THE MONK AND THE HONEY BEES
by Paul Jungels
(Thanks to Prof. Gabrielle Weckering for English adaptation)
“Brother Adam, a delicate young boy, whose Christian name was Carl, applied to Abbot Vonier for admission to Buckfast Abbey. The Abbot was a bit doubtful about admitting the frail-looking little fellow, but at the last moment he remembered the Abbey’s apiary. This might be just the right place for little Carl. Abbot Vonier, generally efficient in all he did, had once again made the right decision, for I know of no better beekeeper and breeder than Brother Adam. In the whole history of bee-keeping, Adam (Carl) Kehrle holds a very special place of honor.”[Armbruster, 1950]
With these words Professor Armbruster, the great visionary of German bee-keeping, began a report (in 1950) on the Buckfast apiary and the still virtually unknown Brother Adam. Today, 46 years later, there is probably not a single person who would contradict the prediction Professor Armbruster made at the time.
Carl Kehrle (Brother Adam’s civil name) was born on 3rd August 1898 in Mittelbiberach (Schwaben, Germany) as the son of the village miller. Following his mother’s express wish, as early as March 1910 he entered the Benedictine Abbey of Buckfast (in South-West England), whose inmates at the time were almost exclusively German. The young monk was just not strong enough for work on the reconstruction of the abbey, which was in process at the time. For this reason he was sent in 1915 to the Abbey’s apiary, the management of which he took over in the autumn of 1919.
Here Brother Adam was confronted with a host of problems. In the years since 1916, the « Isle-of-Wight » disease, later identified as the tracheal mite, had wiped out 90% of the bee colonies in England. The Abbey’s apiary was also affected. It had been forced to import bees, mainly from France, but also from Northern Italy. The native dark bee, the Northern variant of the Apis mellifera mellifera, had proved to be extremely vulnerable to the tracheal mite.
Brother Adam :“This race is a thing of the past. It no longer exists. It has been completely wiped out by the mite epidemic. Our tests and experiments have proved conclusively that the remains of the dark bee present in England today definitely do not stem from the old English bee, as has been conjectured from time to time, but from imports of the French variety.”
Brother Adam made a strange discovery: cross-breeding of the Italian bee and the drones of the dark local bee — and with appropriate selection their descendants also — proved to be resistant to the mites. At about the same time, Prof. Ludwig Armbruster published his « Bee-breeding Manual ». It was a book dealing mainly with the breeding possibilities of the honey bee based on Mendel’s theory.
“This book, as well as my own experience of resistance breeding against the tracheal mite, brought home to me the infinite possibilities of breeding and together they motivated me in my efforts concerning the breeding of the honey bee.”
The Development of the Buckfast Apiary
Things were not looking too good at the Abbey’s apiary. Not only the tracheal mite, but also the multitude of beehives and frames made work difficult. In 1915 they started modernization and unification to bring things in line with the usual English practice. “The most modern beehives according to the latest knowledge at the time.” A particular experience influenced not only the further development of the Abbey’s apiary, but also and even more the further apian development of the young monk Adam.
“I soon realized that you could not treat the far more fertile Italian bee in the same way as the original English dark bee. Under the suspicious eyes of my colleagues, I left two brood boxes with a total of 20 kg of honey as winter food for an especially good colony. In the following spring this colony turned out to be by far the strongest. Without any further assistance it was ready for action at the beginning of the fruit blossom season and it caused no work whatsoever throughout the summer, except for the addition of further supers, six of which were needed altogether. At the end of the apian year, this experimental colony, with all its supers towered above the bee gardens like a lighthouse.”
Until 1923, bees were kept at Buckfast, according to the latest findings, with 2 brood boxes per colony (English federation norm, British standard) and with a larger amount of winter food, mainly heather honey. It was mainly technical consideration that motivated Brother Adam to try out a new, larger frame size on an experimental basis.
“I was anxious to have a frame size and a brood box that would fill the needs of even the most fertile queen. As I in fact saw no advantage in the use of the English federation norm with 2 brood boxes per colony and the same way of operating in Langstroth norm, I decided, exclusively for technical reasons, on a Dadant-hive with 12 brood combs. I did so in spite of the warnings I had received from all sides that I would get no crops on the heath with an incubator of this size, as the bees would either convert it all into brood or, due to the late season, would store the collected honey exclusively in the brood box. As these warnings came from experienced heath beekeepers, I could not easily disregard them. Practical experience, however, soon proved these experts wrong.”
From 1925 to 1930, Brother Adam tried out his new beehives on 3 outer stands, with half of the 40 colonies in Dadant hives, and the other 20 colonies in the English federation norm. The results were so convincing that in 1930 the entire apiary, which meanwhile had grown to 320 production colonies, was changed to the new norm. These same beehives are still in operation today, after 66 years!
There is a simple wooden building at Buckfast for the daily jobs, and this is also used for storing the supers and other equipment. The workrooms for honey extraction and processing and wax extraction are particularly impressive. Everything is meticulously clean and tidy. On the ground floor, in addition to the extraction room, there is a special tiled room for processing the wax and cleaning the beehives and tools. An oil-burning stove produces the energy for all the wax processing as well as the sterilization of beehives and equipment.
In an adjoining room, a tiled trough with an electrical pumping mechanism is used to prepare the winter food. In the extraction room you also find the uncapping machine as well as a radial centrifuge extractor for 44 honeycombs. However it is known that heather honey cannot be spin-extracted. Therefore it is a honey press designed by Brother Adam himself which is the focal point of the whole installation. In this, probably unique, piece of equipment, 20 full combs at a time, after having been removed from their frames (adapted construction of frame and dividing wall) can be pressed hydraulically with a pressure of approx. 100 tons. The capacity of this honey press is over 200 tons of honey a day.
After extraction the honey runs through a filter and is pumped into the honey tanks on the floor above. All in all the Abbey disposes of 11 honey storage containers, each with a capacity of 2.5 tons. In Britain, as in all Anglo-Saxon countries, honey is sold exclusively in its liquid form. Each honey tank is therefore equipped with a heating coil, to heat the candied honey. The temperature of the water in the heating coil is regulated by a thermostat. When required, honey is filled into 1 lb. glasses by an automatic filling-machine. This impressive equipment was also designed and even built by Brother Adam himself — in many long nights of work !
All the workrooms at Buckfast make a lasting impression, everything seems well planned, worked out and co-ordinated. Obviously Brother Adam did not merely know how to handle bees, but also, and equally well, plane, hammer and chisel.
Most of the Buckfast apiaries are occupied by 20 colonies. There are always 2 colonies on a 4-footed pedestal and 2 pedestals per group of four. Each colony, at an ideal working height, has an entrance directed in a different direction. This system greatly reduces the risk of the field bees drifting, which is a prerequisite for a perfect performance test (according to Brother Adam, this applies to all races of bees, including the Carnica, of which he tested 68 breeding lines in the course of time). The flying direction does not affect the yield, as has often been supposed, but the micro-climate of the apiary certainly does. Brother Adam always considered a sheltered location very important. Each colony has its own landing ramp, by which the field bees can also reach the hive on foot, a very useful facility in the damp and windy climate of South-West England, which saves the lives of numerous field bees.
Many of the outer apiaries are equipped with a hut. Here, parts of the beehives, but especially the supers, feeders, etc., are kept away from the bees. In this way the transport problems of an apiary with many outer apiaries are minimized. All the apiaries are meticulously tidy and clean — as are the colonies.
Hygiene was always extremely important in Brother Adam’s apiaries. The floorboards are cleaned each year and the brood boxes and frames are cleaned and disinfected every 4 years.
The home apiary, occupied by 40 colonies (i.e. 10 groups of 4) is especially beautiful. In the center you have a beautifully equipped bee house for the nuclei with the breeder queens of the respective season, the « pearls » of the yield colonies of the previous year. There is a huge, man-made incubator for about 1200 queen cells. Brother Adam was also an exceptionally gifted D.I.Y. expert. This incubator is only used for special breeds. Brother Adam let his queens hatch almost exclusively in the nuclei (but more of that later). The bee house is mainly used for carrying out the extensive preparations for breeding, as an insemination laboratory and for picking.
Brother Adam was also an enthusiastic flower breeder in his early years, and in those days enormous flower beds decorated the whole home apiary. Later he had to give up this hobby. The 40 yield colonies also serve as nursing colonies for the approximately 600 young queens that are bred in June.
The climate in South-West England is extremely damp. In this area snowy winters and long hot summers are unknown. The average annual rainfall is 160 cm ! (as compared to approx. 75 cm in our own country).
“The extreme humidity as well as the chronic lack of sunshine make very special demands on our bees. A bee which is prone to tracheal mite, Nosema or paralysis cannot be kept in our climatic conditions.”
The mild winter temperatures caused by the influence of the Gulf Stream cause the bees particular problems. Colonies that have been tempted to an early breeding start can hardly be saved from death by Nosema.
The early flow serves mainly as a development flow. In recent years I was able to observe occasional rapes cultivation in England. Due to the relatively mild winter temperatures, the blossoming period is about a month earlier than in our country. A modest harvest seems possible however.
The main flow in the area around Buckfast is white clover. Following the clover flow, the bees are transported to the heath at the beginning of August. In Brother Adam’s early years, this was actually done in wheelbarrows ! However the clover fields have shrunk considerably in the last 20 years and so have the honey crops. Nor has the heather flow improved.
