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Bees serve an important purpose both today and historically. They are essential pollinators for growing plants and food. Their honey was the main source of sweetener for European food until sugar-cane was grown in large quantities in the sixteenth century. Beeswax was, and still is, regularly used for candles.
The importance of bees led beekeeping to be encouraged at least by the sixteenth century. Samuel Hartlib in The Reformed Commonwealth of Bees (1655) advocated the widespread keeping of bees. Many superstitions came to be associated with bees such as the need for the head of the household to go out at tell the bees when a family member had died.
In the medieval and early modern period bees in Britain were kept in bee boles, recesses built into walls in which a straw hive could be protected from the elements. This hive was a coiled-straw basket called a skep, used before the introduction of modern wooden hives. The name bole comes from a Scots word for a recess. Bee boles are almost completely unique to the British Isles, though they are also found in parts of what is now France and Belgium.
Bee boles at Well Hall in Eltham, London. © Joe Saunders
Many surviving bee boles are found in ecclesiastical buildings which had a particular need for candles for use in religious services. Others are found near high-status buildings and significant estates. Early examples that can be seen today are often associated with Tudor manor houses. Lower-status buildings also had bee boles and although many have not survived they can be found in some rural areas in association with small farms or cottages.
Bee boles are usually found in sets of 2-4 and sometimes were big enough to hold two skeps apiece. They are normally around 25 inches high, 20 inches wide and 17 inches deep. Early modern writing on the ideal skeps for honey extraction recommended a range of sizes fitting within these dimensions. Boles are usually rectangular though they occasionally have rounded or even pointed arches.
While they are sometimes set in the walls of a house itself, bee boles are more commonly found in garden or orchard walls nearby. The prevailing British weather meant that they were usually built into south-facing walls in order to offer the best protection from the wind and rain and to benefit from the most sunlight.
Bee boles at Dol-y-gaer, Wales (1960). © Natasha Ceridwen de Chroustchoff (CC BY-SA 2.0)
A survey in the 1950s showed that the majority of surviving British bee boles were north of a line from the Wash to Cardigan Bay with a high proportion in Fife and Angus, on the Isle and Man, the southern Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales. This spread either reflects the historic use of bee boles in Britain, or their better survival in these areas.
Because of their durable nature in comparison to skeps or hives bee boles are some of the earliest evidence we have around British beekeeping. However, they are difficult to date as very few of them carry a year, nor are the walls they are in usually mentioned in documents.
The Bee Boles Register homepage.
Efforts to record bee boles and other historic beekeeping structures were started by Dr Eva Crane in the 1950s. The Bee Boles Register now contains records for 1608 sites and images for most of them. To improve accessibility to the records and to encourage conservation and further recording, the Register was put into a database and made available online in 2005. The Register includes a useful further reading list as well as a function to add ‘new’ structures.
References and Resources:
R.A. Grout (ed.), The Hive and the Honey Bee (1975)
E. Crane, The Archaeology of Beekeeping (1981)
P. Walker and E. Crane, ‘Bee shelters and bee boles in Cumbria’ in Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian Archaeological Society 91 (1991)
P. Walker and E. Crane, ‘The history of beekeeping in English gardens’ in Garden History 28:2 (2000)
A. M. Foster, Bee Boles and Bee Houses (1988)
M. Leslie and T. Raylor (eds), Culture and Cultivation in Early Modern England: Writing and the Land (1992)
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