How to make a skep

Written by jorina fontelera
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How to make a skep
Collection of completed skeps. (Martina Newton)

Before wooden framed hives became the norm for beekeeping, beekeepers in Britain and the rest of Europe used inverted straw, wicker basket or hollow log skeps to house their honeybee colonies. Eventually with improving techniques, the log, then wicker, then straw skeps went out of use for housing bees. Many beekeepers still practise making skeps, however, as it retains the scents of bees, which makes it easier for beekeepers to capture swarms.

Skill level:
Moderately Challenging

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Things you need

  • 23.1kg. of damp wheat, rye or oat straw that is as long as possible
  • Wood block with at least one curved corner
  • Wooden mallet with 4-inch head
  • Bodkin or needle (an 8-inch-long, flat stainless spring steel with three square eyes or a 4-inch-long flat hollow metal tube with one end open the and the other end sealed to a point)
  • Horn, bone or plastic guide (from 0.75-inch to 2 and 3/8-inch diameters at the narrow end)
  • Two square meters of jute hessian or burlap sack
  • Waterproof apron
  • Trough or deep metal vase
  • Jug of water
  • Stool
  • Shallow wooden tray (24 by 12 by 4 inches)
  • At least 6-foot-long binding material---strips of oak like that for basket making, plant fibres or manufactured fibres
  • Beeswax

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Instructions

  1. 1

    Select straw that were cut just before harvest to ensure the grain is still milky. Ensure the stem is long and undamaged. Air dry the sheaf and store in a cool airy place, away from direct sunlight.

  2. 2

    Clean and select straw by removing leaf and ear. Pre-soak the binding and the straw by soaking them overnight in cold water or for less than an hour in hot water, if the straw is very dry. If it is pliable, you can merely spray with it cold water to make this process easier.

  3. 3

    Gently bruise the straw if it is a strong straw, with the wooden mallet. Be careful not to crush or fragment the straw. Flex and wax the binding. If the straw is still inflexible, soak again. Store straw and binding in the sack until you're ready to start building.

  4. 4

    Start at what would be the centre of the top of the skep. Whether you make a dome shape or a flat shape is up to you, as is how wide you want to make the skep. Use your most pliable straw and binding for the first small coil. The hole in the middle of the coil should be about 1 inch in diameter. Use fine string to bind the first two or three rounds. It is also up to you---whether right handed or left handed---how you will coil the straw around: clockwise or anticlockwise.

  5. 5

    Once you've made two to three rounds, switch to the fibre binding of your choice. Continue coiling the straw down the round below the last round you made, which will be bigger around than the one above. As the skep gets bigger, you will need more straw for the coil. Use the guide to pack the straws together, inserting the new straws in the wide end and the straw to be bound will come out the narrow end. Do not move the guide along until there is enough straw in the guide. There should be no slack between the straw and guide.

    How to make a skep
    Straw going through the guide.
  6. 6

    Using the bodkin or needle, sew the binding so that it crosses through the previous round on the coil, as well as holding together the current round.. Draw the binding tight to lock the coil onto the growing skep. Sew the binding so that it crosses through the previous round on the coil, then drawn tight thus locking the coil onto the rapidly growing disc. Keep going around until you reached the desired skep size.

    How to make a skep
    Binding going through the row previous the working row to lock the coils in place
  7. 7

    Form the bottom of the skep by reducing the amount of straws you're putting in the coil. Still keep going around binding the new coil to the previous round as you reduce the amount of straws. Do this gradually as a sudden reduction will make your skep lopsided. Go around reducing until the bottom is flat and even.

  8. 8

    Protect the skep from the elements by painting a marine external quality varnish over the outside of the skep and the two inches up the inside of the skeps. Place special attention to the base.

Tips and warnings

  • You can give the coil a slight twist as it moves through the guide to "screw" the straw into place and form a hard, firm rope.

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