In 2014, I fell in love with the idea of keeping bees in skeps, old-fashioned traditional hives of woven straw or grass. Michael Thiele was hinting at hosting the first Sun Hive workshop (a type of skep) in the United States, and I knew–come hell or high water–I would be at that class. In the meantime, I read anything and everything I could find about the making of woven hives, and about how bees are kept in them.
We have little information in our country on these hives, but they are still used in backyard and commercial apiaries all over Europe. I collected all the articles in English I could find, and visited many skep websites.
Fast forward to 2016: Michael indeed offered the first Sun Hive class and I was there with 14 other bee lovers. I took my Sun Hive home, filled her with bees, and–with the simple instructions I had–kept on weaving with whatever grasses I could find.
The skeps I wove that year look a bit wonky and uneven, but I learned a great deal as I worked through the long winter hours to create three more skeps. This spring, 2017, I have four woven hives now filled with bees. This will be my “learning year” of actually keeping bees in these lovely hives. I invite you to journey along with me as I bring this old tradition to America.
This is a LOOOOONG post, so grab some coffee/tea, put your feet up, and dive in! I learned so very much this summer season in my bee garden! Let me take you on a little trip around my yard, and tell you how each hive has fared this year. First, I began in the spring with one hive loss. It was Gobnait, my little log hive, and the fault was mine. She was in too damp an area in the yard, and I failed to notice that.
When colonies fail, I feel sad, but when they fail on my account, I feel wretched and guilty. Such losses encourage me to slow down, take more observation time, and never assume I know what is going on–always good practice in life as well as in bees.
I began the spring with five colonies–four in skeps, one in my wall. Two of the colonies were struggling: Valentine, my wall hive was down to a small handful of bees. And Faith colony was very small from what I could determine by looking at the bees coming and going in early March. Let’s start with Valentine:
So much has happened since I last wrote! The big event, of course, was my trip to Holland to attend the Natural Beekeeping Trust’s (NBKT)international conference, “Learning From The Bees.” More than 300 people from 30 countries came to speak and share about their natural beekeeping experiences and wisdom.
Conference breaks found me on the meeting room floor, working on my new skep making skills. Soon, I was joined by a dozen others, and we had some impromptu classes on the spot!
Sometimes the best way to move bees is simply with your hands.
It is early August, and here in the Pacific Northwest, we are hot hot hot. We’ve had several weeks on and off of 90-plus temperatures, and the ground is hardened and cracked. Many of my plants have burned, not for want of water–which I am pouring on–but simply from being made toast by the blistering heat of the late-afternoon sun.
Spring was quite a while in coming, and our early season was very wet and cloudy, with few sunny days to warm the soil. Up in the “Bee-thedral” sat three new skeps all ready for spring swarms… Continue reading
Winter weaving, spring dreaming…
Spring in the bee yard: Is there any better time of year? Here in the Pacific Northwest, we had a loooong winter with much dreariness, but only a couple events of cold, ice, and snow.
Last autumn, I found myself with four thriving hives: Three in straw, and one in my last top bar hive. I lost a few swarms that were not able to re queen, but the hives that survived went into winter bigger and more active any any hives of mine in the past. So, I crossed my fingers… Continue reading
Bedroom skep corner!
Where does the time go?? Spring will be here—with bees swarming—before I know it! This winter I’ve been weaving, of course. I’ve wanted to make three new skeps before the bee season, and I have two done and the third in the making.
I’ve begun making my skeps a full 2-inches thick. It is harder to weave–like wrestling a boa constrictor–but in all the old photos I see of ancient skeps, they are fat, and I want mine fat, too… Continue reading
It’s been a year and a half since my Sun Hive workshop, where I first learned how to start weaving straw hives. I love my Sun Hive, but honestly, I love the little skeps more, so that’s where I’ve put my efforts.
I’ve been working on these little hives pretty much in isolation, so to say I’ve been eager to train a few more “skeppers” is an understatement. Since I didn’t know what teaching this process would be like (Could I even do it??), so I enlisted the help of my favorite bee friends to take a “guinea pig” class with me. They were gracious, and allowed me to blunder a bit through the process and learn right along with them… Continue reading
My Sun Hive, full from tippy top to bottom!
July is late for a swarm around here. I’ve been watching with interest the swarm preparations my Sun Hive has been making for weeks. I knew they would swarm again (second time), so I was weaving furiously on a new skep I was weaving out of pasture grasses gathered just this past month.
Meanwhile, at the entrances to my other hives, I’ve been seeing the drones evicted. This last pending swarm would have a risky time getting her virgin queen mated in time for winter, and gathering enough honey for stores. But, I’m game to try and help her in any way I can… Continue reading
The swarm began like any other swarm. Just a big, roaring, exaltation of bees, 20,000 strong and taking to the sky in a glittering amber cloud. I couldn’t possibly know in those first exhilarating moments that by days end, the bees from RainTree hive would change my relationship with bees forever.
The morning started out warm and lush, and my attention was on all six of my hives. Four of them were telling me, through false starts and bees plastering themselves by the hundreds all over the faces of their hives, that they were in swarm prep mode.
In a bee swarm, a thriving hive of bees will send out their queen and half of the working force of the hive to “birth” a brand new colony someplace. The bees left behind will raise a new queen from the queen eggs that the old queen left behind. It’s how bees do “the birds and the bees.”… Continue reading
“Anahat” hive enters the primordial, manure-plastered Sun Hive
It has been five months since I brought my bright and beautiful Sun Hive home, and just three months since I escorted a small cast swarm up a wooden ramp and into its dark and enfolding interior. Small the swarm may have been, but the bees took to the woven hive like they had been born to it, building up their comb and their numbers in an explosion of creative energy.
Summer afternoons I would sit beneath the hive where it hung in my covered bee garden. Unlike my other wooden box hives of various sorts, the bees moved around the hive like thousands of honey-colored moons orbiting a planet. The bee activity was never just confined to the entrance, but spiraled about the egg-shaped, dung-plastered womb from morning till dark, even on the cloudiest, coldest days.
Some days, I would lay beneath the hive and look up at this precious, new kind of cosmos, populated with amber, swirling, sun-lit bee stars and the welcoming dark gravity of the suspended mother planet. I knew from the day I had decided to attend the Sun Hive workshop that these woven hives would somehow be a significant part of my journey on the good bee road. I just didn’t know which way the path would lead… Continue reading
Honey feeding station
Yesterday morning dawned foggy and cold. In my morning walkabout in the backyard, I noted the first bronze and peach leaves crowning the top of our old vine maple and the brown heads of the bending goldenrod. Fresh borage plants are poking up happy blue flowers and yet one more small, self-sewn crop of phacelia is blooming.
My computer had assured me of a warm, sunny day and the gray sky was quickly being overtaken by blue, wispy holes. Already my bees were out into the morning, visiting late-blooming false dandelion, borage, and the rounded mounds of dark purple asters and lavender… Continue reading