Some hints on the
art and mystery of
by Karl Showler
Hay on Wye
Beekeeping in a Nutshell
Before wooden framed hives came into use European and British beekeepers either used inverted straw or wicker baskets or hollow logs to house their honeybee colonies. The straw "skep" proved the most portable and adaptable to beekeepings' improving techniques, slowly the log and then the wicker skep went out of use. In continental Europe, where traditional agricultural systems survived until after the second world war, the straw skep retained some popularity, but in Britain where land use lost its traditional forms in the 18th century, the skep came to be seen as part of the old order and by the 19th century was no longer regarded as a suitable permanent home for the honeybee colony. Although it still retains a powerful symbolic meaning for beekeepers, who find in practice that it is excellent for catching swarms. The straw skeps neat cylindrical shape and light weight commends it over the wooden angular hive. After taking a swarm the modern beekeeper transfers the bees to a "proper" wooden hive before comb construction commences. The regularly used skep has an advantage over any other container in that it retains and becomes impregnated with the scents bees emit to indicate they have found a suitable home; they do not know that soon they will be transferred elsewhere.
As the old ways of farming, and the beekeeping that went with it, gave way to industry, skep making became the preserve of a few specialists in areas where straw goods manufacture was concentrated, such as Luton in Bedfordshire. This stimulated the evolution of the British skep towards a lighter and smaller basket;
beekeepers did not want heavy baskets for swarm catching and the makers were happy to use less material and make them smaller, thus increasing their daily output. When regular manufacture ceased in the middle of the 20th century the British skep bore little resemblance to its ancient ancestors or its European contemporaries. In Northern Europe well made skeps are still obtainable although the trends once seen in Britain are working towards lighter ones.
For some years only poorly made Middle Eastern skeps have been obtainable but now a surge of interest in skep making and their use has developed. Not however by regular makers but rather, as in the old way, by beekeepers themselves. We see a return to the European position where the skepmaker is also a beekeeper.
These notes on the art and mystery of Skep Making have been prepared in response to a growth in demand for information on how to make straw skeps. For very many years George Hawthorne, formerly County Beekeeping Lecturer in Beekeeping for Berkshire, has been teaching this old skill and it was his enthusiasm which first attracted my attention in 1958. Today things are much easier, there is a considerable nationwide interest in straw working particularly associated with Corn Dollies, those small animals, birds and symbolic objects made out of neatly folded long straw. Special straws are grown for the purpose and demonstrations and classes organised to teach the craft.
1 Preparing to make a Skep
The skepmaker requires a patient approach to the work, with strong hands and a willingness to sit at the job until it is complete. There are no mechanical aids or short cuts, but once the skep is made it will outlast its maker. My first skep still is ready for the swarming season.
Perhaps the most important thing a potential skepmaker needs is a suitable place in which to work, the stone flagged kitchen has gone where it was possible to work with damp straw and a scattering of leaf and offcuts. It is not an indoor job in the suburban home, it is better done in a sunny corner outdoors, during summer or early autumn.
Once the basic materials are assembled a skep is not a difficult thing to make when the concept of its construction is understood.
The skep is an inverted basket formed from a continuous rope or coil of straw sewn together by what is in effect an intermeshing band of cane or string. The basket is either domed or flat topped about 380mm (15") wide and 300mm (12 ") high. The dimensions being determined by the traditional sizes used in the area and the length of reach and lap size of the maker. lt is clear from what European skeppists have said to me that the large thick walled skeps are made on an iron cage, or shaped around a template.
Both large and very small skeps present problems in their making. Large skeps are both heavy and difficult to hold; small ones need very pliable straw and binding for they show up any faults.
Although the tools required are simple it is important to spend time in getting the right ones together.
Clumsy tools make it impossible to make neat skeps.
To prepare and work the straw the following will be needed:-
1. a hard wood block with at least one curved corner over which to flatten the straw without breaking it; this gives a preparative curve to the stems that helps in the formation of the coil.
2. a wooden mallet (100mm or 4" head) to bruise and flatten the straw without smashing it.
3. A bodkin or needle with which to sew the binding either:
(a) A 20 mm (8'') long flat needle of good quality stainless spring steel with three square eyes through which the binding is threaded. The eyes have to be wide enough to let the binding pass through them.
(b) a 10mm (4") inch long flat hollow metal tube sealed at its pointed end and just open at the other to grip the binding.
(c) Needles made from turkey bones are suggested as tradional but it should be remembered that turkeys were introduced from the USA in the 16th century. Leg bones should be from free range birdswith strong legs and well formed bones.
4. a horn, bone or plastic guide to give the rope of straw its size diameter, the guide is a truncated cone, straw is being fed into the wider end, is compressed in its passage down the tube and feeds out of the narrow end, at the diameter of the coil. Swarm catching skeps need a coil of say a narrow diameter of 25mm - (3/4"), European stock skeps have 60mm (2.3/8") diameter coils.
