Monday, May 31, 2010

Viking Age Beekeeping: Vikingatiden Biodling

Photo byMike Reddy's Skep

Viking Age Beekeeping: Vikingatiden Biodling

What we know of Viking Age beekeeping is closely tied with the mead production, the oldest alcoholic drink. According to the Viking Answer Lady, “Bees were raised in the most southerly portions of Scandinavia, most especially Vermland in Sweden. The rest of Scandinavia, including Iceland and Greenland, were forced to import honey.” The importation of honey made it an expensive food item. Mead, and alcoholic beverage brewed from honey, was highly valuable commodity.

Beekeeping, early apiculture, can be dated as far back as the Ancient Egyptians, Sumeria, Babylonia and Assyria. There are hieroglyphics of bees from the First Dynasty, King Qa (3500 B.C). The bee was used as a symbol for the king of Lower Egypt. It is theorized that the Cretans introduced beekeeping to the Greeks. Homer uses bees and honey in many incidents in the Illiad. Homer uses the illusion to wine as “honey sweet.” Oil and honey were placed at the feet of Achille’s friend Patrocles on his funeral pyre. “For the foods which men loved in life were burnt on the pyre.” There are many Greek myths related to bees. Usually, with Zeus angering someone and having a swarm of bees consume him for his sexual transgressions. A Greek myth that does involve Zeus, but as a child, was about the Kuretes. The Kuretes guarded the baby Zeus. Zeus was fed by bees with their honey. The bees or bee- maidens were called the Melissae. The modern name, Melissa, means “bee-maiden.”

The honey bee, the one we know and love, is indigenous to the greater part of Europe, and among the huge forest of Northern and Central Europe; Germany, Poland, Southern Sweden and Russia. Early European beekeepers watched for wild hives. Eventually, artificial hives made from hollow tree trunks were created. Clay pots were also known to be used. In Egypt clay hives are still used. In time, skeps were formed from coiled domes of straw. The term skep comes from the Anglo-Saxon word skeppa; meaning basket. It is this image of the coiled skeps we have the visual representation of a “beehive.” The earliest archaeological remains of skep apiculture come from the Anglo-Norse town of Jorvik, modern York, England.

Unlike the modern hive boxes, skep beekeeping always resulted in the destruction of the bees and the hives. The bees would have been either smoked out with sulfur or drowned. Once the bees were destroyed the honey and combs were cut out of the skep. Honey was extracted by placing the combs inside of a bag and allowed to drain into a container. The second step would be to wring out the honey. Eventually, the bag and the remains of the comb were then steeped in warm water. It is this honey water that the mead was started from. The remaining comb and were then made into candles.

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As my family and I continue to explore this new world we will keep you posted.
My public service announcement. Respect the bee. Don't fear the bee.

Bless Bless


  1. Vermland or Värmland is not a southerly portions of Scandinavia

  2. Fun article! However, skep beekeeping doesn't mean the destruction of the hives at all. Check out Chris Park: