Wall Recesses for Bee Hives

By Crane, Eva; Walker, Penelope | Antiquity, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Wall Recesses for Bee Hives


Crane, Eva, Walker, Penelope, Antiquity


Introduction

Until the introduction of movable-frame bee hives in the late 19th century, beekeepers used traditional hives they made from local materials. The type of hive varied from region to region according to local climate and materials, and among any one people the type of beekeeping was passed down from generation to generation with little or no change (Crane 1999: 161-404).

In a hot or warm climate, a hive was usually placed horizontally, and the honey combs were harvested from one end (Crane 1999: 161-211). In the cooler climate of northern Europe the hive was usually placed upright, which conserved heat generated by the bees, and honey combs were harvested from either the top or bottom (Crane 1999: 226-57). One form of upright hive, used widely in the west except Spain (Crane 1999:238-57), was a basket (skep) of coiled straw (FIGURE 1) or of woven wicker coated with mud and cow dung (FIGURE 2). A skep needed substantial protection against the weather, and a cover was placed over each hive if it stood in the open. Where timber was plentiful a beekeeper might build a wooden shelter for all his skeps, and such shelters are shown in English, French and German manuscripts and books from the 16th century onwards (Crane 1999: 319-20).

[Figures 1-2 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In regions where building stone was freely available -- often upland areas with a high rainfall -- recesses for hives might be built into a stone wall (FIGURE 3). From 1952 onwards many of these were recorded in a Register set up by the International Bee Research Association. By December 1999 the Register contained details of 1214 such walls in Britain, Ireland and France. These walls and their recesses are the subject of this paper. Their geographical distribution, dates and characteristics provide useful information about aspects of beekeeping in the region from the 12th to the 19th century.

[Figure 3 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

In certain Greek islands some hives were also housed in wall recesses, especially those made in the retaining walls of a terraced hillside (Bikos 1994 & pers. comm.); however, a different system of beekeeping was used there.

Study data and methods

For each site (wall) added to the IBRA Register, a standard form was completed at the site; this gave full details and relevant historical information, and was accompanied by photographs or drawings. One or other of the authors has located about a quarter of the sites in Britain and Ireland and some in France. Records for other sites were contributed by local historians and individual property owners and by other long-term recorders.

Further sites were added to the Register by consulting the records of the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales, National Monuments Record of English Heritage, National Monuments Record of Scotland, and by contacting the (English) National Trust and the Dry Stone Walling Association. Additional information about sites in France was obtained during two conferences there (Chevet 1998; Masetti 1996). Details for separate regions up to 1981 were published in The archaeology of beekeeping (Crane 1983) and subsequently:

regions within Britain: Crane & Walker (1984/ 85), Foster (1986), Green (1997), Walker (1987; 1988a; 1988b), Walker & Crane 1991, Walker & Linnard (1990), Walker & Ogden (1995)

Ireland: Walker & Crane (1998) regions within France: Chevet (1989; 1995; 1998), Godefrey (1997; 1998), Masetti (1996), Musee de Salon (1993).

Reliability of data

Direct data about the sites -- such as recess dimensions, aspect and material of the wall, and location -- are considered to be reliable, but if the wall had been partly demolished the data were incomplete. Information on date of building varied from evidence of an exact year or decade to an informed estimate.

Evidence at the site or locally showed that the recesses in some walls had been used for hives.

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