Posted in Mrs Beeton, Museum, Rural Heritage, TV Programme

Britain’s Rural Heritage – Beekeeping

Traditional Bee Skep. On display at Breamore Countryside Museum, Hampshire.

I am enjoying the new 15 part BBC 2 series, Britain’s Heritage Heroes. It airs Monday to Fridays at 6.30pm.  The presenters, John Craven and Jules Hudson travel around Britain meeting with individuals who are dedicated to saving historic homes, national monuments, making traditional foods and keeping alive skills that are involved in rural craftsmanship.  There are a large number of Museums up and down the country dedicated to preserving and exploring all aspects of Britain’s rural heritage. Living history television series such as Tales from the Green Valley (2005), Victorian Farm (2009) and Edwardian Farm (2010-11) have all helped to rejuvenate interest in this fascinating historical subject.

There is written evidence to suggest that the Romans kept bees in Britain and that beekeeping was a part of Anglo-Saxon and Norman life. It wasn’t until the medieval era that beekeepers began crafting structures to house their bees. These structures were either made of either wood or stone.  In mid-nineteenth century Britain the movable-frame hive developed.  Previously, beekeepers had used the basket hive or skep.  Traditional skeps were made of grass or straw and sometimes these were forced through a cow horn which would help to tighten the ’round’ of material.  The finished skep would be bound with split bramble stem, after the thorns had been removed.

Hackle used as a cover for a bee skep. This one was built for use in the filming of Thomas Hardy's 'Woodlanders'. Breamore Countryside Museum, Hampshire.

The skep was housed in a hackle.  This was conical in shape and thatched to make it weatherproof.  Hackles were, at one time, a common sight across the British countryside.  Straw skeps are much smaller than the modern hives. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries apiarists preferred to use the skeps. An eke or ring of coiled straw would sometimes be added underneath the skep so that the bees could expand honeycomb production into it. The bees would attach comb to the sides of the skep. The only way to collect the honey, was to first kill the colony by drowning or suffocation and then to cut the comb away.  The skeps were then cleaned and re-used the following season. Skeps could also be found housed in bee boles. Bole is a Scottish word that means a recess in a wall.  The bee boles protected the skeps from extremities of the weather and were usually located in south-facing walls. Bee boles were known by a variety of names in the different regions across Britain: bee shells; bee keps; bee niches; bee walls; bee houses; bee garths and bee boxes are some of the regional variations.

Honey was a valuable rural commodity and often used as currency to pay for rents and tithes.  Beeswax was highly prized by the church for its candlemaking properties. It was not uncommon for beekeepers to talk to their bees.  It was thought that if they were not kept-up-to-date with all that was happening in the main house or cottage, they would swarm.

Honey extractor. Breamore Countryside Museum, Hampshire.

In 1862, a new wooden hive structure, invented by the American Reverend L. L. Langstroth, with removable rectangular frames that hung downwards and remained clear of the walls of the hive by a bee-space, were introduced into Britain.  This frame structure is still the basis for modern hives today. Beekeeping continues to thrive in the 21st Century.  The British Beekeepers Association (BBKA), founded in 1874, currently has 20,000 amateur beekeeper members.

Here are a couple of lovely honey recipes from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1915 edition) that you may like to try:

Honey Cake

Ingredients: 1/2 of a breakfastcupful of sugar, 1 breakfastcupful of rich sour cream, 2 breakfastcupfuls of flour, 1/2 a teaspoonful of carbonate soda, honey to taste.

Method – Mix the sugar and cream together; dredge in the flour, add as much honey as will flavour the mixture nicely; stir it well, that all the ingredients may be thoroughly mixed; add the carbonate of soda, and beat the cake well for another 5 minutes.  Put it into a buttered tin, and bake it from 1/2 to 3/4 of an hour, and let it be eaten warm.  Sufficient for 3 or 4 persons.

Honey Pudding

Ingredients – 4 ozs of honey, 6 ozs of breadcrumbs, 1 oz of butter, 1 oz of florador, 2 eggs, the grated rind of 1/2 a lemon, 1/2 a teaspoonful of ground ginger, 1 gill of milk.

Method – Cook the florador in the milk for 10 minutes, then pour the preparation over the breadcrumbs, add the honey, lemon-rind, ginger, warmed butter, and the yolks of the eggs, and beat well.  Whisk the whites stiffly, stir them lightly into the rest of the ingredients, and turn the mixture into a well-buttered plain mould.  Steam gently from 1 and 3/4 to 2 hours, and serve with a suitable sauce.  Takes about 2 hours to make and is sufficient for 5 to 6 persons.

Photograph of a beekeeper gathering a swarm of bees. He uses a skep and notice he is not wearing any protection. Bees normally swarm towards the end of May, beginning of June. Breamore Countryside Museum.


Social historian, based in the UK.

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