Brother Adam and
His Buckfast Bee

From the American Bee Journal ,
123(2), 1983, p 85-88
[Back to Biblio]
[Traduction franšaise]
Article by Erik ÖSTERLUND,
PI 5062 B S-69400 Hallsberg (Sweden)
With his permission

Brother Adam wants to combine the best qualities from different races into a new bee, a combination race, in order to bring about a super bee that gives a maximum crop with a minimum of work.


Brother Adam has devoted a lifetime, nearly 70 years, to developing a new bee, the Buckfast bee.  He was born Aug.  3.  1898 in southern Germany under the name of Karl Kehrle.  As a 12-year-old boy he arrived in 1910 at Buckfast Abbey, the Benedictine monastery in Devon, England for the purpose to devoting himself to life as a monk.  In 1915 he began his work with the bees and in 1919 he took over the responsibility for the bee yard.

Brother Adam has in his book Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey, page 52, formulated his aim of breeding as follows  : "Our ultimate aim is the formation of a bee that will give us a constant maximum average crop consonant with a minimum of effort and time on our part."

Brother Adam's overriding idea of breeding is that none of the native races alone have all the best possible combinations of qualities to suit man.  But just like the corn breeding program, like crosses followed by selection can give us better bees.  Brother Adam wants to combine the best qualities from different races into a new super bee possessing a combination of qualities that give the modern beekeeper maximum crops with a minimum of work.

When the Acarine mite came to the British Isles, it exterminated the native black bees.  Thirty of the monastery's 46 colonies died in 1915/16 due to the mite infestation (the black bees in England today are descendants from imported black bees).  The surviving 16 colonies were all headed by Italian queens mated with native black drones.  The best of these crosses formed the base of Brother Adam's new bee.

Today there are 320 honey-producing colonies at Buckfast Abbey and 520 mating nuclei; the latter on four combs measuring 81/4" in width x 111/4" deep (210x286 mm).  About 350 of these nuclei are usually wintered and the young queens used for requeening the honey-producing colonies in the following spring.

Four to six colonies headed by a sister group are placed on the mating location in Dartmoor for the purpose of drone production.  They have two-thirds of one frame (Modified Dadant) each of drone comb.  Artificial insemination is used for the crossing experiments.

Brother Adam's breeding work consists of two main groups.  The first includes his original strains, the Buckfast bee.  The second one is formed from his experimental crosses between other races and the Buckfast bee, and their developing generations.  The development of a new crossing into a line that will show a reasonable genetic stability takes at least seven years.  Then, one has only the desirable qualities left from the foreign race in the new combination.  In his original strains, he has only inserted traits from two other races, according to his new book, Züchtung der Honigbiene, Delta-Verlag, Bonn, West-Germany.  About 1940 a developed combination with the black French bee, and about 1960 one with a Greek (Carniolan type) bee, was used in inserting traits from these races.  In Sweden we also have Buckfast strains which originate from colonies that Brother Adam says belong to strains that have traits from Saharian and Anatolian bees.  A third group in Brother Adam's breeding work would consist of strains formed of the developed combinations between other races and the Buckfast bee which have not given traits to his original strains.

An example of an important selection procedure is the following, told by Ülf Gröhn from Sweden who has visited Brother Adam many times and has extensive correspondence with him  :

"In his experimental crossings Brother Adam makes a rigorous selection from among the emerging queens, partly in favor of the leather brown and the somewhat darker colors.  According to his findings the very light-colored bees are highly susceptible to the Acarine mite.  Only 20 per cent of the emerging queens are left for the mating nuclei.  Half of these queens are eliminated after the first young bees have emerged.  The rest are wintered in nuclei and tested in honey-producing colonies next summer."

"In the development of his regular strains (other than experimental), Brother Adam has used different ways of selecting the breeders.  One method that has played an important role is the testing of daughter groups.  He one year obtained about 30 daughters each from 15 breeders.  The poorer half of these daughters were given away in autumn (even if they were the poorer half, they were good).  The rest were wintered either on four or eight half-size Modified Dadant combs."

