Baroness Othindisa Bykona

Baroness Othindisa Bykona, photo by Erica Holcomb

Baroness Othindisa Bykona of the Barony of Delftwood will be answering a Writ of Summons from Their Majesties, King Titus and Queen Anna Leigh, to be elevated to the Order of the Laurel at the Feast of the Seven Deadly Sins on February 7th in Delftwood. The Æthelmearc Gazette recently caught up with Baroness Othindisa to talk about her SCA career and her unusual art of beekeeping.

Othindisa’s SCA Career

Baroness Othindisa Bykona joined the SCA 19 years ago in Thescorre. She had been visiting the nearby Renaissance Faire since she was 16, but when she was 20 a couple of friends introduced her to the SCA. She enjoyed the ability to play with lots of time periods, create clothing, and have the greater interaction with other participants that the SCA offered; the camaraderie of the SCA especially appealed to her. After four years in Thescorre, she lived in the Rhydderich Hael for a year and a half, and then in 2002 moved to Delftwood where she has been ever since.

Her Excellency’s persona is Scandinavian during the Viking age, but of no specific place. Her original SCA name was Olivia d’Anjou, but after a while she realized she wasn’t really wearing French clothing or relating to the French persona. She became interested in Viking clothing and embroidery, and began researching the attire of medieval Scandinavians including shoes, jewelry, and “all the shiny things,” so a few years ago it was a natural decision to switch personas and become Othindisa.

Baroness Othindisa’s primary mentors in the Society have been Master Fridrikr Tomasson av Knusslig Hamn and Mistress Orianna Fridrikskona. She was Master Fridrikr’s protégé until he was elevated to the Laurel in A.S. XLVII, then traded her yellow belt for apprentice green. She says Fridrikr and Orianna introduced her to a lot of people throughout the SCA, which opened up many avenues for her to learn new things and helped her to gain a better perspective on how the SCA works at the Kingdom level.

Posament (woven wire) trim on a garment from the Birka gravesite

Posament on a garment from the Birka gravesite

In addition to beekeeping, Her Excellency enjoys cooking and making Viking-style clothing. Her next costuming challenge will be making posament, or flat wire-weaving designs that were used as trim on clothing.

Getting Started in Beekeeping

Baroness Othindisa first learned about beekeeping when she was 9. Her mother took her and her sister to visit an 80-year-old woman who had a beekeeping store. Othindisa was hooked then, but didn’t get the opportunity to try beekeeping herself until 2007. Researching modern beekeeping inspired her to move to medieval beekeeping, especially since it meshed well with her other main SCA interest, cooking.

Researching medieval beekeeping has been challenging for a variety of reasons. To the best of Her Excellency’s knowledge, there are few people seriously researching it in the Society, and only a couple of other people in Æthelmearc who have kept bees. Few primary sources from the Middle Ages are available, and those books as well as many of the modern ones on the topic are written in languages she does not speak or read, like German and Italian, so translating has been a challenge. On the other hand, the tradition of beekeeping has been passed down in Europe without much change since medieval times, so some of those modern resources have served her well. In her research she’s learned some surprising and interesting things, like the fact that our ancestors thought that the Queen bee was male, calling her a King.

A few years back, Othindisa kept an apiary (a group of beehives) for two years. When asked what she learned from the experience, she laughed and said it mostly taught her what not to do. Beekeeping can be a trial and error process, like gardening. She hasn’t been able to overwinter a hive yet, but she did harvest about 50 lbs. of honey over those two years.

Scale model of a skep made by Othindisa

Another challenge to beekeeping in the context of the SCA is that it’s a non-portable hobby. Since she can’t bring the bees to events, she’s been talking about beekeeping, writing papers on the subject, entering projects like the scale model of a skep (medieval hive) shown here in Ice Dragon, and teaching a class on skep-making. Othindisa would like to spend a long weekend event just building a skep and encouraging others to ask questions and participate in the project.

Building a Skep

Skep from the Luttrell Psalter, 1325-1335 English

A skep from the Luttrell Psalter, 1325-1335 English

So, what is a skep? Her Excellency explained that it’s a type of medieval beehive in the form of an inverted basket made of wicker or coiled straw. Making a skep begins with straw or grasses that are soaked in water to make them pliable, then wound into coils. A tool called a “girth,” typically made of leather or cow horn, is used to keep the coils a consistent thickness. A bone or metal awl was then used to make holes in the straw coils to insert the binding cane, usually made from a vine like blackberry or bramble. Once the basket shape is complete, you cut a flight hole into the bottom so the bees can get in and out.

Other types of beehives used in the Middle Ages were made from logs, cork, or wooden boxes.

