Friday, July 11, 2008

Handmade bee skep is a sweet surprise

A co-worker out of the blue the other day emailed me and said, "I have a bee skep that my uncle made. Do you want it?"

You bet I did!
Uncle Ralph is about 92 and retired from farming, but not retired from living, that's for sure. He makes skeps using rye grass that he grows for that purpose and makes his own needles out of pail handles. He taught himself how to make skeps from a magazine.

Now, if you don't know bees, you're wondering about this. What's a skep? A bee skep is an old-fashioned beehive that has since been replaced by the more practical (and humane) box hive you're used to.

In olden days, folks often would have special niches, called bee boles, built into their walls to hold bee skeps. The bees would build their honeycomb inside the skep. Before winter, half the hives would be destroyed to get the honey out, and the other half would be allowed to overwinter.

Uncle Ralph doesn't make his skeps as large as they would be if they were going to be used, but he makes them correctly, complete with a bee hook inside, from which the bees would hang their comb.
Skeps aren't legal for keeping bees anymore because they can't be easily inspected, and because harvesting means killing off the bee colony. I briefly toyed with the idea of getting bees to live in mine anyway and just not messing with them. But I think it will remain an ornament as it is intended to be.
I've scanned in Uncle Ralph's story, as told to his daughter, of how he came to make the skeps. Click on each page to read it, or print them out. You really should read it – it's fascinating and well-told.
Uncle Ralph sells his skeps for $25 apiece. If you're interested in getting one, let me know. I can't promise anything, but his niece is going to see if he wants to do mail orders.

Pretty neat! Given all my recent bee encounters, it couldn't be more apt for adorning my space.

(Update: Uncle Ralph told his niece he wasn't interested in making skeps for mail order. "Doesn't she know I'm old?" he reportedly said. Guess you skep-fanciers will have to learn to make your own. Sorry!)


  1. You learn something new everyday. Interesting story. Have you read "The Secret Life of Bees"? by Sue Monk Kidd

  2. Do you have to keep the skep inside to keep bees from living in it?

    What a great story!

  3. thats the coolest thing with the coolest story....

  4. This skep looks like a great piece of folk art. *gasp* They killed the colony to harvest? Not very sustainable :-)

  5. I want one if he will mail order it to me.

  6. mbp, that's one I haven't read yet, though I know everyone has. Well, I did read a chapter aloud for a book on tape (I do reading for the blind), but I don't remember it.

    Beatrice, I was thinking I should probably stuff it with something to keep bugs and other critters out of it if I decide to keep it outside.

    db, I thought so, too! He's a good storyteller.

    tracy, I agree, it's not the best way to keep bees. But it's all they had for a long time. The hives that would overwinter would throw swarms in the spring, which would then be captured to fill the empty skeps again.

    Hi thistledown! I will email you once I hear back from his niece.

  7. It's a work of art..lucky you :D
    Very interesting to read about earlier methods.. great post!

  8. what a facinating history of bee skeps he has shared! ..thank you for blogging his story. I was disappointed not to be able to order one of his...but maybe one day will give it a try myself...a very interesting blog...thanks!! Cindy

  9. Very nice! Is there an alternative grass that you can use instead of Rye Grass? Trying to do this in Kentucky. Thanks! Nicholas

  10. Hi Nicholas, I'm not sure why rye grass is particularly recommended, but I'm sure you could experiment with some different kinds of grasses. Maybe wheat straw would work? Good luck!