“Between 1920 and 1970 our average yield was about 25 kg. Since 1970 the average crop has only been about half that. There were several disastrous years, such as 1924, but from time to time there were also record crops, as in 1949. The average yield that year was over 90 kg per colony, from the heath alone 36 kg of honey.”
Brother Adam blamed the drop in crops in South-West England on the deterioration of the flow as well as on climatic changes.
“Constant cold and unusually dry conditions until the beginning of July prevent the development of white clover and heather. Since 1970 there have been 10 years when we did not move the bees to the heath because there was no hope of a crop, in the previous 50 years this only happened once.”
So, since 1930, Brother Adam kept his bees exclusively in (size 12) Dadant hives. Before moving the bees to the heath (at the beginning of August) two of the lateral honeycombs are removed from the brood box. They are broodless at the time. A partition adapts the brood box to the decreasing brood area at this time of year. The heath flow is particularly unreliable, but heather honey is very much in demand, so even a small crop is welcome. Above all, the bee colonies are supposed to collect part of their winter food themselves ! In favorable conditions (sultry, damp weather with a high soil humidity) the heath can flow with an unbelievable intensity.
“Thus, for example, in 1933 when the colonies achieved a daily increase of almost 20 lbs. between 24th and 29th August. We harvested over 100 lbs. per colony, and a further 40 to 50 lbs. were stored in the brood box for winter feeding. It was the most intensive flow I remember. Such results are based on a harmonious interaction of all production-related factors.”
The harvesting of the colonies’ production still takes place on the heath. During the loading for transport home, all the colonies are weighed. The quantity of winter food gathered by the bees plays a decisive role in Brother Adam’s evaluation of the breed.
Each colony receives — irrespective of the available quantity of heather honey — at least 7 liters of sugar solution in a relation of 3 to 2. In years when the heather flow fails completely, the bees’ food is topped up to a minimum weight. The top feeder designed by Brother Adam is the only feeding equipment used. Hibernation takes place with plenty of air influx and without insulation of the bees’ boxes.
Early in spring all unoccupied or empty lateral honeycombs are removed and the colonies are constricted (not restricted!) by partitions according to their size. The findings of the hibernation period are noted, and together with the results of the previous year they serve as a basis for stock evaluation. The general requeening of the production colonies takes place in early spring (with previously tested young queens from the mating station, but more of that later). Only about 10% of the old queens (i.e. the very best) remain in their colonies. They are kept under close observation and the chosen few will later become the stock mothers of the next generation.
The extension of the thus rejuvenated production colonies takes place in the brood box and in the super, only according to the needs of each colony, with the use of middle walls and round the edge. Only a few combs remain available for the equipment of the first super — those from which the heather honey was pressed in the previous year. The continual rejuvenation of the colonies, including the building of the honeycombs without expensive and work-intensive nuclei formation, can surely be considered the central principle of Brother Adam’s working methods. There is neither stimulative feeding nor insertion of empty honeycombs or middle walls.
On the other hand, the Buckfast colonies suffer no restrictions of any kind. Thus every queen can and must show her mettle.
“Let the bees tell you: Our beekeeping is certainly carried out intensively. In spite of this, my working methods are based on the simplest and most elementary principles and above all on the avoidance of any unnecessary disturbance of the colonies — they actually consist of loving care of the bees.”
However Brother Adam was always in touch with the development of his colonies: in Buckfast the bee colonies are intensively supervised. Outside the swarming period, the brood boxes are checked every fortnight, and during the swarming period, which falls very late at Buckfast, even every 8 to 10 days. The only swarming hindrance measure consists of breaking up the swarm cells. Brother Adam’s particularly tendency to confront the root of the problem, was logically mirrored in the special priority given to the breeding of swarm-sluggish bees.
Breeding the Queens
The breeding of queens logically takes place in the home apiary. There are plenty of strong colonies to take care of the cells as well as selected queens providers of eggs and young larvae for the breeding in the apiary hut. In any case, many visits to the breeding apiary are necessary!
Brother Adam always bred his queens in large numbers at a pre-arranged time. The mating station has a maximum capacity of 520 nuclei. It is filled all at once in about mid-June, when the climatic conditions on Dartmoor are most favorable to mating the queens.
“Any artificiality in the breeding is reprehensible, and should be carefully avoided by every breeder who values the performance, endurance and longevity of his queens.”
Accordingly the preparation of the nursing colonies begins 10 days before the commencement of breeding: a strong production colony with one or two supers, receives on top of these, over a queen excluder of course, a further brood box filled with brood combs and bees. The mating station produces plenty of very young bees. In this additional brood box the brood soon begins to hatch, and this so massively that the entire colony prepares to swarm.
Ten days after adding this additional brood box, the swarm cells are broken out of the top brood box, and the colony’s own lower brood box. The lower brood box with the queen gets a new place in the morning, and the upper, queenless brood box takes its place, as well as the bees from three open brood combs from the first brood box. In this way active nurses are plentiful and they multiply daily (hatching brood). The flying bees also remain faithful to the old place.
