Traditional Beekeeping: the Bee Hotels of Switzerland and Germany

Katy Runacres
Friday, 20th September 2013

Katy Runacres is researching traditional smallholding methods in Europe. This week she has been exploring beekeeping and particularly the beautiful 'bee hotels' found in Switzerland and Germany.

Beekeeping was and still is a very important aspect of European smallholding and farming.

I have researched a number of different types of bee house and beekeeping techniques from various regions of Switzerland and also the Black Forest region of South Germany.

Beekeeping was vital for many farms and even today lots of families use the products from bees in their everyday life. Small scale farmers could use wax for candle making and the honey for eating and for making medicinal herbal medicines. Today, Switzerland still uses lots of honey in healthy food such as the traditional Bircher Muesli, invented by a doctor to improve the health of his patients. Also it is still used in main stream medicine and relaxation remedies.

In the Alpine region of the Berner Oberland, Switzerland, you will often see traditional bee hives. In the Alpine villages such as Adelboden and Frutigen up in the mountains much small scale independent farmers and smallholders have a large beehive at the bottom of their land, garden or field.

The Alpine regions tend to have a traditional design that everyone follows. It is usually a small brown shed with a painted front. The front is painted in all different bright colours and has lots of openings on the front for the bees to access the hive. Inside the beehive it is separated into sections - the main section for the bees to live and produce honey in and the quartered off part for the beekeeper to make observations and notes from. Also this area for the beekeeper is used for storage of equipment.

These type of beehives are also nicknamed 'Bee Hotels' as they can be quite elaborate with decoration on the front to make it look like a building as you will see in one picture. The bright colours on the front are thought to attract the bees as they appear like bright coloured flowers. 

Conversely, in the Black Forest area of Germany the approach to beekeeping is rather different. Farmers would work often as a cooperative and have communal beehives to use for the whole community. Honey was an expensive product that could be traded for items not available or easily produced in the region. The beehives were of a very different design, a more natural shape that imitates how bees nest in the wild. They are called straw skeps. They are straw baskets placed upside down with the entrance for the bees being a single entrance underneath the basket. They are good in that the shape allows the bees to create more natural combs. This makes happier, healthier bees but they are difficult to use. It is difficult to see inside the hive to check for any pests or diseases and is not possible to harvest honey without destroying the skep.

If you would like to discover more about different smallholding methods go to

Katy is a smallholder, blogger and cook. Katy is a member of the Suffolk and Essex Poultry Club and has a diploma in Countryside Management. 

Further resources

Apiculture and permaculture: keeping bees

Smallholding Methods Across Europe: Fruit Drying

Keeping bees in towns and cities