Eight such frames on which the new queens are wintered correspond to almost five Langstroth frames.  The bees have to make it through the winter with heather honey which they have gathered themselves and sometimes a small amount of sugar.  The winters on Dartmoor, where the mating station is situated, are severe and the temperature does not exceed 50░F (10░C) from mid-October to mid-March.  So, no cleansing flights are possible over a period of about five months duration.  Early in March the consumption of stores by weight is ascertained and the relative loss between the different lines and crosses evaluated and thereafter their various characteristics of economic value.

All colonies are requeened every year except colonies headed by breeders.  Most of the new wintered queens are used for March requeening.  Brother Adam distributes a like number of the new queens from each breeder in his different bee yards in order to make as fair a comparison and selection as possible.  The best of these evaluated queens and their mothers can be used for future breeding work.

Brother Adam does not name the queens after the strains to which they belong; they just get the number of the hive.  But every queen, worker and drone at Buckfast Abbey has a known descent (and for his original strains a recorded pedigree going back over a period of more than fifty years), both on the maternal and paternal side.

The strains of the Buckfast bee are not as varied as is normally the case for different commercial strains.  And, they are not inbred for forming multiple hybrids.

It is this hard selection, together with the use of qualities from different races, that is making the Buckfast bee so successful.

One of the first countries to import the Buckfast bee was the United States.  Now it is also used regularly in Australia, Belgium, Burma, Denmark, Holland, France, Israel, Northern Ireland, Sweden and West Germany.  In Sweden the first Buckfast queens were imported from the one breeder in the United States.  Many beekeepers found them so good that they wanted to start their own breeding program.  They began developing isolation areas.  The beekeepers in these areas agreed to keep only Buckfast bees to make it easier to get Buckfast-mated queens.  They also started a rigorous selection program from among their U.S. Buckfast queens and their daughters.  But, it was not easy due to the heterogeneity of the daughters.  This could have been due to a probable use of a crossing generation, totally in line with Brother Adam's view that the Buckfast bee gives the best result when crossed (like any other bee).

In the late 1960's a man named Ülf Gröhn visited Buckfast Abbey in southern England for the first time.  This was the beginning of his friendship with Brother Adam and of his great interest in the Buckfast bee.  Without Ülf Gröhn the work with the Buckfast bee would not be as successful as it is today in Sweden.

Ülf Gröhn is a newly elected member of the board of the Swedish Beekeeping Association (SBR, Sveriges Biodlares Riksförbund) and president of the beekeeping association in the county where he lives.  He is deeply involved in the planning of the breeding work with the Buckfast bee.

We do not have the Acarine or Varroa mites in Sweden.  Therefore, it is now against the law to import living bees from countries with these mites.  Because of this, Gröhn only imports from England, which has the Acarine but not the Varroa, pieces of combs with old eggs and young larvae wrapped in plastic bags.  He keeps them cool until he comes to Sweden (It is desiccation that is the great danger for the young larvae).  In Sweden they are immediately cared for by broodless and queenless nucs before grafting.

In Sweden we have two mating stations on isolated islands with Buckfast bees under the control of the Swedish Beekeeping Association (SBR), at least one private island for the same purpose and many private isolated mating places on the mainland.  Several areas are one-race areas with only Buckfast bees.  Artificial insemination is also used.

The breeding material we obtain from Buckfast Abbey is formed into what we call strains.  Strain 427 for example is formed from the offspring of a queen that has been heading the colony in hive number 427 at Buckfast Abbey.  The virgin queens raised from the eggs from England are mated on our mating stations.  Next year the best of them are placed on the islands as drone-producers.  From all over Sweden breeders are sending their virgin queens for the purpose of mating with these excellent drones.  Both first and second inbreeding generations as well as strain crossings are made.  For every mated and laying queen, we pay a royalty to Buckfast Abbey.  In 1982 we had a very good strain combination of our own, and it will be used in 1983 on one of our islands.  The colony (427/441 x 391) which now gives the drone-producing daughters made a honey crop of 348 pounds (158 kg) in 1982.