The only thing missing in this giant nursing colony is the queen. They all rush to the 50 queen cells which are added after 2 hours. The acceptance is 90% on average. In cases of lack of flow, 1 liter of honey solution is fed daily 2 parts honey, 1 part water. The advantage of this breeding method is that you can produce queens of the highest quality at a precise moment, independently of the weather and other external circumstances.
But not only were the nursing colonies given suitable preparation by Brother Adam, the picked larvae were also of excellent quality both genetically and physically.
“We always keep breeding queens in small colonies on about 4 Dadant combs. There are 2 reasons for this: the avoidance of the premature exhaustion of these valuable breeding creatures; as well as the conservation of eggs and larvae of great vitality. Experience has shown that this is only possible by a limitation of their laying activity. The eggs and larvae of a queen who lives in a big colony and produces several thousand eggs a day apparently lacks the vitality of material from a queen whose laying activity has been limited to a few hundred eggs a day, a fact which is really not surprising but which to this day rarely receives any attention. The same is also true for a breeding mother whose colony is quietly preparing for requeening, which clearly indicates a reduction in vitality and very disadvantageous consequences to later progeny.”
With the exception of several special breeds, where the young queens are first subjected to a visual test, Brother Adam’s young queens always hatch out in their mating units in the mating station, i.e. neither in cages nor in a man-made brood box, but under natural circumstances with bees and brood.
The Mating Station
The first breeding experiences and also the first breeding progress as far as resistance to mites was concerned were achieved in Buckfast Abbey with free-mating. From 1925 onwards the establishment of the legendary Sherberton mating station was started, in order to give the breeding work the necessary permanence. This special mating station in Dartmoor National Park developed into the focal point of later Buckfast breeding.
“Our mating station is located in the middle of the Dartmoor, 17 km from the Abbey and at a height of 400 m in a sheltered valley. It is splendidly isolated; there are no other apiaries within a distance of over 10 km. Besides the Dartmoor has the advantage for us of being almost treeless and uninhabited and so exposed and empty that no swarm can easily escape a quick death in this wilderness.”
In the mating station, which has been in continual use since 1925, all possible building methods for mating units were tried out in the beginning, but none was able to satisfy Brother Adam’s special requirements.
“My aim was a mating box which on the one hand was small enough to suppress any impulse to produce its own drone brood, but which on the other hand allowed a natural development of the young queens after their mating as well as safe hibernation and the pre-testing of the young queens under the rough conditions of Dartmoor before we entrusted the yield colonies to these young queens.”
The result at the time was a lengthwise divided 8-honeycomb Dadant box, consequently with 16 Dadant half-frames. As each compartment can be divided by a plywood partition, it can accommodate 2, 3 or 4 colonies, as required. These special mating and pre-testing boxes have been continuously in use since 1937. The fertilized young queens (about 400 out of 520, depending on the results of the mating) thus overwinter in their mating units in the mating station. The particularly good or particularly bad ones are bound to be spotted with this kind of pre-testing in small groups under identical conditions. The addition of mature queens to the production colonies in the following spring is also no problem (unlike the young queens). Besides, this pre-testing requires relatively little work, compared to the quantity and the result achieved, and, at least in good heather flow years, it also produces lower feeding costs. The great advantage of this special mating station working method of Brother Adam is still not properly appreciated today: The best pre-tested and mature (one-year-old) queens are reserved for yield-producing work, which increases profit while reducing the amount of work required with no risk of queen introduction. The entire mating station functions as an autonomous entity, which does not burden the profit-producing business!
Breeding for Resistance to Tracheal Mite
In England, shortly after the turn of the century, and because of losses caused by the tracheal mite, there were necessarily a lot of imports to Buckfast Abbey from Northern Italy and also from France. In 1919 only a fraction of the colonies survived the winter, all with descendants of an Italian queen mated with local drones. These colonies, which were highly resistant to the tracheal mite, formed the basis of the subsequent brood. A high degree of resistance of the Buckfast bee population, quite adequate for practical bee-keeping, was not achieved until about 1927, after years of severe selection and not without suffering considerable losses:
“ In South-West England, the summer of 1921 was one of the most favorable ones in this century. In the course of that summer, two sister queens which belonged to a large series, proved outstanding in their output. Consequently both were used as breeding queens the following year. The resulting stock proved extremely vulnerable to mites in one case, and extremely resistant in the other. One single case of this kind obviously does not suffice as proof of a congenital resistance,”and Brother Adam continues: “We kept experiencing odd truants in our stock. I saw the last visible case of tracheal mite disease in a Buckfast colony in 1947.”
In the mid-20s, the English Ministry of Agriculture imported queens from the USA from a stock based on the Italian bee, which is still well-known to this day. This material was put at Brother Adam’s disposal for testing purposes.
