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…
Books 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:
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!
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  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.’
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.
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:
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”
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’
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:
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!
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:
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 :
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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: