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“Let the Bees Tell You.” On the Holy Bible (For Beekeepers) of Buckfast Abbey

Allison LaSorda Considers the Unlikely Legacy of a Benedictine Apiarist

“There is something about bees that in all ages has taken men captive.”
–Brother Adam, Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey
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On isolated, swampy Thorah Island in Lake Simcoe, Ontario, researchers bring virgin queen bees to take their mating flights. Each year, the Honey Bee Research Centre at the University of Guelph brings Buckfast queens to this mating station, which restricts the queens’ options. Thorah Island is situated far enough from the mainland that queens can only breed with the finest male Buckfast drone (male) bees, also brought by the researchers, who express the traits they’ve selected for; here, mainland bees won’t fly over water at such a distance.

Researchers and beekeepers work intensely to maintain the Buckfast honeybee genes because the strain is valued for its gentle nature, its hardiness in challenging climates, and its ability to produce high amounts of honey. Today, the Honey Bee Research Centre follows the same breeding program to preserve the bee lines developed in the early twentieth century by a monk named Brother Adam Kehrle.

A Benedictine monk of Buckfast Abbey in England, Br. Adam studied and bred the first Buckfast bee lines around 1920, and over the course of his nearly eighty-year beekeeping career wrote three books regarded as classics on the subject: Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey, In Search of the Best Strains of Bees, and Breeding the Honeybee.

These texts remain important references for beekeepers and those interested in breeding bee species, and while they offer poetic and meticulous practical details—queen selection for optimum “fecundity,” fertilization, and pest control—Brother Adam’s writing reveals his deep admiration for honeybees, as well as the more esoteric aims and considerations in the practice of beekeeping.

Their extraordinary sense of order and precision, their ability to adapt themselves to anything and everything, their amazing versatility, these and many other characteristics provide an inexhaustible source of interest and delight for the professional bee-keeper with his 2,000 stocks as well as for the amateur with his few hives in the corner of his garden.

One of Br. Adam’s most enigmatic instructions with regard to what bees may need from those who tend to them was to “Let the bees tell you.” Still, while seemingly inscrutable, this idea holds important weight among even expert beekeepers. Many elements of beekeeping cannot be learned by text or even detailed instruction, or by applying past experience to current colonies, whose behavior is as changeable as weather patterns.

As Br. Adam’s advice suggests, it’s only with keen and patient attention that beekeepers can understand what may be happening inside a hive; and with this observation, beekeepers need to be attuned to how they contribute to, not engineer, the outcome of a colony; as he says, “not attempting the impossible of ‘mastering’ her, but rather doing all we can to serve her needs.”

Honeybees must be, in a sense, decoded. In a failing hive, many would expect the bees’ foraging to be weak or that a queen is placed into a hive with limited capacity, but Brother Adam emphasized that, all too often, it is the beekeeper who is at fault for failing to serve the bees’ needs. Certain codes exist even within the beekeeping lexicon.

In one of the more obvious instances, in the world of queen bee breeding and rearing—a competitive industry involving larvae grafting—queens are marked with a specific color for the year they’re bred. There are five queen bee marking colors that follow the recognized color sequence—as queens do not live more than a maximum of five years, the color code starts over in the sixth year. A common mnemonic to remember the colors is “Will you raise good bees” (white yellow red green blue).

Buckfast bees are treasured by commercial beekeepers and honey fanatics alike.

On beekeeping message boards one sees speculations about brood patterns, whether a colony is thriving, signs of swarming (abandoning a hive), and, if a colony dies, beekeepers perform hive “autopsies,” assessing mysteries which can largely only be identified through experience; watching and interpreting, in other words, is letting the bees tell you. “The beekeeper must,” Br. Adam writes, with his signature esteem for the insects, “at all times heed the instincts and highly developed organisation of the bees.”

Brother Adam wrote this specific advice in Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey. You may envision Br. Adam as he’s depicted in the many photos featured in this text: a seemingly gentle, gray-haired and fastidious man, dressed not in white suit or a veil, but in a monk’s dark habit—perhaps not the first visual that comes to mind with regard to honeybees and their keepers.

While the history of beekeeping is vast and worldwide, in Europe, beekeeping was taken on regularly by abbeys and monasteries during the Middle Ages; different regions established their traditional forms of housing for bee hives, or skeps, which resemble overturned baskets, some woven and others made from pottery, wood, or cork. Traditionally, skeps were used to house bees and their honeycomb, but harvesting the honey required the destruction of the colony, killing the bees.

Up to a hundred years before Brother Adam was writing, honeybee breeding was “the exclusive prerogative of nature,” and harvests were challenging. Humans, he writes, had little influence before the movable frame hive became common in the 19th century, borrowed, it’s said, from top-bar (movable honeycomb) hives in Greece, which preserve the bees. Later, the Langstroth hive—the most popular among apiarists, those recognizable, stackable boxes opened from the top—provided perfect amounts of “bee space” between frames of comb to keep both honeybees and their honey harvesting stewards’ content.

As many of us become aware of the dangers of human intervention with honeybees—relying on industrial beekeeping to support the pollination of monoculture crops, and the (likely) connected colony collapse disorder—it’s important to clarify that apiculture, like agriculture, holds much diversity and nuance. Some contemporary beekeepers support Buckfast strains of bees for the same reasons Br. Adam developed them: gentle temperament (a bonus for keepers), low swarm tendencies, and stability in unpredictable climates.

University of Guelph’s Honeybee Research Centre brings around a hundred Buckfast mating nucleus colonies to Thorah Island each year; colorful nucs piled like blocks get ferried across the water on a beater pickup truck. From this isolated place, after their lofty mating flights with Buckfast drones, mated queens are harvested on a two-week cycle. These young, fertile Buckfast queens, who will each lay thousands of eggs and populate their own Buckfast colonies, are then used to re-queen HBRC colonies or sold to beekeepers.

The careful steps involved in maintaining these lines of bees requires a commitment to Brother Adam’s breeding system, and only registered Buckfast breeders are allowed to use the term “Buckfast” when advertising colonies or queens for sale. Similarly, in Br. Adam’s pedigree bee-breeding, he isolated his colonies to ensure queens could only mate with selected drones. Buckfast Abbey was relatively close to the wilds of Dartmoor, a relatively treeless expanse utterly inhospitable to bees, which ensured that the only honeybees interbreeding would be Br. Adam’s Buckfast strain.

Honeybees provided materials that became integrated into the material life of the Catholic Church: fermented honey was used medicinally, and to make mead in areas where grapes could not be grown for wine; beeswax was highly prized for making candles for church services, as they give a purer, longer burn than typical animal tallow candles.

Further, the candles themselves were considered sacred: “The wick denoted the soul and mortality of Christ, the light the divine person of the Saviour,” writes Hilda Ransome in The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore. Apparently, beeswax candles were the preferred method for lighting in Catholic Churches, a practice which survived into the 20th century when the requirement was ended by the Pope.

The bees that survived were of Italian origin, a discrepancy that struck Br. Adam, and led him to study the importance of species and genetics in apiculture.

Aside from the practical usage of their wax and honey, beekeeping among monks and religious communities has long been seen as a meditative, even holy practice. Beekeeping was the responsibility of many monks and nuns, and some religious, like Br. Adam, held positions entirely devoted to working with the bees.

It’s not a huge leap to transpose the widely held cultural view of honeybee colonies—as intelligent, industrious, sweet, working in harmony for the “greater good”—onto religious communities like Buckfast Abbey. In Brother Adam’s writing, we find admiration for his colony’s collective work, its rituals and devotion to a higher power, and his desire to emulate it in his work at the abbey.

*

Karle Kehrle arrived at Buckfast Abbey from Germany in 1909, at just 11 years of age, to join the order, taking the name Brother Adam. Lay monks typically learned practical skills, evidently vital to Buckfast as it was still undergoing a revitalization begun in the late 19th century. As he wasn’t suited for stonemasonry, Adam started as an assistant in the apiary with Br. Columban.

At the time, the abbey kept two breeds of honeybees: the native English black bees—hardy and well suited for the unpredictable British weather—and Italian honeybees. Soon after Br. Adam joined, thirty of the Abbey’s forty-six honeybee colonies (or hives) were lost to what experts thought to be a disease caused by tracheal mites known as acarine. All of the bees that died were of the native black bee variety. The bees that survived were of Italian origin, a discrepancy that struck Br. Adam, and led him to study the importance of species and genetics in apiculture.

