In last month’s Bee Craft (pp 9–11), we reported on a bee-driving event held by former BBKA president and beekeeping historian, David Charles. This month we look into the history of this mesmerising technique and discover why, for a relatively brief period, it became an important beekeeping skill.

Broadly speaking, beekeeping in nineteenth-century Britain was an activity undertaken by two groups of people from opposite ends of the social spectrum.

For the rural poor, beekeeping offered a valuable source of additional income, a collection of skeps being a common sight outside many a country cottage. In the literature of the day, these people were referred to as cottagers, and their beekeeping techniques were traditional skills passed from one generation to the next. In The Handy Book of Bees, first published in 1870 and still a valuable resource for aspiring skeppists, Andrew Pettigrew emphasised the financial importance to these people of keeping bees: ‘… there are few things more profitable to cottagers living in the country or on the skirts of towns, than a few swarms of bees.’

The other type of beekeeper belonged to the ‘superior’ classes, often being members of the gentry and, very frequently, the clergy. For such gentlemen-beekeepers (and the occasional lady, too), keeping bees had little to do with economics; it was a way to fill their idle hours and an opportunity for education and experimentation. Our knowledge of beekeeping at this time comes largely from the books and journals written by these people.

The old ways

Until about the middle of the nineteenth century, both cottager and gentleman-beekeeper relied on methods that had changed little for centuries. Most bees were kept in skeps, although there were a few experimental wooden and basketwork hives of various designs. But since no method made use of movable frames, combs could not easily be removed for inspection or swarm control, and honey could only be harvested by cutting honeycomb out of whatever container the bees were housed in. Those attempting to extract comb from a skep full of bees, often with little personal protection, could expect to incur the wrath of the occupants and receive only broken or dirty pieces of comb as a reward for their efforts. An easier – and perhaps more understandable – alternative was to kill the bees before removing the comb. Death was administered in the form of fumes from burning sulphur, a process known as sulphuring, brimstoning or taking.


Also known as brimstone, sulphur was sold by apothecaries for the treatment of a variety of medical conditions ranging from skin infections to constipation. Skeppists wishing to kill bees could buy ready-made sulphur candles, sulphur matches, sulphur-impregnated paper darts, or lumps of pure sulphur. All could be burnt to produce poisonous sulphur dioxide.

The method for sulphuring bees is described in a number of antique beekeeping books, including Charles Butler’s The Feminine Monarchy (1623) in which he wrote, ‘Some two or three hours before sunset, dig a hole in the ground – about eight or nine inches deep, and almost as wide as the hive skirts, laying the small earth around the brims. When you have lit [the sulphur match] set over the hive, and immediately shut it tightly at the skirts so none of the smoke may come forth. So shall you have the bees dead and down in less than quarter of an hour.’1

With the bees killed and removed, honeycomb could easily be cut out of a skep – although its flavour was unlikely to have been improved by its recent encounter with the rotten-egg fumes of burning sulphur.

Unnatural selection

At the end of each season, skeppists needed to decide which of their stocks should be ‘taken’ for their honey. The advice given in most texts was to harvest the ‘fattest’ of the colonies, since this was where most honey was likely to be found. The medium-sized colonies should be left to live until the following year, the smallest should be killed since these were unlikely to survive the winter. Those with the skills and the inclination might unite the smallest colonies to make larger ones more suitable for overwintering.

The result of this selection process was that the fittest colonies were often condemned while the weaker ones were allowed to survive – a man-made reversal of the laws of natural selection.


Although the idea seems barbaric today, those who killed bees for their honey probably rarely questioned the necessity or ethics of their actions. The raising of animals for slaughter was an everyday concept to most country folk in the nineteenth century; few would have felt any qualms at the idea of killing beasts of farm or forest if there was produce or profit to be had from it. Wild bees were seen as an abundant natural resource that reliably produced new swarms every year. Indeed, most cottagers collected spring swarms with the intention of keeping them alive only until they had produced a crop of honey.

In the nineteenth century, an increasing number of beekeepers began to rail against the practice of sulphuring. In My Bee Book (1842), Revd WC Cotton described his distaste for the practice as if speaking from his pulpit, ‘… every one of you must feel some sorrow when you murder by thousands in the autumn those who have worked hard for you all the summer and are ready to do so again next year. I myself was told by a Beemaster that he always saw the ghost of the Bees the night after he burned them; and have heard of an old woman who never went to church the Sunday following. If she felt it a sin, she ought to have gone to church, pray God from her inmost soul to pardon her, and then gone home, with her mind quite ready to learn from any one wiser than herself a better mode of taking her honey.’

The better mode, as recommended by Cotton, was to smoke colonies with the fumes from smouldering puffballs. This smoke, he said, made the bees ‘drunk’ enough to fall to the floor ‘as stiff as death’. After the comb was harvested, the sleeping bees could be tipped back into their skep where they would later wake up with ‘no head-ache - and all the merrier afterwards'. The smoke from some species of puffball contains cyanide, and is reportedly still used by beekeepers in some parts of Africa. 

Some enlightened skeppists employed other management techniques intended to preserve the life of their bees when taking their honey. Some added small basket supers to their skeps, allowing them to harvest honey without destroying the whole colony. Another method was nadiring – the opposite of supering – in which an empty basket was placed beneath a full skep. When comb had been built down into the new basket, the upper one, full of honey, was removed – similar to the way that Warré hives are operated today.


