Until the late 1800s bees were kept in straw skeps, mostly on benches in the open, or on a shelf in an open-fronted shelter. But in wetter and windier parts of Britain, some beekeepers kept them in bee boles. These are recesses built in a wall specifically for housing skeps, usually around 45cm by 45cm by 35cm deep, although there is considerable variation. A few bee boles are wide enough to hold two or three skeps. The opening is rectangular, or may have a curved or pointed arch at the top.
Bee boles were built mostly in walls of stone, but where stone was not the common building material (e.g. Kent), they were made in brick walls. The wall often bounded a garden or orchard. The bee boles usually faced south to south-east so that the bees would be warmed by the morning sun. The base of the bee boles was often two to three feet from the ground, thus at a convenient height for working, although skeps of bees were rarely handled except when the honeycombs were harvested.
A set of bee boles (those built into one wall) usually contained from three to six recesses although larger sets are known. Bee boles have survived in walls dated to every century from the 1100s to the 1800s.
The skeps sometimes stood on a flat stone slab with a projecting lip to provide a landing place for the bees. The top could also be a slab. Where large stones were not available, arches or pointed roofs could be formed. Frequently the roof and base had overhangs to provide additional protection. A few examples of styles are shown in this leaflet. Further details in the online Register, http://ibra.beeboles.org.uk
Location of Bee Boles
Bee boles seem to have been a speciality in Britain, where over 1280 sets have been recorded. If you know of any bee boles, or other structures that may have been used for housing bees, please record them for the IBRA Bee Boles Register using the form overleaf, and send it to the DSWA office at the address below. Alternatively, you can request a digital version of the form by emailing IBRA on firstname.lastname@example.org
Building or Repairing Bee Boles
Those who have bee boles within walls on their property are encouraged to preserve these structures. Dry stone wallers are interested in projects involving the repair or construction of any unusual features. Some beekeepers have recently commissioned boles following traditional designs, although the detailed construction is left to the craftsman’s inspiration, local style and available material.
It would be helpful for records of newly built bee boles to be sent on the form overleaf. DSWA is also interested to learn of bee boles that are constructed in dry stone – new or old.
The Association endeavours to respond to all requests for specific information regarding dry stone wailing. The DSWA offers a mail order service on books, which includes a number of technical manuals, which would make useful reading, and produces a register of working wallers, which is free of charge. Full details available on request (please include a stamped, self-addressed envelope).
Dry Stone Walling Association
Westmorland County Showground,
Lane Farm, Crooklands,
Milnthorpe, Cumbria, LA7 7NH
tel: 015395 67953