ONBG meeting, 27th June 2015

Ten beekeepers from across four counties gathered at Chris Parks’ unique apiary at his home, the beautiful and peaceful Acorn Education grove near Swindon, to view his skeps and log hives, and discuss ancient and modern styles of beekeeping.

Chris became interested in iron age technology after participating in the BBC TV program “Surviving the Iron Age” 15 years ago, where he was one of 17 volunteers who lived for a time in the manner our Iron Age ancestors did. Chris spreads the skills he learned then and since; attendees at his site can range from the general public and school groups to druids and even practical archaeologists testing out ideas of how our ancestors must have lived. Today, our group was specifically interested in skep (straw basket) beekeeping, which was the common form throughout the UK from ancient times up to about the 1920’s.

Campfire lunch

Campfire lunch

Over a bring-and-share BBQ lunch cooked on a wood fire, Chris explained the Celtic roots of some modern English words, and how iron age Britain was known as The Land Of Honey. The oldest British beekeeping was in wicker baskets – essentially miniature versions of the roundhouses the people lived in. Over time, skeps evolved and are now made from straw, the same type that thatchers use. Chris commented that skeps are rare now, but still in use in some places and by a few enthusiasts, particularly on Germany’s Lüneberg Heath.

Skep inside WBC. This one has two supers. Ideally these would be the same diameter as the bottom skep, but you use what you have to hand.

Skep inside WBC. This one has two supers. Ideally these would be the same diameter as the bottom skep, but you use what you have to hand.

We were then shown the apiary, which was packed with many types of hive. Skeps need a bit of shielding from the weather, and some were inside hackles (tall tents of willow, often caulked with a lime mortar and cow dung); the outer shells of WBC hives were used to shelter others, etc.

The skeps generally had a hole in the top to allow access to a second basket – a super – where the bees store honey above the brood. This allows removal of honey harvest without disrupting the bees in the main skep. The supers have narrow skewers (known as splines, or stays) in them to reinforce the comb when they are pulled off the skep below.

If inspection is required, the beekeeper turns the skep on its side and parts the comb with his fingers, as comb isn’t readily removable, looking for capped brood, etc.

We were also fascinated by the log hives. A hollow log is as near as you can get to bees’ natural habitat.

Another arrangement –

There were about 25 hives in the apiary, excellent forage, and the bees were very calm. The hives were a real mix of types. We asked Chris if he felt hive type made a difference to temperament. “I’m of the opinion the hive type doesn’t matter – it’s how you treat them”, he responded. I agree with this, but would also add that some hive types facilitate the bees’ ability to control the internal hive temperature and conditions better than others and so play a part in the overall health of a colony.

The day ended with a discussion of miscellaneous items. Chris described extensive versus intensive beekeeping – how some beekeepers spread their hives far apart, perhaps a kilometre between them in Africa, and rely on ferals to populate them – which results in tough, healthy bees; avoids inbreeding; and minimises spread of pathogens – essentially, using many cheap, simple hives with individually low honey yield giving a sustainable, low maintenance harvest. John Haverson volunteered that as bees don’t like their water to be too clean, preferring some salts, old beekeeping lore advises urinating in it if they won’t take it!

Many thanks to Chris for sharing his home with us. It was a magical and tranquil day. If you missed this meeting but would like to see his apiary, he is holding skep making and beekeeping courses at Acorn Education on July 19th, August 16th and September 12th.

Next ONBG meeting is at Gareth’s Warré apiary in Burford, on Saturday 11th July.

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