British beekeepers had been aware of the principles of movable-frame beekeeping since at least 1682 when George Wheeler described the Greek method of keeping bees in pots with wooden bars laid across the top.3 However, it was not until the innovations of Revd Lorenzo Langstroth were published in 1853 that beekeepers, at least those of the upper classes, began to explore this way of keeping bees.

The chief advantage of the new method was that frames could be removed to allow the inspection of bees for disease or swarm-management purposes, and that frames of honey could be removed for extraction without having to kill the bees. The fledgling beekeeping press championed the advantages of the system – encouraged no doubt by the various merchants who placed effusive adverts for a multitude of new hive designs and related equipment.

Beekeepers with the new movable-frame hives faced the problem of how to transfer existing stocks of bees living in skeps to their new accommodation. The answer was driving – rhythmic drumming on the sides of an upturned skep to encourage the bees to move upwards into a new container (see December, 2018, pp 9–11 for more on the technique).

Bee-driving was not a modern development – indeed, in the seventeenth century Revd Charles Butler had advised against the practice saying, ‘The bees, as men forcibly driven from their goods and children, are so discouraged that they seldom thrive after it.’  But with the adoption of the movable-frame hive, driving became an essential skill for the modern beekeeper. So important did the technique become that for at least 25 years following the first issue of the British Bee Journal (BBJ) in 1873, bee-driving was one of the more frequently raised subjects in reader correspondence. Letters from subscribers requested information on techniques, or shared stories about how the practice had worked well for them – or gone horribly, sometimes hilariously, wrong.

Bee-driving became recognised as an important part of the movement to discourage the keeping of bees in skeps – a practice that was roundly condemned as old-fashioned and inefficient. This policy was adopted by the British Beekeepers’ Association (BBKA) when it was established in 1874, one of the Association’s main aims being to encourage modern beekeeping techniques. 

Bee-driving as a spectacle

As part of its efforts to promote beekeeping and the use of movable-frame hives, the BBKA put on bee-driving demonstrations at large public events. In 1875, the British Bee Journal reported on the interest shown in bee-driving at the Crystal Palace Bee and Honey Show, saying there was ‘nothing which so astonished the on-lookers as the simple and easy method of “driving” which was so many times successfully repeated’. 

Bee-driving even became a competitive sport, with entrants racing to be the fastest to drive a colony of bees from one basket to another, spot and capture the queen and sometimes cut out the vacated combs and tie them into wooden frames. The rules usually specified that neither gloves nor veil should be worn. At the 1881 Great Annual Show in Kensington, the first prize of 20 shillings was ‘very cleverly earned by Mr J Walton, who captured the queen in 2 minutes and 25 seconds, and completed the driving in 4 minutes, 25 seconds’. 

Driving a bargain

Although most gentlemen-beekeepers happily made the switch to movable-frame hives, many cottagers – either through ignorance or economics – continued to keep their bees in skeps. This situation gave rise to an interesting mutually beneficial relationship between the two types of beekeeper. Those using movable-frame hives often sought new stocks of bees for their expanding apiaries – or to sell to fellow enthusiasts – while skeppists wanted to get rid of populous skep colonies so their honey could be gathered. The result was that gentlemen-beekeepers would visit cottagers to drive the bees from soon-to-be sacrificed colonies, even cutting the comb out of the emptied skeps ready for the cottager to sell. The visitors would even pay for the privilege, the usual rate being one shilling per driven skep – a welcome additional income to cottagers who had also been spared the time and expense of having to sulphur the bees and harvest the honey, and a relatively cheap way for the drivers to obtain a colony of bees. 

Bee-driving expeditions became something of a pastime for gentlemen-beekeepers who would bicycle through the countryside on the lookout for cottage gardens with skeps ready for driving. Giving seasonal beekeeping tips in August 1885, The British Bee Journal advised, ‘Cottagers’ apiaries may now be visited for condemned bees. The bees should be quickly and quietly driven from the skeps – almost to a single bee – and the combs cut out clean and deposited indoors without delay. The English cotter appreciates a skilful, neatly performed operation. If neatly done, Hodge will invite you to come again another year. We are besieged in the autumn by numerous applicants, "when will you come to take the bees, sir? They’re getting’ nowt now, and ‘ll soon be wastin".’

Driven colonies would be transported home, hanging from bicycle handlebars in skeps, sacks, or the modified Hudson’s soap boxes that were recommended by the BBJ.

Historical interest

Skep beekeeping persisted for a surprisingly long time after the development of movable-frame beekeeping, William Herrod-Hempsall (editor of the BBJ) telling of one beekeeper who, in 1929, drove the bees from 300 skeps. But within a decade or so the practice was almost completely redundant. Indeed, the BBKA ceased to include bee-driving in its practical examinations some time in the early 1930s.  

Skep beekeeping is now largely a thing of the past, but the skills are retained or being learnt by a few enthusiasts who act as guardians of the old ways. For many of us, the term bee-driving has disappeared from our vocabulary and is at best just part of the sepia-toned history of our hobby.

While beekeeping equipment and techniques have changed radically over the past century, the natural instincts of the bees have not. It is still possible to employ rhythmic tapping to encourage a colony to leave its skep home – as David Charles demonstrated to us in last month’s issue. Perhaps it’s a technique we should all master as part of our modern skill set to be used in unusual situations – recently we heard reports from Portugal of a swarm being encouraged to move to a more convenient place by drumming.

As the sides of a skep are patiently drummed and the bees mysteriously flow from one container to another, bee-driving presents an intriguing metaphor of the transition in beekeeping from age-old cottager tradition to our modern system of keeping bees.

Written by Richard Rickett  This article appears in the January 2019 Edition of Bee Craft Magazine 

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