We now have seven strains on the mating islands.  One excellent strain originates from hive 391, 1979/80 at Buckfast Abbey.  The above-mentioned colony which has produced 348 pounds (158 kg) is headed by a queen mated with 391 drones.  At the bee yard, to which this colony belongs, the colonies with at least 50 per cent of 391 heritage gave a 296 pounds (134 kg) honey average with 413 pounds (187 kg) as the top result.  One should perhaps mention that the bee yard is placed where there is plenty of nectar the whole summer.  The average honey crop for the whole of Sweden is just below 66 pounds (30 kg).  High-producing areas are often located on the border between "wild" and cultivated areas which can give nectar most often from maple, dandelion, fruit-trees, raspberry, dutch clover, alsike and red clover, rape-seed, linden, fireweed and heather.

The fact should be emphasized that Buckfast bees never primarily are bred for color.  This results in a rather broad variation in color both between the different strains and in a certain strain.  But usually the queens are banded, with the yellow being a leather brown color.  The workers often have one or two and sometimes three yellow bands and they are mostly gray-haired.  The drones are the most stable in color.  They are dark with two bronze bands, and in some strains only a small tendency to the bronze bands can be seen.  The size of the queen varies from very big (391) to small (441).

The seven strains in Sweden are, the following  : 285 - 1975 to Sweden, relatively light-colored, high producing, very early spring development, the mother colony belonging to a Saharan type of strain by Brother Adam; 366 - 1975 to Sweden, relatively light-colored, high-producing (A beekeeper some 5 miles from me got 364 pounds (165 kg) from a colony of this strain with an average of 265 pounds from the sisters in 1982); 424 - 1975 to Sweden, dark colored, widely distributed in Sweden, the mother colony belonging to an Anatolian type of strain; 344 - 1976 to Sweden, relatively light-colored; 441 - 1979 to Sweden, dark colored, the workers are excellent cleaners and long-lived; 427 - 1980 to Sweden, dark colored, a most excellent pollen gatherer (all Buckfasts are very good pollen gatherers) and 391 - 1980 to Sweden, relatively light-colored, high-producing, very, very gentle.

All Buckfasts are normally very gentle.  And, the fact that has surprised - and pleased - so many beekeepers in Sweden is that they are gentle any time of the day, also in the late evening and in any weather.

A 150-colony control beekeeper (he gets queens from different breeders for the purpose of testing) in Sweden, Gunnar Henningsson, says that compared to Italians, Buckfasts have more good qualities assembled in each colony.  Beekeeper experience in Sweden indicates that Buckfasts are more hardy, more uniform in quality, more productive, have a better disposition and a lower swarming tendency.

The Italians are not so hardy and are less uniform in other qualities.  But, in good weather in a high nectar producing area, they can be very good.

The Carniolans are hardy and usually have a very good temper.  But, their egg-laying is more dependent on pollen availability.

The native black bee is hardy, but often is aggressive and tends to swarm.  This aggressiveness creates problems in Sweden during natural queen matings since these drones are often the most probable candidates to mate with free-flying queens.

Beekeeper experience in Sweden indicates that Buckfast drones bring about better honey production when crossed with other races than other drones do.  The best crossing seems to be one with 75 per cent Buckfast heritage (a crossing followed by a recrossing to Buckfast drones).

The pure Buckfast bee has shown itself to be so productive today that I doubt that it would pay for me to cross it to get still higher yields.  The few extra pounds of honey I would eventually get are not worth the unreliable uniformity of the descendants, which can mean a lower average crop and further selection work from the beginning to get genetic stability.  But for a large commercial breeder, I believe it is economically practical to experiment with crosses and then incorporate them in regular strains like Brother Adam does.

From the American Bee Journal ,
123(2), 1983, p 85-88
[Back to Biblio] Article by Erik ÖSTERLUND,
PI 5062 B S-69400 Hallsberg (Sweden)
With his permission