“In spite of their many qualities, these bees are not suitable for our country because of their susceptibility to the tracheal mite. They proved to be so extremely susceptible that often, in the middle of the summer and with excellent flow, strong colonies suddenly exhibited a mass crawling, which later proved to be a characteristic symptom of extreme susceptibility to mites. Over 30 years later, we decided on a further import of queens from the same stock, to find out whether the stock still suffered from the same susceptibility to mites after 30 years. The 2 queens reached us in mid-July 1958 and we added them to our apiary. Their development in the next spring was quite satisfactory and we therefore intended to use both queens for crossing purposes. However, this was never to happen: about the end of July there was suddenly a mass crawling in one of the colonies with an American queen. To make quite sure, samples were immediately sent to Rothamsted for examination: our worst fears were confirmed. All the bees were infected with mites, but there was no sign of Nosema, amoebas or other pathogens. In the second colony the epidemic only broke out in the spring, but then in its worst form. In the aforementioned July 1958 there were 48 further colonies of our own stock in the apiary, none of which showed any symptom of a mite infection. I could cite many other examples of susceptibility to mites from our experience.”
Scientifically the resistance of the Buckfast bees to the tracheal mite was often questioned, or put down to a rapid mutation in the bee population. However, the aforementioned extremely susceptible American elite stocks are among the most fertile and short-lived bee stocks. Unexpectedly, Brother Adam’s ideas about mite-resistant breeding aroused attention much later, and it was again in connection with the American stocks of the Italian bee.
Since about the mid-80s, the tracheal mite has been causing in some cases catastrophic losses in the bee population, (until then the American continent had been spared by the tracheal mite). Many beekeepers tried to fight the epidemic proportions of the tracheal mite infection with all sorts of chemical treatments. Charls P. Milne and Jan Dormaier (Washington State University, USA), Frank A. Eischen (from Texas A&M University, USA) and Gard W. Otis (University of Guelph, Canada) started an experiment in 1991, whereby queens from 2 potentially mite-resistant honey bee stocks, from Texas (Buckfast) and California were compared. The test results, which were surprising for the American scientists, completely confirmed Brother Adam’s findings in the 40s. What is more, although the Buckfast stock was already imported in 1968 and was then kept and bred until 1986 in the absence of tracheal mites, it kept its full resistance against the internal parasite. Following invitations from various institutions, Brother Adam traveled to the USA in the winter of 1990/91, at the great age of 92, to impart his experiences concerning resistance breeding to the tracheal mite.
The Later Buckfast Stock
Towards the end of the nineteen-twenties, Brother Adam met a French colleague who had not yet mastered the art of breeding queen bees. He passed his most productive swarm on to Brother Adam, so that he might breed queen bees for him. Brother Adam soon noticed that, in addition to some unattractive characteristics, these bees also exhibited various qualities which were missing in the Buckfast stock of that time. Following the encouraging results achieved with the T-mite-resistant-stock, experimental cross-breeding was started in 1930 in the newly installed mating station. After over ten years of work and very intensive selection and appropriate mating (inbreeding) over a series of generations, this new and improved strain (livelier and with more flying strength) was introduced into the Buckfast stock. The possibilities of combination breeding of honey-bees, proposed in theory by Prof. Armbruster in 1919, saw their first useful practical application in Buckfast by Brother Adam. This new progress and success in his breeding efforts led Brother Adam over the following years to the idea of progressive, systematic breeding of honey-bees in line with the newest genetic discoveries.
“It was now clear to me that only combination breeding — i.e. the union of the most important commercial characteristics of the various races and stocks — would lead to real progress in the breeding of honey bees. However, the Apis mellifera which nature has bequeathed to us, is scattered and in some cases isolated, mostly in countries bordering on the Mediterranean. Our first job, therefore, before we ventured to start combination breeding on a large scale, was to explore the breeding possibilities with which Nature had provided us in the individual races, to discover them, to test them, to assess them and then, by cross- and combination-breeding to bring together the individual bees with the best breeding qualities.”
In those days, knowledge of the various races of bees, especially as far as their morphological and physiological characteristics were concerned, was sparse and by no means reliable. It rested largely — as it still frequently does to this day — on“assumptions and speculations”. Yet an exact and comprehensive knowledge of the variations between the races is the essential basis for successful efforts to cross-breed.
The Investigation of the Races of Bees
The whole undertaking « In Search for the Best Strains of Bees » was decided on in 1948 and its provisional scope was settled. The extensive costs were mostly borne by Buckfast Abbey and the travel program envisaged was agreed on with the with the English Ministry of Agriculture. In his research journeys, Brother Adam had two aims:
Mention should also be made of the description of beekeepers, their ways of handling the bees, as well as the traditional methods of bee-keeping in the various countries, which surely also constitutes a unique document.
