The Buzzing of the Bees….

from Edward Bevan's The Honey Bee, 1827

from Edward Bevan’s The Honey Bee, 1827

Bees and their homes have always had a special place in our gardens [even if we don’t have coolibah trees or remember Burl Ives!] Most of us would think instantly of their honey, their  pollination of crops, and the sight and sound of them buzzing about,  but their homes are often interesting garden features too…

I bet you didn’t know that there are still hundreds of mediaeval bee shelters  around in British gardens, or that  although until a century or so ago most bees were kept in simple straw structures there were a few lucky colonies which lived in castles or even inside an elephant!

Read on to find out more about homes  for bees, ancient and modern, in our gardens…

coverBooks on how to keep bees have a very long history. The first was John Fitzherbert’s Book of Husbandry (1523) which has a short section explaining how to catch a swarm, where to site the hive in your garden or orchard and warning about wasps which will kill the bees if they enter the hive. A longer piece A profitable instruction of the perfite ordering of Bees by Thomas Hill first appeared in 1568. Later versions of “ this little Treatise” were “joined… vnto my booke of Gardening, for that most men do ioyne them both togither, as when they place their Bees in their Garden” [see post on early gardening books, 3rd Jan 2015] The full text can be found at:

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/47765/47765-h/47765-h.htm

The frontispiece of 1623 edition of Feminine Monarchie

The frontispiece of 1623 edition of Feminine Monarchie

But the first full length book on bees and beekeeping is Charles Butler’s Feminine Monarchie, or a Treatise Concerning Bees and the Due Ordering of Them,published in 1609.  Its title is significant because until then it was widely believed that the worker bees were male.  It included Butler’s musical notation of his bees buzzing. Entitled Melissomelos or the Bees Madrigall this stretched over 4 pages. Later editions also included a lovely printed image of a bee skep – or rather 56 of them!

From the 1623 edition of Feminine Monarchie

From the 1623 edition of  Charles Butler’s Feminine Monarchie

 

 

 

A skep is a simple early form of hive, the word probably originating from the old Norse ‘skeppe’ for  basket. Made from straw, rope, hazel or willow they were sometimes covered in mud or cow dung to waterproof them and then further protected with a layer of straw or bracken.  In his Rural Rides  [1830] William Cobbett wrote that you needed two bushels of ‘clean unblighted straw’ to make a skep: ‘The cost is nothing to the labourer. He must be a stupid countryman indeed who cannot make a bee-hive; and a lazy one indeed if he will not.’

The Beekeepers and the Birdnester,  Pieter Bruegel the Elder , 1568, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The Beekeepers and the Birdnester,
Pieter Bruegel the Elder , 1568, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

from Edward Bevan's The Honey Bee, 1827

from Edward Bevan’s The Honey Bee, 1827

However skeps are very temporary structures because there was no easy way to remove the honey without breaking them apart. This could only done by killing the bees inside first which might seem a bit drastic. At the end of every summer probably half of a beekeepers skeps were destroyed, and new ones made.

A straw covered skep in a  garden at  Lugwardine, Herefordshire, by Alfred Watkins c.1890

A straw covered skep in a garden at Lugwardine, Herefordshire, by Alfred Watkins c.1890  http://www.herefordshirehistory.org.uk

Bee Bole,  probably 13thc Pluscarden Abbey, Elgin http://www.pluscardenabbey.org/abbey-precincts.asp

Bee Bole, probably 13thc at Pluscarden Abbey, Elgin
http://www.pluscardenabbey.org/abbey-precincts.asp

Skeps often stood in the open, but from earliest times various forms of more permanent protection were introduced.  The most basic way of protecting them from the the damp was to  set them on a wooden bench or a stone plinth.  But from Roman times at least various structures have been made to shelter the skeps. Many of these have been recorded by the International Bee Research Association on its Bee Boles Register. You can find this at:

http://ibra.beeboles.org.uk

The commonest kind are bee boles [from a Scots word for alcove] which are simply niches built into walls to house one or more skeps. There are hundreds of them surviving in gardens all around Britain. According to the Bee Bole Register two thirds are in gardens, and a further 10% in house walls.  The earliest, like the one at Pluscarden, date from before 1300.  There is an impressive group of 11 set into the garden walls of Charity Farm at Lovington in Somerset, which also feature on a painting dated 1700 over the fireplace  in the house.

Ever more of an architectural feature is made of the niches at Packwood House near Birmingham, which is better known for its topiary.  Here there  30 of them built in pairs in the 17th c garden walls.

