Updated: Nov 26, 2020
This month I finished a charcoal drawing of Diana Robertson, a beekeeper, coiling a straw bee skep. I spent a happy afternoon with her in the shed in her garden. It was cold and pouring with rain, but my abiding memory is of Diana’s devotion and the light turned gold from the straw.
Keeping bees in a straw basket goes back centuries, but today they are used for catching swarms rather than as a home for a colony of bees. It was a privilege to watch Diana slowly feeding straw into a cow horn to form the coil, then “sewing” it to the coil below using a turkey bone as a kind of needle.
“It’s not a needle exactly, it's a channel for the cane you are using to bind the coils together. They used to use long strands of blackberry, they’d strip all the thorns off and split the strand … and use it to bind the coils. I did try it once, but I use cane, much easier. It’s a simple coil basket our ancestors made from straw for keeping bees in nearby – more convenient than raiding nests of wild bees for honey.”
There are very few people keeping the ancient craft of skep making alive and it is on the Heritage Crafts Association list of endangered crafts.