“I noticed from time to time that the purpose of the undertaking « The Search for the Best Strains of Bees » was misunderstood. People assumed that my search was for one specific « best bee », i.e. a race that excelled over all others in its commercial characteristic, particularly honey production. But a search with this purpose would have been a hopeless enterprise. Nature does not breed with a view to perfect commercially desirable characteristics. Her efforts tend towards the continuation and propagation of the species"
Brother Adam’s research journeys led him chiefly to the countries surrounding the Mediterranean.
France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Sicily and Germany
The purpose of this journey was to search out the possible remaining ecotypes of the dark bee which had been native to Europe since the last Ice Age,“an undertaking which proved to be too late and hopeless”. Even then Brother Adam was already advocating the creation of nature reserves to preserve the genetic variety of our honey-bees. People in France, Switzerland and Austria were of course mainly interested in the varieties of the dark, central European bee which still existed in nature, but also in the Carnica, 70 different ecotypes of which were tested in the Buckfast apiary over the years. South of the Alps, the Ligustica was researched, in Sicily the sicula, which is supposed to be a near relation of the Tunisian bees. This research journey was split into two parts (meanwhile there was urgent work to be done with his own bees), and Brother Adam decided to end it with a visit to the German institutes, who were mainly concerned at that time with changing to the Carnica bee from Austria. Brother Adam described this change by the German beekeepers as “the first step to an improved bee”. While in Germany, he also took the opportunity of making the personal acquaintance in Lindau of Prof. Dr. Armbruster, who had been « dethroned » 20 years before.
Algeria, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Greece,
Crete, Slovenia, and the Ligurian Alps
Brother Adam commenced these extensive research journeys, which led him first to the cradle of the old European bee — in North Africa — in February 1952. Afterwards he traveled to Israel, Jordan, Syria and the Lebanon, where the Syrian bee dominated. Nowadays, this race, which is very aggressive and difficult to keep in modern beehives, has mostly been replaced by other races of bees.
On May 17th he arrived in Cyprus. Brother Adam particularly valued the Cypriot bees for their unique ability to survive the winter, even in Northern countries. After two weeks of research work, he went on by ship to the South of Greece. Greek bees, distant relatives of the Carnica bees, played a decisive role in the subsequent development of the Buckfast strain.
In Crete Brother Adam was surprised to discover a native, self-contained race of bees, which had previously been unknown. “Everyone expected that the four specimen bees that Brother Adam brought back from a trip to Crete in 1952, would prove to belong to the South Grecian bees, but that was far from correct,” [Prof. Ruttner, Natural History of the Honey bee]. Prof. Ruttner, to whom Brother Adam sent specimen bees for biometrics examination, therefore called them Apis mellifera adami.
Brother Adam continued his journey through what used to be Yugoslavia, going first to Montenegro and Bosnia. There he hoped to find a more productive Carnica bee, but he was not entirely successful. In the middle of the Krain region in Slovenia, Brother Adam visited various important breeders of queen bees, whose exports at that time made « Krain-bees » world-famous. In its country of origin, the Carnica bee did not always show the reputed external uniformity on which great emphasis was laid, particularly in Germany.
“That would be a very mistaken road to take. Bees are not kept for their color, but for their productivity.”
From Krain, Brother Adam went next to the nearby Kärnten and the Steiermark and subsequently to the Ligurian Alps, where the approach of winter prevented him from completing all the work he had planned.
Yugoslavia and the North half of Turkey
as well as various Aegean Islands
Two shorter trips took Brother Adam to Yugoslavia, where a car breakdown in 1952 had forced him to leave out various areas of Montenegro, and to the North of Turkey.
Asia Minor is home not only to one race of bees, but also various mutations caused by topographical conditions and some transitions. This led to extensive and complicated research projects. Brother Adam therefore contented himself with researching only the North part of Turkey, and planned a further more extensive trip to the South of Asia Minor at a later date.
He also described the breeding of bees as carried out in various Aegean islands, such as Ios, Samos, Ikaria, where in those days traditional bee-keeping methods were still followed. However, he found no bees there which would have been of value for breeding purposes.
The Iberian Peninsula
Brother Adam arrived in the East of Spain in early September, and started his homeward journey two months later on the opposite side of the Pyrenees. In the course of this demanding trip, he covered 10,500 km by car ! From every part of the peninsula, queen bees and specimen bees were collected and these were tested in the Buckfast apiary in the following years. At the same time, as on all his other trips, Brother Adam reported in words and pictures on traditional bee-keeping methods in Spain and Portugal. Here again, however, the main purpose of the expedition was to obtain accurate information about the history and origin of the local races of bees“as well as to discover the environmental factors which had shaped and developed a particular strain of bees”.
