Bee Skeps

A rye straw bee skep with a flat top

p4A ItemID E8956189
A rye straw coiled bee skep likely from Pennsylvania

p4A ItemID E8925955
A French coiled basket bee skep

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Pennsylvania rye straw bee skep

p4A ItemID F7959693

Bee Skeps

The typical period bee skep was made by coiling a rope of rye straw and interweaving it with oak splints. Inside the skep there are two crossed wooden slats that help give support to the hive and for the bees to attach their combs. A hole at the top serves as the entrance to the skep.

The basket-like bee skep was developed in Europe and brought to North America by European immigrants. The word “skep” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “skeppa” meaning
basket, or container. Skeps could be made from a variety of materials including straw and vine. Rye straw may have been used because it was thought that its bitter taste would discourage rodents from chewing it.

The use of the skep required the destruction of the colony to retrieve the honey and beeswax. This was sometimes done by filling the hive with poisonous
sulfur smoke which could taint the honey. Destruction of the hive also meant that the
beekeeper needed to find a new colony every year to continue producing honey.

In 1871, Lorenzo Langstroth designed the wooden beehive with removable frames that is still in use today, and that rendered the skep obsolete. Langstroth’s hives allowed honey and wax to be harvested
from the colony with minimal damage to the bees, allowing a portion of honey and brood for the bees to continue. Skeps are now illegal to use as beehives.

Reprinted by permission from the Laurel Messenger, Volume 55, No. 3, August 2013, Jacob A. Miller, Curator’s Corner. http://www.somersethistoricalcenter.org. Somerset County, Pennsylvania.


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