A bee bole is a cavity or alcove in a wall or a separate free-standing structure set against a wall (the Scots word 'bole' means a recess in a wall). A skep is placed inside the bee bole. Before the development of modern bee hives (such as the design published by Lorenzo Langstroth in 1853), bee boles were a practical way of keeping bees in some parts of Britain, although most beekeepers kept their skeps in the open covered by, for example, old pots, or sacking. The bee bole helped to keep the wind and rain away from the skep and the bees living inside.
Bee keeping was a very common activity in the past before sugar became plentiful and affordable as a sweetener. There was also a high demand for candle wax, especially from the pre-reformation churches, cathedrals and abbeys. Tithes and rents were often paid in honey and/or beeswax, or even bee swarms.
Bee boles are found across the whole of the British Isles. Other names were bee holes, bee shells (Cumbria), bee keps (Cumbria), bee niches (Derbyshire), bee walls (Gloucestershire), bee houses (Yorkshire), bee boxes (Kent) and bee garths. They were often built close to the dwelling house so that swarms could be detected and captured quickly; in addition it helped to familiarise the bees with human presence and activity. Honey was often stolen, so keeping the bees close to the house helped to deter this, together with the use of a padlocked metal bar that served to both prevent the removal of a skep from a bee bole and to hold a wooden board across the front when the bees were overwintering.
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were the heyday of bee bole construction, especially on large country house estates. The shapes of old bee boles can sometimes be seen in walls where they have been filled in with brick or stone, with only the outline remaining.
The International Bee Research Association maintains a comprehensive record of bee boles in the UK and Ireland. Started by Dr Eva Crane in 1952, the Register contains paper records for 1480 sites (as at 12 June 2009), and photographic prints, transparencies and/or digital 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.
Bee bole design
Surviving bee boles are often made from easily-worked stone (such as sandstone) or brick. The base that the skep sits on is variable in design, circular, semi-circular or square and occasionally has a protruding lip for the bees to land on when they return from foraging. The hole in the skep faces onto this lip. The example at the Queen's Head in Tirrel, in the English Lake District, has sandstone slabs placed vertically and horizontally to produce several cavities for skeps. An ornate example set into a wall at Kersland House in Stewarton, Ayrshire, Scotland was an alcove with carved decorations.
Sometimes larger bee boles, or 'bee alcoves' are found, which would take several skeps. It may be that examples such as at Craufurdland Castle in Ayrshire were built for wooden hives and not skeps. South-facing walls with bee boles inserted ensured drier and harder-working bees, as the warmth lengthened the day for these 'cold blooded' insects.
Many farms and ordinary homes had bee boles, however, with the advent of the Stewarton and Langstroth hives, skeps eventually ceased to be used. Bee boles were no longer made and those that survived are often used for decorative purposes, their original purpose long-forgotten.
At Hodge Close, near Tilberthwaite in Cumbria are square and rectangular bee boles set into a drystone wall, facing south to get as much warmth as possible; sheltered from the winds by the thickness of the wall.
The ultimate purpose of a bee skep was to house bees so that honey could be obtained; however they were often used to ensure pollination of fruit trees, etc. This explains why bee boles are frequently found in walled and flower gardens belonging to country houses. Brodick Castle on Arran has fine examples of bee boles and skeps in its walled garden. A number of skeps were sometimes placed on a frame supported by staddle stones to keep mice and rats away. In many parts of Britain, however, bee boles were essential to keep the skeps dry and well aired, especially on the east coast of Scotland.