Morocco, South Turkey, North Greece, North-East Yugoslavia (Banat),
Egypt and the Libyan desert
At the end of March Brother Adam arrived in Morocco. As on many of his other journeys, he was accompanied by native beekeepers who had met him at various bee-keeping congresses. Research into the dark North African bee was not his aim. His interest was in the Saharan bee. This unusual race of bees is found in a group of oases lying between the Atlas Mountains in the North-West and the Sahara desert in the South and East.“Paul Haccour from Sidi-Yahia du Gharb, one of the most experienced beekeepers that I ever met, proved to be an indispensable help, since he also spoke fluent Arabic, as well as having the necessary experience in contact with the Arab population.” This undertaking too proved to be an extremely hazardous and demanding exercise for all participants. A month later, Brother Adam went on to Turkey, where he thoroughly researched the Southern half of the country and then collected more queen bees for special breeding purposes in various particularly interesting areas discovered in 1952. He continued his journey through Northern Greece and into North-Eastern former Yugoslavia where the Hungarian and Romanian frontiers meet. In June he returned to England to carry out important work on his own bees. In October he flew to Egypt, where he was particularly interested in the Nile delta. beekeepers, especially those in Europe, have always been particularly interested in the native Egyptian bee. This was not because of any capability of outstanding performance, but rather because of its outward appearance, the glowing orange color in conjunction with its particularly thick hair! Brother Adam’s interest, however, was in a completely different characteristic: in various strains of the Egyptian bee, he found the only race of Apis mellifera which did not collect propolis! This was a characteristic that beekeepers value. Great efforts were therefore made in the following years to fix this characteristic in the new mixed-stock and then introduce it into the Buckfast strain.
Brother Adam did not return to Buckfast until January 1963 after visiting various state-controlled bee-breeding laboratories in the Libyan desert.
1972: Turkey, 1976: Greece, Slovenia, Morocco;
1977: Greece; 1981: the peninsula of Athos.
“The early journeys were undertaken to discover where the various races were to be found, what their characteristics were and where and how far they had spread.
In the meantime I have checked the commercial and breeding value of all these races and their ecotypes. This was a lengthy and demanding task which took years of work.”
From 1972 onwards Brother Adam undertook a further series of journeys to all those areas where his first impressions had led him to expect material of particular value for breeding purposes. Greece and Turkey in particular were researched even more intensively and valuable genetic material was sent back to Buckfast from all areas.
“At the end of this last journey I have fulfilled the aim I had in view. But our knowledge of the races of bees is still far from complete. We know hardly anything about the native bees of Iran and Afghanistan, nor have we exact information about the commercial qualities of the races of African bees South of the Sahara. While these gaps remain unfilled, all theories about the origin of the present day races of bees lack a firm foundation. With the increasing understanding of the importance of bee research and the progress of science, especially in the areas of inherited characteristics and breeding, someone else who has the necessary experience and equipment will certainly be able to carry on from where I had to stop.”
But the « last journey » does not always prove to be the last, and in 1987 the nearly 90-year old monk surprised his friends with his intention to make the acquaintance of the gentle East African Mountain bee, Apis mellifera monticola, in its native habitat. The monticola lives only in the woods on the hilltops of East Africa, at an altitude of 2,500 m. A whole group of close friends of Brother Adam, including a TV team, set out on a well-prepared expedition to the mountainous area of Tanzania. Breeding material was also successfully brought back to England, but Brother Adam himself was not able to carry out the planned breeding work.
The Breeding Results of the Journeys
Apart from the value of Brother Adam’s accounts of his journeys as scientific historical documents, and the unique preparatory work they represented for a complete encyclopaedia of bee races, his research journeys also found their application in the further development of the Buckfast bee:
Brother Adam’s Influence on Beekeepers
Brother Adam always considered his work as a service to all beekeepers. « Everyone is familiar with the guiding principle of St. Benedict — ora et labora (pray and work). But those who know his writings better will soon see that a further obligation derives from this teaching, namely that of passing on to others the experience gained in ones life and work. »
Older bee-keeping colleagues will remember, for example, Brother Adam’s lectures at the Apimondia Congresses, e.g. 1955 in Vienna, where he gave « a fascinating talk about his bee-research journeys » (quotation from Dr. Dreher). After publication in various bee-keeping magazines, a collection of the accounts of his journeys, as well as a discussion of the various races of honey bees was published as a book in German, and thus made available to a large number of beekeepers. (Brother Adam’s Search, published by C. Koch).
In the meantime, middle-European beekeepers have almost completely adopted the basic principles of Brother Adam’s procedures. All too often, however, their originator is forgotten, or simply ignored. One only needs to mention:
This important technical and breeding knowledge was consistently applied by Brother Adam from 1930 onwards and continues to be used without alteration to the present day.
