This is the eighth and final part in a series of short articles on skeps in the Medieval through Renaissance periods.
The beekeeper finished the summer with many more hives than he started with. He only over-wintered stock hives with all of their honey for use in the spring. All of the honey was harvested from the other hives. The remaining hives, about 50-80%, were left to die. In 1609, Charles Butler recommended to harvest the heaviest and the lightest hives (Crane, 1999 p240). He recommended harvesting the heaviest hives because they yield the most honey and the lightest because the bees would starve to death anyways. This would leave the medium weight hives for the spring.
The bees were killed or driven from the hives for harvest. They were killed by sulfur fumes. This was done by placing the hive over a pit of burning sulfur. It was also done by placing burning paper impregnated with sulfur into the hive. The bees were also killed by drowning. The hive was placed in a sack and put in hot water. Charles Butler didn’t agree with drowning the bees and writes it “hurteth the Honie, doth the Hive no good” (Butler, Ch 10).
More detailed instructions were given by Butler.
“Around midsummer, early in the morning, invert the skep to be driven. Cover the mouth of the full skep with an empty one. Wrap the join with a cloth to seal the opening. Clap rhythmically on the sides of the full hive. The bees will walk to the other hive. After most of the bees have walked to the empty hive, place it where the first hive was. Bees that are coming back from flight will go in there.”
Driving out the bees could be done when there were sufficient late honey flows. At or near midsummer, the bees were driven out of an upturned hive into an empty one. In 1580, Thomas Tusser writes “At midsummer drive them, And save them alive” (Crane 1999, p240).
The hope of driving the bees was they would have time to build new comb and store more honey before winter. Driven bees often did not prosper. Driven bees could be added to another colony to strengthen it. An alternative harvest method was to only harvest the bottoms of the combs. (
Ch 10). The bees could then rebuild the combs.