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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: A Bee Skep

Object 85 - This post is for all you beekeepers out there! In the sixteenth century, bees were kept in domed skep hives, like the one featured in today’s blog.

Elizabeth Sharrett

Today’s blog, which looks at the the way that bees were housed in the 17th century, is by Elizabeth Sharrett, doctoral researcher at the Shakespeare Institute.

A straw bee skep, a shaped basket of woven straw.
A straw bee skep
“My honey lost, and I, a drone-like bee,
Have no perfection of my summer left,
But robbed and ransacked by injurious theft:
In thy weak hive a wand’ring wasp hath crept,
And sucked the honey which thy chaste bee kept.”

The Rape of Lucrece (836-840)

This post is for all you beekeepers out there! In the sixteenth century, bees were kept in domed skep hives, like the one featured in today’s blog. The skep in the Trust’s collection (actually pictured on its side) is a shaped basket of woven straw, which could be made from rye or wheat. Hives could also be wicker, made of privet or hazel and daubed with “cowcloome”, a mixture of manure and clay. It was not until the seventeenth century that the more familiar box-like form became popular.

Charles Butler, a seventeenth-century apiarist and author of the first full-length book on beekeeping in English, entitled The Feminine Monarchie (1609), advised that straw hives were preferable to wicker ones, especially for smaller swarms. But whatever the material, it was important that hives were snug and secure to keep insects and mice from destroying the colony (C4r), as the invading wasp has done in the passage above. Butler states that hives are best constructed during the dead of winter. They should be made from “betweene a bushel and a halfe, as the time of yeare, and quantities of the swarme doth require” (C4r), with a diameter of approximately fourteen inches. Small strips of willow called spleeting were fitted inside to reinforce the dome. Once a swarm occupied the skep, the colony attached their combs directly to the walls of the structure.

Beekeeping was a staple in early modern English husbandry. As Butler observed, “Among all the creatures which our bountiful God hath made for the use and service of man…the Bees are most to be admired” (C4v). His extensive book includes ten chapters which cover, among other things, “the nature & properties of Bees & of their Queene”, “the placing of your stalles, and of their seates”, “the breeding of Bees and of the drone”, “the Bees enimies”, “the removing of Bees”, and “the fruit, and profit of Bees” (bv).[1]

Detail from the bee skep, a shaped basket of woven straw.
Detail from the bee skep, part of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections

The author hails beekeeping for its great profit at little expense, as well as the continuous production and self-sufficiency of a hive. Indeed, the honey and wax yielded a variety of resources; the honey could be used as a sweetener for confectionaries, syrups, and preserves, and the wax made candles and oil. Though honey was a traditional sweetener in early modern England, strangely it does not appear all that often in recipe books and farming records, and beehives are absent from the inventories of the gentry and nobility.[2] It was most likely fairly humble households in the countryside that kept bees, as reflected in the 1599 inventory of William Baule, a “labourer” from Bishopton just outside of Stratford -Upon-Avon, which includes, “two stalles of bees” valued at iiiis, to be left to his daughter Elizabeth.[3] There were exceptions to this, such as the hives kept by Lady Margaret Hoby. Her diary records that she spent much time in her garden, and the entry for 1 September 1599 mentions how in the afternoon “I went to take my Beesse’ and then, later “went to se my Honnie ordered”.[4] William Lawson, the author of Country Housewife’s Garden (1618), the first horticultural book directed specifically at women, made reference to Hoby’s practical domestic endeavors, including beekeeping.[5]

While some of Butler’s approaches to and methods of beekeeping have changed slightly over the years, bees have continued to labour for our benefit. So why not enjoy some honey today and thank our hardworking friends, the bees!

[1] Charles Butler, The Feminine Monarchie. Oxford: 1609.

[2] Joan Thirsk, Food in Early Modern England: Phases, Fads, Fashions 1500-1760 (London: Continuum Books, 2007), 324.

[3] Jeanne Jones, Family Life in Shakespeare’s England: Stratford-Upon-Avon 1570-1630 (Stroud: Stroud Publishing Limited, 1996), 135-136.

[4] Joanna Moody (ed), The Diary of Lady Margaret Hoby 1599-1605 (Stroud: Sutton Publishing), p.13.

[5] William Lawson, A Country Housewife’s Garden, London: 1618.