Upon Br. Columban’s retirement in 1919, Br. Adam took on the apiarist role and slowly rebuilt the lost colonies. His pursuit of a successful strain of honeybee came at an opportune time. As he took on the role at Buckfast Abbey, the Isle of Wight Disease, as it was then called, had brought native bees in England practically to extinction. Italian honeybees could not be managed in the same way as the indigenous variety; the beekeeping practices used elsewhere, in more temperate climates with longer flowering seasons, were unsuitable for the British Isles. Br. Adam sought to use cross-breeding between the English native black bee and the Italian honeybee to develop a new species that would be tough like the black bee, pest- and disease-resistant like the Italian bee, gentle, and, of course, an intrepid producer of honey.

Br. Adam found that providing the hybrid bees with a larger brood chamber (ample breeding space, that is), made way for bees to thrive. In undertaking this breeding of an ideal honeybee, Br. Adam looked to heterosis, also known as “hybrid vigor,” to develop the superior qualities of genetic lineages; inevitable, though, in hybridizing animals is the persistence of undesirable qualities. In honeybees, this can look like aggression (stinging), slow honey production, or weakly fertile queen lines. The resultant Buckfast bee is “more industrious, more thrifty, less disposed to swarm, more resistant to disease, particularly acarine… As for temper, she is unusually docile and will tolerate handling in unfavourable weather.”

Beekeeping among monks and religious communities has long been seen as a meditative, even holy practice.

As queen bee genetics determine generations of their own colony, breeding them was vital, and soon Br. Adam was consumed by the search for an ideal bee. Bee breeding typically requires isolation; unlike other livestock, it’s difficult to predict bee crosses, and, even more difficult to control their pairings. Queens mate while flying, and so bee breeders face the time-consuming task of ensuring queens are limited to top-choice drones.

Directed breeding looks to the best qualities in honeybees, which according to Br. Adam are: fecundity (honey-gathering and brood-rearing abilities), industry (boundless capacity to work), resistance to disease, and disinclination to swarm. He also outlines the charmingly named “qualities of indirect value,” which do not influence honey production, but facilitate the beekeeper’s tasks. These involve bees exhibiting good temper, calm behavior, and a keen sense of orientation back to their home hive (for bees that won’t drift to neighboring colonies).

“There is no perfect or ideal bee,” Br. Adam wrote, though he traveled extensively throughout the world to be sure. In his research trips he studied and sourced breeding stock for his bee program. He concentrated on countries with distinct indigenous species of bees, going chiefly to isolated rural regions where the purity of the native strains had been maintained. According to the Buckfast Abbey website, over the years, he traveled more than 100,000 miles in search of the best strains of bees, which of course he documented in In Search of the Best Strains of Bees.

In Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey, Br. Adam discusses the preferred structure of hives, apiary location (“a southerly sunny aspect and shelter from the prevailing wind”), and the aims of beekeeping itself. These aims outline objectives, as Brother Adam saw them: over years spent with apiaries and bees, the beekeeper will “gain a knowledge and insight into the mysterious ways of the honeybee, usually denied to the scientist in the laboratory.” This surrender to nature’s mystery is likely what compels readers and beekeepers alike.

Br. Adam’s ongoing acknowledgement of our inability to control honeybees is heartening, especially in the context of genetic selection. He concedes that breeding bees is a “blind-man’s game” and the honeybee will, despite genetic expectations and human interference, follow her instincts regardless of our wishes. “The tasks of the modern beekeeper might more aptly be described as a ‘service’; in fact, we are more truly servants than masters.”

While many others had bred bees before him, it is Brother Adam’s reverential, poetic writing that makes him a particularly captivating figure. Upon his death in 1996, the Washington Post called his creation “the legendary Buckfast Superbee.” Adam’s research led to a breed of honeybee which is exclusive yet popular, highly productive, and more resistant to parasites and the pervasive varroa mites that trouble beekeepers and decimate bee colonies.

It’s no surprise then, that in 1982 thieves stole two of Br. Adam’s queens from the Buckfast Abbey apiaries. They were so highly valued, police circulated a description in case anyone spotted the missing bees: “three-quarters of an inch in length, with dark brown and dark gray stripes.”

Buckfast bees are treasured by more than just thieves, though. Commercial beekeepers and honey fanatics alike love them for doing what honeybees do: visiting flowers and pollinating plants to sustain our farming and our ecosystems.

Allison LaSorda
Allison LaSorda
Allison LaSorda’s writing has recently appeared in The Malahat Review, Scientific American, Brick, Southern Humanities Review, and other venues.





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