Penelope Walker writes:
Honeybees are in the news at the moment, because of colony losses in some parts of the world. In past centuries, when beekeeping was mainly a small-scale activity, the bees were kept in small straw hives called skeps, and beekeepers faced different problems. In some areas of the UK, Ireland and France, especially where it was wet and windy, protection for the skeps was provided by bee boles; rectangular of arched recesses in a wall, usually in a garden where the family or the gardeners could keep an eye on the bees and follow any swarm that flew out when the skep got too crowded. Also beekeepers knew about the interdependence of bees and flowering plants (although the mechanism of bee pollination was not understood until 1750 when it was explained by the Irishman Arthur Dobbs).
Ten years ago, I described bee boles and other protective structures in English gardens (Garden History, 28:2, 231–61). Since then, the IBRA Bee Boles Register has been made available online, resulting in reports of about 200 additional sites in the UK and Ireland. As well as bee boles, these include bee shelters, bee houses and winter storage buildings.The current Register total is 1,500 sites, of which about 60% are in gardens or orchards. One of the main aims of the Register is to increase awareness of this aspect of our beekeeping heritage and to encourage conservation of bee boles. I could give many other examples of these walls and other beekeeping structures that are well cared for, and some owners have had good restoration work done. Sadly, I also hear of walls with bee boles that are collapsing, and I try to get these recorded before it is too late. A considerable number of properties with bee boles (181 in England, 98 in Scotland and 19 in Wales) are Listed buildings, although this does not guarantee conservation.
One example of a Grade II Listed wall is in a garden at Humshaugh, Northumberland. This tall brick wall contains four arched bee boles (Reg. No. 1424). Each would have held a skep, and the projection on the carefully fitted stone base provided an alighting area for the bees which would have pollinated the fruit trees grown against the wall.
In Marlow, Bucks, another Grade II Listed wall was originally part of the large walled kitchen garden belonging to Remnantz, a house built in the 1720s; this wall and the bee boles are probably contemporary.The six bee boles (No. 0448) are well made, with a rubbed brick surround in classical style. When I went to see them last year, they were blocked up with concrete and breeze blocks, but the owners have recently removed the infill so that this fine set of bee boles can be properly appreciated.
Several sets of bee boles in Scotland have been added to the Register recently. As before, almost all of them are in stone walls on the eastern side of the country.
The rectangular recesses, such as the row of four that I recorded in Fife (No. 1323), are generally larger than those in England. This was probably to allow space for sacking or dried bracken or heather to be packed round the skep in winter. Historic Scotland’s Listing of the property (Category B) includes the bee boles.
I have also received some interesting new records from Wales and Ireland. These, and all other sites and photos, can be found in the online Register. I would be very interested to hear from any readers who have recent information on any of the sites or know of other bee boles. I also have a long list of ‘pending’ sites and would welcome offers from readers willing to follow up those in their area.
Contact details, also given on the website, are: International Bee Research Assocation, 16 North Road, Cardiff, CF10 3DY, UK; tel: 029 2037 2409, or email
Penelope Walker is the Voluntary Curator, IBRA Bee Boles Register