IN the curious world of Looking Back on old, fascinating local things, it is time to open a peephole onto a bee bole.

A bole is a Scottish word for a recess or an alcove in a room for putting things in. A bee bole is a recess in an outdoor wall in which you would put the skep in which your bees lived in the days before timber hives were invented.

A skep is a basket for keeping bees in. It was usually made from straw, or perhaps wicker or cane, and it was usually dome-shaped with a hole in the top.

Bees like warm and sunny conditions and so the skeps would be placed in south-facing bee boles, the alcove creating a suntrap and keeping out the wind.

The bee boles would be quite close to the farmhouse, so the farmer could keep an eye out for swarms and so the bees became used to human interaction.

The purpose of keeping bees, of course, was for their wax and their honey – honey was once the only source of sweetener in food until sugar beet and cane became available in the 16th Century.

The first bee boles date from the 12th Century; the heyday of the bee bole was in the 18th Century, and they became obsolete after the invention of square, timber bee hives in the 1850s.

Bee boles were not usually solitary recesses – on average in Yorkshire, there were five recesses built into a wall.

A skep which was placed in a bee bole

A skep which was placed in a bee bole

Some rural bee boles were marvellously rustic; others, in the grounds of stately homes, were grand ornamental additions.

The International Bee Research Association has an online database of 1,560 bee boles in the UK. It lists seven in private properties in North Yorkshire, including in West Burton, Hawes, Askrigg, Thoralby, Ripon and Masham.

There are none listed in County Durham, although our interest in bee boles was sparked a couple of weeks ago when we were scouring the countryside looking for dovecotes, alighting upon an early 19th Century example near Walworth Castle, near Darlington, which was described as having “a small round-arched niche, possibly a beebole, to right”.

There must be forgotten or un-noticed bee boles all over the place – we’d love to hear from you if you know of one.

David Swabey, who used to compile the D&S’ walks, got in touch because one of his trails through Glaisdale, in the North York Moors, goes past what is believed to be the largest bee bole in the country. It is crudely built into a drystone wall and has 77 recesses for skeps.

The UKs largest bee bole has 77 recesses for skeps in Glaisdale on the North York Moors. Pictures courtesy of the the North York Moors National Park Authority

The UK's largest bee bole has 77 recesses for skeps in Glaisdale on the North York Moors. Pictures courtesy of the the North York Moors National Park Authority

The North York Moors National Park commissioned research into this 18th Century bee bole in 2013 when it was restoring it.

The bole is up on the moors and a long way – 270 metres – from the nearest farmhouse. This, though, is “bee country”, as writer William Marshall described the area in his 1788 book, Rural Economy of Yorkshire.

The bole is connected to the farmhouse by a paved track and the theory is that in the late summer, the skeps were wheeled up to the tops and placed in the warm bee bole so that the bees had the shortest flight to the flowering heather.

The size of the bee bole suggests that heather honey was much sought after.

Caroline Hardie, of Teesdale-based Archaeo-Environment Limited researched the bole and drystone waller Donald Gunn restored it. Caroline said: "The large number of recesses suggests that their use was either communal or commercially driven. Shared use of a site by beekeepers is not unknown, especially at heather sites, but the construction of such a large quantity of bee boles is extremely unusual. Largescale bee-keeping was not unusual though. There were hundreds of hives on stones at Saltersgate, and others on Rudland Rigg, and on Goathland, Egton and Wheeldale Moors."

Indeed, a few miles east of Glaisdale, near Botton Village, is a farm known simply as Honey Bee Nest.

Our peephole through time at the bee bole is nearly closing – unless you can keep it open by telling us of any other bee boles. Please email if you can.

DAVID SWABEY’S walks, complete with their beautiful maps, are gradually being loaded onto his website, The one that passes the Glaisdale bee bole is called “Beggar’s Bridge and Postgate to Glaisdale” and can be found on the site.

David has encountered other boles on his meanderings. “One of the best was alongside the path through the farm buildings of Nutwith Cote between Masham and Grewelthorpe,” he says, “and there was another beside the track that runs through Broad Gate Farm, half a mile south east from Westerdale, near Castleton.”

Thanks also to Peter Reynolds for his contribution, and to Caroline Hardie and Rachel Smith of the park authority

THE vicar of Danby, the Reverend JC Atkinson, researched the legend and lore of his parish to such an extent that he was awarded an honorary degree from Durham University in 1887 and in 1891 he published a book, Forty Years in a Moorland Parish.

In it, he tells of the local custom of "telling the bees”. All across Europe, it is believed that bees need to be informed of serious events in their household, particularly of the death of their master. If they find out by chance, they’ll take it as an insult and either stop making honey or simply fly off.

In some parts of Europe, the hive is lifted up and lowered back down at the moment that the beekeeper’s coffin is placed in its grave. In Danby, Atkinson told how 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 – usually in a low voice. They would also be informed of the identity of their new master.

Yes, they’d probably be all a-buzz at this news.

THE traditional domed shape of the skep gives rise to one of the most famous local logos. Paton & Baldwin was a company with roots in Yorkshire and Scotland going back 150 years when it decided to relocate to Darlington just after the Second World War.

The Paton & Baldwin beehive logo

The Paton & Baldwin beehive logo

At Lingfield Point, it built the world’s largest wool factory which, at its peak in the 1950s, employed nearly 4,000 – 75 per cent of whom were women and, one of our favourite facts, a third of all Darlington female school leavers in that decade started their working lives in the supersize factory.

John Paton, a spinner from Alloa, was one of the founders of the company and he adopted the famous beehive as his emblem in the 1780s as he discovered that the new steam-powered technology made his workers so industrious.