 

 

The assumption in most early writers is that the bees will be looked after by the women of the household. William Lawson in his Country Housewife’s Garden (1618)  goes as far as to say “I will not account her any of my good Housewives, That wanteth either Bees or skilfulnesse about them” and warns his readers they  “must have an house made along a sure dry wall in your Garden, neere, or in your Orchard: for Bees love Flowers and wood with their hearts”

From William Lawson's Country HOusewife's Garden (1631 edition)

From William Lawson’s Country HOusewife’s Garden (1631 edition)

Lawson includes our first printed image of how bees and their skeps could be protected by a free standing bee shelter or bee house rather than a niche in a  wall.  Writing from experience he explains that “in this frame may your bees stand dry and warm, especially if you make dores like dores of windows to shroud them in winter, as in a house: provided you leave the hives mouth open. I myself have devised such an house, and I find it strengthens my Bees much, and my hives will last six to one’

from Edward Bevan's The Honey Bee, 1827

from Edward Bevan’s The Honey Bee, 1827

Dozens of simple bee shelters still exist, particularly in Scotland and the north of England. They are often just lean-tos and I have found it difficult to track down any images.  However there are some wonderfully elaborate ones too.  Perhaps the most famous is the shelter now standing  in the churchyard at Hartpury in Gloucetsershire.   First built at Minchinhampton Manor  it has been moved and reconstructed several times but is thought to date  originally to before 1500.  The story of its latest restoration can be found at:

http://www.hartpuryheritage.org.uk/places-to-visit/bee-shelter/restoration/

The Bee Bole at Hartpury Bee Shelter, Hartpury A stone, freestanding and decorative structure with 28 "boles"  © Copyright Julian P Guffogg and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The Bee Bole at Hartpury
Bee Shelter, Hartpury
A stone, freestanding and decorative structure with 28 “boles”
© Copyright Julian P Guffogg and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

 

Such freestanding structures became more elaborate in the 18th and 19th centuries.

At Bretforton Manor near Evesham the brick and timber bee shelter has leaded diamond window panes, and a rustic facade, with supporting columns made of split branches.  The stone tiled roof covered an insulating layer of thatch.  The photo on the Bee Bole Register is at least 30 years old and  although A.M.Foster in the Shire Album Bee Boles and Bee Houses  (1988) says there were plans to renovate it,  I cannot find any further information….so if you know anything then please let me know!

The Bee House near the Walled Garden in Attingham Park The Bee House is a rare listed building, dating from around 1805. © Copyright Mick Malpass and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The Bee House near the Walled Garden inAttingham Park© Copyright MickMalpass and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. 

Attingham Park in Shropshire has a trelliswork beehouse of magnificent proportions  which housed 12 hives over two levels.  Built in 1805 it is now a Grade 2 listed building.  Bees are still kept there and the National Trust have recently introduced an observation hive in the walled garden which can be seen at:

From Memoires pour Servir a l'Histoire des Insectes, Reaumur, 1740

From Memoires pour Servir a l’Histoire des Insectes, Reaumur, 1740

The increasingly scientific study of insects such as bees in the 17th and 18th century led to attempts to design a hive that did not require the destruction of the hive and the death of the colony to harvest the honey.  The French scientist Reaumur in his books on the history and habits of insects includes many drawings of unusual hives, many of which are included in the opening page of his treatise on insects. Other drawings can be found at :

https://archive.org/stream/traitdezoologi00rail#page/n23/mode/thumb

John Claudius Loudon too has much to say on the subject [when doesn’t he!] and includes a sketch of a simple but rather elegant structure sheltering 24 skeps.

from Loudon's Encyclopedia of Gardening, 1826 edition

from Loudon’s Encyclopedia of Gardening, 1826 edition

from Edward Bevan's The Honey Bee, 1827

from Edward Bevan’s The Honey Bee, 1827

However Edward Bevan’s 1827 book, The Honey Bee,  argues that a simple wooden shed is sufficient for most people’s needs.

By the mid-19thc  however such shelters, or indeed bee boles in walls, were beginning to become redundant.  This was not because of a change in fashion but changes in the design of beehives.

from Loudon's Encyclopedia of Gardening, 1826 edition

Huish’s hive, from Loudon’s Encyclopedia of Gardening, 1826 edition

Loudon shows some of the various attempts to make a successful working hive where the bees are encouraged to make the honey on moveable leaves or frames which hang inside the hive.

from Loudon's Encyclopedia of Gardening, 1826 edition

from Loudon’s Encyclopedia of Gardening, 1826 edition

Dr Howison's hives, from from Loudon's Encyclopedia of Gardening, 1826 edition

Dr Howison’s hives, from from Loudon’s Encyclopedia of Gardening, 1826 edition

 

 

 

You can probably work out the principles of each from his illustrations. It would be too laborious to go through them all here now but you can find more details of each at:

https://archive.org/stream/encyclopdiaofgar00loud#page/341/mode/1up

Lonzo Langstroth's movable frame hive, from  A practical treatise on the hive and honey-bee

Lorenzo Langstroth’s movable frame hive, from
A practical treatise on the hive and honey-bee [ 3rd ed 1860)

The real breakthrough came when  American born Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth developed an effective moveable frame hive in 1851. This reached Britain in 1862, and over 70% of hives in use today are still based on his design.