The decisive impulse to a change of ideas and practice in bee-keeping — particularly in German-speaking countries — was given by Brother Adam in two lectures which showed the direction to be taken:
These two lectures also form the basis of Brother Adam’s book « Bee-Keeping at Buckfast Abbey ». In his introduction, K.A. Eickmeyer wrote in 1969: « We must be grateful that Brother Adam followed the advice of his German bee-keeping friends to publish his bee-keeping experience in book form. This step ensured the preservation of the extensive experience of this expert, and gave a new impulse to the discussion of methods used today in the German-speaking countries. Thus, although this book deals chiefly with past and present experience, it is very much oriented towards the future. »
It was only after persistent persuasion from his closest friends that Brother Adam published a comprehensive work « Breeding the Honey Bees », in 1982. In the introduction he wrote:“I realize that a large number of my explanations will be of only academic interest to many beekeepers. But every well-informed beekeeper should know the purpose of the selective breeding of honey bees. He should also know that the breeding of honey bees is a law unto itself and that we have had to cope with problems that do not arise in the breeding of animals or plants.”
The writer of these lines first met Brother Adam in Strasbourg in January 1982, on the occasion of a lecture on the subject of « The Elimination of Bee-Diseases through Breeding ». In April of the same year, Brother Adam presented his aforementioned book « Breeding the Honey Bees » in the course of the Centenary celebrations of the Kologne Bee-Breeding Association. Over 400 delegates, stars of the bee-keeping world, hobby- and professional beekeepers from all over Europe, thanked the master beekeeper in an impressive standing ovation ! In addition to regular meetings, there was an extensive exchange of correspondence, which ceased in the spring of 1996.
In April 1987, Brother Adam was also our guest in Luxembourg. The Beekeepers’ Association of Vianden organized a meeting of beekeepers during which Brother Adam answered specific question from the Luxembourg beekeepers. (Since then, he has praised the hospitality of our national airline, Luxair, because, instead of a meal, they served him on request a“double brandy of the very best French quality”.)
Anyone visiting Brother Adam in Buckfast looked in vain for a monk who was resting on his laurels. He was still working at an advanced age and he knew how to make good use of his time. His mental energy also seemed inexhaustible. Brother Adam expected only the best from himself, and from his friends and colleagues. His keen, analytical mind, combined with unfaltering diligence helped him out of almost every awkward position. His sometimes biting comments didn’t always bring him friends, but he impressed even his most determined opponents with his unfailing and genuine helpfulness and his incomparably modest manner.
In the last 15-20 years, large and small groups of beekeepers have been formed all over the world who, with gratitude and appreciation, support Brother Adam’s work in one way or another. I would like to give particular mention to two of these people, because their enthusiasm and support for Brother Adam was given at the cost of enormous personal sacrifices:
Brother Adam’s Honors
The Last Years
After his eye operation, Brother Adam recovered sufficiently to continue working for another 3 years.
“In the course of 1991, it became increasingly clear that my daily work-load was beyond my strength. The suggestion that I should merely supervise the breeding and selection work proved not to be practicable. Besides it would have put me in a position which I considered completely undesirable: namely to give the deceptive impression that the breeding work in the monastery’s apiary continued to be handled exactly as in the past. But this I could not guarantee since the true estimation of breeding potential requires a continuous observation of the bees throughout the year. Merely accepting a formal responsibility made no sense to me.”
Brother Adam finally had to give up his bee keeping after over 70 years of professional work.
In his well-earned retirement, he was still pleased to receive visitors and keep up his voluminous correspondence. After further health problems due to his age, he found the care he needed in a nearby nursing home.
In the meantime the Buckfast apiary presents itself to visitors in its continuing beauty and perfection. This continuing existence of the Buckfast apiary is entirely due to the perseverance of Brother Adam’s most faithful assistant, Peter Donovan, who has now also trained Brother Daniel in bee-keeping
The news of Brother Adam’s death soon spread in the late evening of 1st September 1996. A long and well-filled life had come to an end. Guests from many countries came to his funeral on 7th September, to pay a final tribute to the master of beekeepers. After the Requiem Mass celebrated by the Abbot, the mourners proceeded to the nearby monastery cemetery, led by the members of the Order. The passing bell tolled one stroke for every year of Brother Adam’s life, and on the 98th stroke the coffin was lowered into the grave. Sadness, but also thankfulness, was to be seen on the faces of the mourners. The finest beekeeper and breeder had left this life, but Brother Adam would live on in the bee-keeping world through the dissemination of his ideas.
snail mail: Ewicht Gaass 1A
Br. ADAM: numerous personal communications.
Prof. ARMBRUSTER: Archiv für Bienenkunde, 1950;
Br. ADAM: Meine Betriebsweise, Ehrenwirth Verlag;
Br. ADAM: Auf der Suche, C. Koch Verlag;
Br. ADAM: Züchtung der Honigbiene, (Delta) C. Koch Verlag;