Traditional beehives simply provided an enclosure for the bee colony. Because no internal structures were provided for the bees, the bees created their own honeycomb within the hives.

The comb is often cross-attached and cannot be moved without destroying it. This is sometimes called a fixed-frame hive to differentiate it from the modern movable-frame hives.

Harvest generally destroyed the hives, though there were some adaptations using extra top baskets which could be removed when the bees filled them with honey.

These were gradually supplanted with box hives of varying dimensions, with or without frames, and finally replaced by newer modern equipment.

Honey from traditional hives was typically extracted by pressing – crushing the wax honeycomb to squeeze out the honey. Due to this harvesting, traditional beehives typically provided more beeswax, but far less honey, than a modern hive.

Four styles of traditional beehives include; mud hives, clay/tile hives, skeps and bee gums.

Mud hives

Bees in a baked clay jar in Malta

Mud hives are still used in Egypt and Siberia. These are long cylinders made from a mixture of unbaked mud, straw, and dung.

Clay hives

Clay tiles were the customary homes of kept bees in the eastern end of the Mediterranean. Long cylinders of baked clay were used in ancient Egypt, the Middle East and to some extent in Greece, Italy and Malta.

They sometimes were used singly, but more often stacked in rows to provide some shade, at least for those not on top. Keepers would smoke one end to drive the bees to the other end while they harvested honey.

Skeps

Traditional manufacture of skeps from straw in England

 

A bee skep at Dalgarven Mill. The base is part of an old cheese press

Skeps, baskets placed open-end-down, have been used to house bees for some 2000 years. Believed to have been first used in Ireland, they were initially made from wicker plastered with mud and dung but after the Middle Ages almost all were made of straw.

In northern and western Europe, skeps were made of coils of grass or straw. In its simplest form, there is a single entrance at the bottom of the skep.

Again, there is no internal structure provided for the bees and the colony must produce its own honeycomb, which is attached to the inside of the skep.

Skeps have two disadvantages; beekeepers cannot inspect the comb for diseases and pests, and honey removal is difficult and often results in the destruction of the entire colony.

To get the honey beekeepers either drove the bees out of the skep or, by using a bottom extension called an eke or a top extension called a cap, sought to create comb with only honey in it.

Quite often the bees were killed, sometimes using lighted sulfur, to allow the honeycomb to be removed. Skeps could also be squeezed in a vice to extract the honey. As of 1998, most US states prohibited the use of skeps because they cannot be inspected for disease and parasites.

Later skep designs included a smaller woven basket (cap) on top over a small hole in the main skep. This cap acted as a crude super, allowing some honey to be extracted with less destruction of brood and bees.

In England such an extension piece consisting of a ring of about 4 or 5 coils of straw placed below a straw beehive to give extra room for brood rearing was called an ekeimp or nadir. An eke was used to give just a bit of extra room, or to “eke” some more space, a nadir is a larger extension used when a full story was needed beneath.

The term is derived from Old Norse skeppa, “basket”. A person who made such woven beehives was called a “skepper”, a surname that still exists in western countries.

In England the thickness of the coil of straw was controlled using a ring of leather or piece of cow’s horn called a “girth” and the coils of straw could be sewn together using strips of briar. Likenesses of skeps can be found in paintings, carvings and old manuscripts. The skep is often used on signs as an indication of industry (“the busy bee”).

In the late 18th century, more complex skeps appeared with wooden tops with holes in them over which glass jars were placed. The comb was built in the glass jars, making the designs commercially attractive.

The most popular style of skep in the latter half of the 18th century was called the “troubé-nade”–two skeps of the same design in two, round, narrow wooden posts placed at opposite ends of the main skeps. On their side, these wooden posts came in two forms (bicuspid or “twisted”) like an upside-down bell, though this was less common.

The wooden posts were often wood with painted faces or painted on a black board. These wooden skeps, with one, or sometimes two spouts on each side, were held by a pole from which they could be turned down.

They were called “bicuspid” because they looked like the handle of a bicuspid or “twisted” bell. In contrast, the “troubé-nade” had three spouts like a bicuspid.

Bee gums

“Barć” in a museum in Białowieża

In the eastern United States, especially in the southeast, sections of hollow trees were used until the 20th century. These were called “gums” because they often were from black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) trees.

Sections of the hollow trees were set upright in “bee yards” or apiaries. Sometimes sticks or crossed sticks were placed under a board cover to give an attachment for the honeycomb.

As with skeps, harvest of honey from these destroyed the colony. Often the harvester would kill the bees before even opening their nest. This was done by inserting a metal container of burning sulfur into the gum.

Natural tree hollows and artificially hollowed tree trunks were widely used in the past by beekeepers in Central Europe. For example, in Poland such a beehive was called a “barć” and was protected in various ways from unfavorable weather conditions (rain, frost) and predators (woodpeckers, bears, pine marten, forest dormouse).

Harvest of honey from these did not destroy the colony, as only a protective piece of wood was removed from the opening and smoke was used to temporarily pacify the bees.

Bee gums are still used by beekeepers today, for bee species like Apis mellifera mellifera whose honey output is less than that of the more productive honeybee.

Unlike most beehives (which are optimized for Apis mellifera and Apis cerana), the bee gum allows housing of other bee species. The bee gum allows the bees themselves to organize their nest.

Part of the reason why bee gums are still used is that this allows the producers of the honey to distinguish themselves from other honey producers and to ask a higher price for the honey.

An example where bee gums are still used is Mont-Lozère, France, although in Europe they are referred to as Log Hives.The length of these log Hives used are shorter than bee gums, they are hollowed out artificially and cut to a specific size.

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