The bee house at Hall Place, Berks from Palaces for Pigs, Lucinda Lambton

The bee house at Hall Place, Berks
from Palaces for Pigs, Lucinda Lambton

 

One of the first places to adopt his system was probably Hall Place in Berkshire where an extraordinary pavilion for bees was  built around an upturned tree trunk [shades of the fascination with the rustic, rooteries and stumperies]. It has a distinctly Chinese feel to it, and at first glance  might  be assumed to be late 18thc in origin, but apparently the timbers were cut with a band-saw which was not used in England until 1859. Furthermore, the hives sat behind the windows, which had entrances for the bees just below them, that could be opened or closed. This means that  the hives were accessed from the rear and implies the use of Langstroth’s new design. Lucinda Lambton suggests that there was probably an earlier bee house on the site and that it was rebuilt when the new hives were acquired.

But old traditions died hard and in rural Herefordshire at least, straw or wicker skeps were still in use until the very end of the  19thc, although sometimes alongside the new style hive.

'My first frame hive'  by Alfred Watkins showing both  modern hive and old straw skeps side by side in his garden. c.1880 http://www.herefordshirehistory.org.uk

‘My first frame hive’ by Alfred Watkins showing both modern hive and old straw skeps side by side in his garden. c.1880
http://www.herefordshirehistory.org.uk

The church of St Bartholomew at Benthall Hall , National Trust

The church of St Bartholomew at Benthall Hall , National Trust

But if you thought any of the bee residences you’ve seen so far were a bit overelaborate or fancy then you have a few more little shocks coming…

The church porch, sundial and lion's head at Benthall ©  oldchippy, panoramio.com

The church porch, sundial and lion’s head at Benthall
© oldchippy, panoramio.com

At Benthall in Shropshire there were bees who lived above the church porch.  They entered through the lion’s mouth, and crawled up a tube to hives which were installed underneath window seats in the upper part of the porch.  This may well have been a literal re-intrepretation of Samson’s riddle in the Book of Judges 14:14.  “Out of the strong came forth sweetness”.

Look it up if you don’t know the story…or more imaginatively look on a golden syrup tin because the phrase was adopted by Abram Lyle in 1885 and is still there, underneath a drawing of a dead lion surrounded by a swarm of bees!

How about a bee castle? Sadly now gone – it used to stand at Berthddu in Powys. Difficult to know if this was just a facade with skeps on shelves behind the openings or a miniature building that one could enter and ‘share’ with the bees.

 

 

Another bee castle is even more bizarre… because its not just a castle but an elephant and castle. It’s at Peckforton in Cheshire and dates from 1859, a few years after   the great fake mediaeval castle was  built. Lucinda Lambton thinks that the castle’s stonemason, John Watson,  was bored at the end of the 6 years it took to build the castle,  and so turned his attention to something smaller in scale to fill his spare time.

The garden of Elephant and Castle Cottage, Taporley www.rightmove.co.uk

The garden of Elephant and Castle Cottage, Taporley
http://www.rightmove.co.uk

Carved from two blocks of red sandstone, one for the elephant and the other for its howdah, Watson probably took the idea of the elephant and castle, which of course has long tradition in history and heraldry, from the arms of the Corbett family who had  owned Peckforton in the distant past.

The bees lived in the castle itself which has a turreted gatehouse with arrow slits, and a triple turreted keep. The various arches and windows were glazed to protect the bees from the wind. Perhaps unsurprisingly the house whose garden it stands in is now called Elephant and Castle Cottage.

And don’t think that the eccentric beehouse is dead. Here, for example, is a bee village near Portland, Oregon whilst nearer to home, Lord Lambton designed a series of Chinese Chippendale beehives for his garden at Biddick Hall.

The Beehives at Biddick Hall, from Palaces for Pigs, Lucinda Lambton

The Beehives at Biddick Hall, from Palaces for Pigs, Lucinda Lambton

Elsewhere Kit Williams, the author of Masquerade and The Bee Book built himself a bee garden, with a whole range of bee homes, wooden hives, skeps, dry stone wall shelters and this pottery hive.

Kit Williams Centenary Hive from Palsces for Pigs, Lucinda Lambton

Kit Williams Centenary Hive from Palsces for Pigs, Lucinda Lambton

For more on bee homes of all kinds  see: A.M. Foster, , Bee Boles and Bee Houses, Shire (first published in 1988), and the excellent article by Penny Walker, who maintains the Bee Bole Register,  on the website of the Garden History Society:

http://www.gardenhistorysociety.org/post/agenda/bee-boles/

About Parks and Gardens UK

Parks & Gardens UK is the leading on-line resource for historic parks and gardens providing freely accessible, accurate and inspiring information on UK parks, gardens and designed landscapes. Email - info@parksandgardens.org. Website - www.parksandgardens.org
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