Every child who grew up knowing that honey-making bees live in a tallish, igloo-shaped hive may be surprised to find that today’s bees live in a box.
Those hives of coiled straw bundles that are standard fare in children’s books and cartoons are known as “skeps.”
“The word skep comes from a German word that was a measurement, and a basket that held that volume – think of it like we use the term bushel,” said Jon Zawislak, program associate-apiculture for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. “Bees probably settled into baskets and pieces of pottery that people left outside, and it was found to be a good way to keep them.”
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As Europeans first migrated to the New World, there were no large grain fields, making straw more valued as a mattress stuffing than as a basket making material. “So people began keeping bees in log hives and wooden boxes because wood was plentiful in the New World,” he said.
All of these old hive types were simply cavities in which the bees built combs hanging from the top of the inside.
“You could not see what the bees were up to in there,” Zawislak said. “Nor could you evaluate their colony strength or health. To harvest the honey, you had to destroy everything, and often kill the bees by holding the skep over a sulphur fire.”
The practice of “sulphuring” was decried as “barbarous” in “The Experienced Bee-Keeper,” a 1760 volume written by Bryan L’Anson Bromwich. He sought to show other beekeepers there was a better way, advising readers in verse: “Ah cruel man! The sulphured matches spare, and be content the nectar’d sweets to share!” Bromwich kept his charges in a much bee-friendlier box. He harvested the honey by inverting the box and driving the bees up and out by drumming along the sides with sticks.
However, about 100 years later, “the moveable frame hive was perfected,” Zawislak said, “which allowed beekeepers to open up a hive and see every comb.”
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Frames also can be rearranged to encourage bees to work in different parts of the hive, and the honey can be harvested without destroying all of the bees' work or causing them harm.
“The move to wooden boxes also came about during a time of mechanizing and industrializing agriculture,” he said. “By the end of the 19th century beekeeping had become an industry in its own right, rather than a little extra something that farmers did on the side.”
Current laws prohibit the keeping of bees in any hive that doesn’t have moveable frames.
“The apiary inspectors have to be able to look in and evaluate the health of the bees. If you discover a feral hive of bees in another container or a tree, and you want to keep them, you have 12 months to move them into a regulation hive,” Zawislak said.
Top bar hive
Another type of beehive, called a top bar hive, is gaining in popularity with some. They are very simple and economical to construct. As the name implies, these hives consist of a box with a number of wooden bars across the top. The bees build a honeycomb suspended from each of these bars, rather than in four-sided frames.
“Beekeepers can still remove and inspect each comb, and so they comply with our apiary laws,” he said. “Top bar hives are managed in slightly different ways, and generally don’t produce as much honey as a Langstroth hive, but many backyard hobbyists enjoy the simplicity of their design.”
Melissa Zabecki Harvey, of Parkin, has been keeping bees since 2004, having become hooked after taking a class. She uses both the top bar and Langstroth hives.
“I like the concept and the naturalness of the top bar hive,” she said. “It’s a more simple design, requires less equipment and is less expensive to keep.”
While top bar doesn’t produce honey like the Langstroth hives, there’s still plenty of hobby satisfaction. “We like to watch the bees doing things more naturally,” Harvey said.
People still keep bees in all sorts of primitive hives in different parts of the world, Zawislak said. But some version of the Langstroth hive is really the standard type for efficient honey production.
“Today the skep is more of a symbol of beekeeping's quaint roots than it is a part of modern beekeeping,” he said. “Like plowing behind an ox might be quaint, but you wouldn't want to have to make a living that way.”
(For more, see: Honey bee consumption outpacing food gathering)