5. two square metres of jute hessian sacking (burlap) to enfold the straw to retain its dampness after soaking.
6. a waterproof apron to cover the knees
7. a trough or deep metal vase, such as are used in flower shows, in which to to soak the straw.
8. a jug or ewer for the water, if the work is going on outside this saves a lot of mess if the tap is indoors.
9. a low stool on which to sit when forming the skep, a cut down chair is suitable.
It will soon become apparent what is the right height. It should be possible to work with the legs outstretched and at the same time pick from the ground or low table or box the straw and tools.
supported on a single leg in which to rest the prepared straw.
I have not found it possible to sit at a normal table as the loose binding loop gets in the way.
The selection and choice of straw is critical in both the making of the skep and in its final appearance. The straw used should be as long as possible, free of weeds, root and the insect damage that permits the entry of sooty mould which can spoil the straw after use. Wheat, rye and oat are commonly used but so are long grass stems or fine reeds if not over ripe. The latter although long lasting are much more hard to work especially if harvested for thatching.
The skepmaker should seek out the growing straw it is intended to use, making arrangements to cut it just prior to harvest, when the grain is still milky, and not hardened. Dealers who supply corn dolly makers will have the right type.
If the skepmaker is going to cut the straw then a scythe or shears should be used to give a long undamaged stem, a toothed mower can cut a large area but straw recovered from a combine harvester is too broken and enravelled to be of use. A potential source of long straws are sheaves from a harvest festival.
One or two enthusiasts grow their own straw, obtaining seed of suitable varieties from the corn dolly industry.
From whatever source, the sheaf should be thoroughly air dried and then stored in a cool airy place out of direct sunlight, which will bleach the straw. In addition to damp, the great enemy of straw is mice who will both strip off the grain head, a good thing, but at the same time construct, on site, nests using ear, straw and leaf as well as soaking the nesting area in their urine. The cut up urin soaked lengths are excellent for the furnishing of nest boxes for bumble bees but have no other use and are certainly too damaged for skep making
The straw rope will be bound layer by layer with a strong durable binding either:
(a) natural fibre prepared by the skepmaker
(b) natural fibre obtained from a supply house
(c) manufactured fibre
(a) Natural fibres prepared by the skepmaker
The skepmaker living in the country, working with traditional methods used whatever long plant fibres were available. Most British beekeepers assume this would be the long vegetative shoots of the blackberry (bramble, Rubus species) but other strong fibrous plants were used such as wild clematis (old man's beard, Clematis vitalba), perennial nettle (Urtica dioica) and possibly wild hop (Humulus lupulus) or the fine twigs of willow (Salix species) or very thin strips of oak (Quercus robur) as used in basket making.
Whatever the material used it has to be in long lengths over 2m (6 feet) free of knots and of an even texture with no weak break points.
The chosen plant should be cut somewhat before maturity, all side shoots and leaf removed and if it is to be cut into thinner thongs this should be done before the shoot is too hard. As with the straw it should be air dried and stored in a cool airy place.
I have found no detailed descriptions of the preparation of natural plant materials for skepmaking, but from conversations with those who had prepared it in the past, it is clear that the seeking out, cutting, cleaning and possibly thonging were all done at "right" times. Like many rural crafts this was part of the "mystery" passed from one generation to another. In reconstructing the methods to be used the modern skepmaker will need to have a programme that extends over the year so as to have to hand the right materials when the skep is to be assembled.
lt is clear that with bramble, the shoots of the current season were cut green in the late summer; avoiding those shoots that were already into their second season with side shoots and flowering branches that would give knots on the main stem. In selecting the shoots some skepmakers preferred shoots growing on the south side of a hedge but others looked on the north side.
(b) Natural fibre obtained from a supply house
From the middle of the last century professional skepmakers found their local supplies of binding were insufficient to meet demand and they turned to imported chair seating canes. These were cheap, uniform in texture and in very long lengths; there was no need to ferret about the hedge.
The skepmaker requires a 6 mm (1/4") wide cane binding to give a firm grip on the staw coil, this is wider than that used in most chair caning.
Supplies are obtainable from John Excell," The Cane Workshop", The Gospel Hall, Westport, Langport, Somerset, TA10 OBH. Tel: 01460 281636
(c) Manufactured fibres
Today a range of artificial strings and twines exist that are usable in skep making but my experience of them has been unsatisfactory although they are often easy to work. On exposure to sunlight the fibres in the string separate and I doubt if any will last as long as traditional bindings. Treated strings and twines are often given a strong smell that is unacceptable to bees and the hairy fibres catch on to bees legs, trapping many who are then unable to escape.
