Today I took over the Craft Hub at the Centre for Stewardship for a ‘mini-residency’, a whole day to make whatever I wanted while chatting to visitors. I decided what I was going to make on my way in from the car park. The lime trees were covered in blossom and buzzing with bees. They reminded me of an experiment I’d been wanting to do for a while – to make a bee skep, an old-fashioned beehive.
Cultures all over the world have designed homes and shelters for honeybees for thousands of years. The little domed hives made from straw have become familiar as a symbol for honey and hard work, appearing on stamps, labels and logos.
In the mid-1990’s I worked as a ceramic painter for the Griselda Hill Pottery in Ceres and was trained to paint many traditional Wemyssware designs. I loved the beehive design. At its centre is a straw skep on its table, surrounded by long grass and birch trees. A random number of bees are painted flying round the hive. We would draw them lightly in pencil on the plate or pot then follow a set procedure for painting the bees – body, head, wings, legs, antennae, stripes. I had a special brush I kept for bee wings, it was old and worn and allowed me to paint each wing in one stroke of dilute brown. When done well, the wings looked smoky and transparent and the bees looked alive. More like bumblebees than honeybees, but definitely bees.
The hard-workers in the Falkland limes today were bumblebees. While trying to get a photograph of one bee I was immersed in a wonderful sweet scent. I looked for more information about lime trees when I got home and found out that the blossoms can be used to make a calming and reviving tea. I found this and much more fascinating lime tree information on a good blog post: https://gerryco23.wordpress.com/2011/08/03/the-intoxicating-scent-of-lime-trees/
There is a little bee skep in the Fife Folk Museum in Ceres, on a high shelf on the way to the toilets. It is made of straw and cane, and decorated with hand-made bees! The label says “Handmade by Police Sergeant Harry Strathie of Dairsie on his retiral in 1980s. Donor: Miss Provan, Dura Den”. I’d love to know more.
There were plenty of reedmace leaves and soft rushes left from last week’s Summer Baskets workshop, a suitable substitute for straw for my mini-skep prototype. Linen thread, beeswax and blunt needle for stitching as usual. My aim was to reproduce the skep shape using the stitching method I’ve been teaching in workshops, to see if it would work and look at all skep-like.
Marek came in to see me at this point and stayed for a while to talk about all things basket. He took part in one of my workshops last year and since then has taken his researches much further than me. He showed me photos on his phone of woven baskets he has made recently using spruce roots. They are very beautiful, I hope he chooses to exhibit them at the Centre in future.
We also talked about trees, lime in particular. Marek told me that in Poland this month is named after the lime tree. ‘July’ is ‘Lipiec’, named for the month when the lime trees blossom.
Back to work on the mini-skep. At this point it was difficult to stop the coils from turning in, making the base narrower than the sides. I wanted a more conical shape, like the Fife Folk Museum skep. I unpicked three or four coils here and re-stitched them but I couldn’t persuade the materials to open out any further, so went with vertical sides.
It is difficult to see in the old illustrations how the bee hole is made. This method might be a bit coarse but I think it would work well enough at a larger scale too. When I looked up skeps on the internet this evening, I was amazed at how many shapes and sizes have been used in the past. Cones, cylinders, bells, balls, holes at the base or half way up, made of straw, grass, willow, stitched with cane or split brambles, some even coated with mud. Room for further experiment and on a larger scale…