Upcoming Beekeeping Projects

Her Excellency has a new beekeeping project in the works. A group of investors are helping to fund ten new hives and the bees to fill them, which she will set up this spring on land volunteered by one of her investors. She plans to post photos and video of her beekeeping efforts on her blog at and also on her Facebook page at AEBeeLady, so others can follow her progress with this new apiary.

Wood hives and skeps in the same apiary, from the  Manuscrit enluminé par le Maître des Vitae Imperatorum (actif 1430 – 1450), miniatures qui illustrent le manuscrit du même nom de Suétone (Paris, B. N., ms. it. 131), 1431.

Wood hives and skeps in the same apiary, from the Manuscrit enluminé par le Maître des Vitae Imperatorum (actif 1430 – 1450), miniatures qui illustrent le manuscrit du même nom de Suétone (Paris, B. N., ms. it. 131), 1431.

Top bar hive

Top bar hive

Unfortunately, there are limits to the authenticity with which Baroness Othindisa can keep her hives. Skeps are illegal in the United States because they don’t allow the keeper to open the hive to check for lice or other pests. Instead of skeps, she will be building top-bar hives, which are the closest she can legally come to medieval hives. Top-bar hives have bars that the bees build their comb on. Unlike a Langstroth hive, the bees are not given a wax foundation sheet to build on. This allows the bees to build combs as nature intended. A lid is placed over the hive to protect it from the weather.

The Future of Beekeeping

Top bar hive 1Another reason Othindisa likes beekeeping is that it’s so important to our ecology. As many people know, in the modern beekeeping world, Colony Collapse Disorder is causing massive numbers of bees to die. Scientists are still sorting out the causes for Colony Collapse, but Her Excellency did a research paper on the topic for her college degree and has concluded that much of the problem can be blamed on the use of pesticides on the crops that the bees pollinate. Also, in commercial beekeeping, hives are trucked from farm to farm as different crops come into flower. Since most farms only grow one type of crop, the bees are only getting nectar from one kind of flower at a time, so they are not getting a balanced diet. Finally, all that transporting from place to place puts stress on the bees.

Othindisa points out that we need bees to pollinate our food crops. We depend on them, so she’s happy to be able to help maintain healthy bee colonies and contribute to sustaining bees for future generations.

On Becoming a Laurel

Laurel badgeHer Excellency is very much looking forward to her vigil, where she expects to receive a lot of helpful advice and learn more about how the Laurels of Æthelmearc see their role in the Society. For her elevation ceremony, she says Meisterin Felicitas Flußmüllnerin is making her a Viking-style Skjoldehamn hood with a coronet and Laurel wreaths embroidered on it, and Baron Artemis Andreas Magnus is casting a Laurel wreath with bees floating in it for her. She is also embroidering bees on a new Viking apron dress that she will wear that day.

When asked how she thinks becoming a Laurel may change things for her, she says she mostly hopes to keep doing what she has been doing and share what she learns, especially with her new hive project. She plans to make a full-sized skep along with the period tools for building skeps. She also intends to videotape herself harvesting honey from the hives in garb, and bring the video to events as well as post it on her blog. Mostly, she wants to inspire others to become beekeepers, help a beekeeper, or be aware of the importance of honeybees both in the Middle Ages and today. She also intends to inspire people in the arts and sciences in general.

Glossary of Beekeeping Terms from Baroness Othindisa’s blog:

Awl: Tool used to thread bramble binding between the layers of straw coils of a skep.
Backyard Beekeeper/Beekeeping: Small scale beekeeping to provide a relatively small amount of the honey. Also a good way to pollinate gardens.
Bramble Binding: Long strips of prepared blackberry stems used to bind the straw together to create a skep.
Cleave: A wood instrument used to strip blackberry stems to create bramble binding.
Cloaming: The process of adding cow or horse dung mixed with mud to the outside of the skep to create a barrier to weather.
Gart: A metal hoop placed over the hackle to keep it in place on the skep.
Hackle: A “tent” made of long straw placed over the skep to help protect it from weather.
Honey Flow: The times of the year when nectar is plentiful.
Langstroth hive: A set of vertical boxes with moveable frames for bees to draw comb on that form the beehive. Also referred to as a ‘Lang’.
Propolis: Compound created by bee enzymes and tree sap or resins. Used to seal gaps in the hive, reduce entrances, and strength honeycomb.
Skep: An inverted basket made of wicker or coiled straw used in beekeeping for housing bees.
Top Bar Hive (TBH): A horizontal box hive with a series of parallel and touching bars that form the hive body.

– Submitted by Mistress Arianna of Wynthrope