulation value. Bees do best in hives where the outside temperatures penetrate little or not at all into the internal colony. Trees provide this benefit. Next down on the best insulated hive list is—you guessed it—skeps.
With their superior breathability, insulation in summer and winter, round shape that accommodates the preferred inner “form” of the colony, and light weight, these small ancient hives just spoke to me deeply.
The main problem for me with these hives, so far, has been trying to acquire them. Here in the States, you can’t. I have not found a single place that sells them. So I had to teach myself to make them.
In the past year, I attended a Sun Hive making workshop where I wove my first straw hive. For the rest of the summer, I read everything I could put my hands on about making and using skeps. In autumn, I fortuitously stumbled upon a local source of good weaving grass, which I gathered, dried, and cleaned.
Winter found me busy in my “weaving room,” traditionally known as our guest room, which is now full of straw, weaving forms, and flat bamboo binding reed coils. By the end of the season, using every bit of straw I had collected, I’d crafted three woven hives. Each was a slightly different size and shape. None are works of art, but all are thick and so sturdy I can literally jump up and down on the tops of them.
This spring, I have bees in two out of my four skeps. Now, my energy is focused on observation of the bees in these hives. I hope to catch two swarms this season to fill the last two.
To prepare the hives for bees, I sprayed the interiors of the hives with propolis extract. I also placed what are called “spleets”—wooden rods inserted cross-ways into the hives to provide support for the free-style comb.
Most of my skeps have an opening in the top for a feeder jar. Each hive sits on a hive stand made from an old Warre hive body onto which I’ve screwed a top and cut in a hinged little door. Into this stand box, I put dried wood chipping and compost to create an “eco floor” for beneficial hive organisms. as much as possible, I want my skeps to mimic a tree cavity, from the snug interior, to the fallaway detritus at the bottom of the hive.
My beekeeping this year has been deeply informed and transformed by a recent article by Dr. Thomas Seeley called “Darwinian Beekeeping.” In this article, Seeley talks about all the things that honeybees need, and that conventional beekeeping does not offer them. At the end of the piece, he lists ten steps that beekeepers can take now to manage varroa, and encourage healthy hives.
With my skeps, I am undertaking his ten-step program one step at a time. The first steps—keep bees in smaller hives, and insulate the hives summer and winter—I’ve achieved simply by the hive style I’ve chosen.
As I continue on this skep journey that I’ll be sharing with you, I’ll talk about implementing the eight other steps Seeley recommends. Come along with me as I learn!