Bee Bole conservation
An old drystone wall near Glaisdale houses the largest number of ‘bee boles’ ever recorded in England and Scotland. These bee boles are No.1529 on the IBRA Bee Boles Register.
A conservation project managed by the North York Moors National Park Authority aims to protect these extremely rare nesting places for bees, which could date back to the 18th century.
The wall has no fewer than 77 recesses for ‘skeps’ – bee hives made of wicker, heather or straw – which are thought to have been brought to the moor so the bees had a short flight to the flowering heather in late summer. The average for other such walls in Yorkshire is five bee bole recesses, mostly located in gardens and orchards.
Researcher Caroline Hardie, of Archaeo-Environment Limited, explains: “The large number of recesses suggests that their use was either communal or commercially driven. Shared use of a site by bee-keepers is not unknown, especially at heather sites, but the construction of such a large quantity of bee boles is extremely unusual. Large-scale bee-keeping was not unusual though. There were hundreds of hives on stones at Saltergate, and others on Rudland Rigg, and on Goathland, Egton and Wheldale moors.”
The Glaisdale bee boles are a long way – hundreds of metres – from a farmhouse, but a paved trackway suggests the hives were transported by wagon from the farm to the wall.
Bee boles and bee-keeping were hugely important because honey was the only source of sweetener in food until sugar beet and cane became commercially available in the 16th century. Honey was also fermented to make mead and the wax was used to make candles.
A farm on Danby High Moor is still known as ‘Honey Bee Nest’. English writer William Marshall referred to the moorlands and the northern margin of the vale as “bee country” in Rural Economy of Yorkshire in 1788.
And in 1891, the Rev J C Atkinson wrote about the custom in the parish of Danby of “telling the bees” of the death of their master – a familiar practice in many parts of northern Europe. In Danby Dale black material was tied round each hive, which was then tapped three times with the key of the house before the bees were informed of the death and who the new master was to be.
Glaisdale’s fascinating bee boles raise many unanswered questions. Why are some of the recesses so small? Many appear to be too slim to accommodate a bee skep. And why were there so many? Perhaps the boles were used all year round and not just in the summer.
More research is needed to answer these questions. In the meantime, the National Park Authority has worked with the landowner and Natural England to repair the poor condition of the wall without changing the character of the historic site. The repairs have been carried out by Donald Gunn, a specialist in historic, drystone walling.
Partners and funders
Natural England has funded the conservation work as a special project under Higher Level Stewardship. The National Park Authority is managing the project on behalf of the agreement holder, Chris Padmore of Bank House Farm, Glaisdale, and we commissioned the consultants Archaeo-Environment Limited and the walling expert Donald Gunn to undertake the conservation work.
Walker, P. (1987) Past beekeeping in Yorkshire: evidence from bee boles and other local sources. Yorkshire Archaeological Journal 59: 119-137.
Walker, P. (2011) Hive enclosures for bee skeps in England. The Local Historian 41(2): 138–148
Graham Lee, Senior Archaeological Conservation Officer