5a. Preparation of the Materials
Having assembled the materials, an "average swarm catching skep" will need 2Kg (5lbs) of straw and a hank of binding.
The skepmaker will need to:
1. clean and select straw, removing leaf and ear. This can be made easier if the
straw is lightly sprayed with water
2. presoak binding and if the straw is very dry
(a) overnight in cold water, too long a soaking may aid sooty mould development
(b)under the hour in hot water
(c)spray with cold water
3. If a strong "bold" straw is used gently bruise the straw on the block with the mallet, but not to crush or fragment
4. flex and wax the binding, to make it run easily. Bees' wax makes the skep smell nice.Any weak points in the binding will show up during this operation.
5. soak the straw again if too inflexible
6. store both the straw and the binding in the damp hessian (burlap) sheeting.
N.B. Prepare only sufficient material as needed, to soak too much prepares the way for decay.
5b Forming the Skep
Skeps can either be domed or flat topped, in the latter case they can be made with a central hole that gives access to an upper skep or super to take free comb or a small super to hold section boxes.
Flat topped skeps are often made with a central wooden disc that can hold a portion of queen excluder or a bung to seal up the opening if the super was not in use. The central disc is given a ring of holes through which the binding is sewn to secure the first coil of straw.
Whatever the shape, the formation of the skep starts from the centre, the dome or flat top being worked first and then the lower sides develop from the top portion. The curve of the dome and the extent of the top are either dictated by tradition or the desires of the maker. It is possible to give the lower walls of the skep an inward curve which would in fact give any combs the bees construct added strength at the lower edge.
The most pliable straw and binding are needed for the first small coils, indeed it is often better to use fine string in binding the first two or three rounds. It is at this moment that the maker will see that there are skeps which (a) run from left to right or right to left (b )and those that are formed with the neat side outward,(c) conversely some makers work from inside and the outside is less well finished.Ideally both sides should be equally good.
These are individual choices but once a skep is started it is impossible to change direction.
It is as well to practice starting a skep. As the little disc of straw increases in size more straws are added, a few at a time, until it is necessary to use the guide to retain them. The guide is added so that the narrow end determinesthe skep walls thickness, and the wide end receives the new straw: six or seven straws are added, the guide slipped along the coil and a further six added. Then the guide is moved on a little way the coil is sewn in place,more straws are added before a further move made. The coil should never be slack in the guide..
The binding is sewn so that it crosses through the previous round on the coil, then drawn tight thus locking the coil onto the rapidly growing disc.
Many skep makers place their binding at 1" centres, what can be termed open worked but I find I get a firmer and therefore better skep with the binding spaced at the width of the needle, ie close worked.
| The coil can
be given a slight twist as it is moved through the guide, the straw is almost
screwed into place and a hard firm rope is created.
If it is wished to form an upper entrance in the side of the skep, the binding is close bound to form the upper side of the opening, then the coil passes on round the skep until the place where the "hole" is to be, the first side is then close bound the coil is left unsewn where the gap is to be and the far side is close bound. The work proceeds through the third tier and the lower lip is close bound. The skep is then completed and the hole cut out with the edges of the entrance already tight in place. This can also be done on the lowest ring to form a bottom entrance.
To form the bottom of the skep the number of straws is reduced the amount of straw being gradually reduced, before the guide is removed, so that the skep will sit level. A sudden reduction will produce a lopsided effect. The lower edge is then close bound to preserve the straw from wear.
6. Preserving the finished Skep
Although beekeepers are attached to their skeps, these are possibly the most neglected item in the apiary. Straw skeps are not weather proof, rain and damp and rodents will all do their best to destroy them.
Although most 19th century illustrators showed skeps as free standing with at best a shallow roof to keep off rain and snow, in Europe with its better climate, cold and dry in winter and hot in summer, skeps are placed in deep shelters that are open on the sunny side but give protection from the weather. These skeps are often coated with a fine plaster of green (fresh) cow dung inside and out. This is regularly renewed to form a hard shower proof covering, that is khaki-green when new.
I have not made this natural plaster but I am careful to use a marine external quality varnish over the outside and for two inches up on the inside of my skeps, with particular attention to the base. If bees are kept in a skep for any length of time they will coat the inside with a fine varnish of propolis. After a while most skeps seem to grow less firm than when first made, due to a shrinkage of the straws and binding; each year I soak my skeps then dry them out quickly. They increase in weight and feel and look altogether better.
For details on the management of skeps see
Charles Butler: The Feminine Monarchy,1623, reprinted 1985 by Northern Bee Books, Scout Bottom Farm, Hebden Bridge, HX7 5JS.
Alternative methods of skep making see:
Frank Alston: Skeps, their history, making and use, 1987, Northern Bee Books, Scout Bottom Farm, Mytholmroyd, Hebden Bridge HX7 5JS.