Bee Preview #2: Brother Adam’s Bees

In my last post, I shared how I arrived at the decision to purchase fairly fancy Saskatraz bees for one of my hives. The Saskatraz strain is relatively new, so I felt it was appropriate to go with one of modern beekeeping’s older strains for my second hive. And that’s how I chose what I’m calling the Blessed Bees (heh).

More than a century ago, a young Benedictine monk at Buckfast Abbey in southern England starting helping out the older brothers in the abbey’s apiary. The monk, originally from Germany, was known as Brother Adam.

The bees kept at Buckfast at the time were either Italians or a native British strain, and soon after Brother Adam joined Team Bee, a massive die-off occurred. About 2/3 of the abbey’s hives were lost as the bees succumbed to a disease then known as acarine (today I believe it’s more commonly referred to as tracheal mite disease, which tells you all you need to know about it). All the native British bees died. Only the Italian bees made it.

In 1919, following the die-off, Brother Adam decided to selectively breed a better bee. He wanted one that not only had natural resistance to those naughty mites but also exhibited a number of other desirable traits, including producing a lot of honey and being as gentle as a venomous stinging insect can be.

Over the next seven decades or so, he traveled the world studying different bee strains, collecting different native bees and eventually becoming an international expert. He was apparently particularly drawn to isolated areas where genetically pure strains of bees were more likely to be found. As an international solo traveler who loves to be out in the middle of nowhere, I felt a kinship with Brother Adam as I read about his story.

Here’s Brother Adam, born Karl Kehrle, photographed in 1991. He looks like the sort of guy I’d like to trade travel tales with over wine. (Credit Wikimedia Commons)

For the site of his selective breeding experiments, he headed off to Dartmoor, a lonely pocket of southwestern England. Having done some memorable hiking in Dartmoor in January a few years ago, that part of the story appealed to me as well.

There, Brother Adam created the Buckfast bee, a strain of honey bee that has natural resistance to tracheal mites as well as good honey production, a gentle nature* and a low tendency to swarm.

When I saw that one of the local Wisconsin distributors had Buckfast queens available, I decided yes, my second hive this spring will be the Brother’s bees.

Of course, there are always trade-offs in the process of selective breeding, and the Buckfast is not a perfect bee.

For one thing, it’s not particularly known for resistance to that other problem mite, the Varroa. I’ve read up on some natural, toxin-free ways to prevent a Varroa mite infestation, however. If those nasty little monsters show up in either of my hives, I’ll be ready to deploy those defenses.

Buckfast bees (Credit Wikimedia Commons)

Then there is that gentle Buckfast nature…I asterisked mention of it above because, well, you may have heard of the wrongly named African killer bees. They’re more properly called Africanized bees and my understanding is that they were actually selectively bred in Brazil from both local bees and those imported from Africa, but never mind the details: The point is that some bee strains are known for being super-aggressive, and some of those strains are native to Africa.

(Sidenote: just as many dog lovers now call certain pooches “reactive” rather than “aggressive,” a lot of beekeepers prefer the term “defensive,” which I believe is more accurate, since it’s not like they’re going to sting you (and kill themselves in the process) just for fun but rather because they perceive you as a threat to the hive)

On his worldly travels, Brother Adam did collect some bees in the Sahara. He bred out any aggressive tendencies and first-generation Buckfast bees do indeed get high marks for being docile.

However, a funny thing happens in the second generation. I have read, anecdotally, that when a first-generation Buckfast queen heads off to that Great Hive In The Sky, the queen that the hive produces to replace her is a real Bee-yotch(or, more to the point, her offspring are).

The second generation Buckfast hives can be very aggressive, at least anecdotally, from what I’ve read. Also, beekeeping sites outside the U.S. seem to agree that this aggression is seen only in American Buckfasts, perhaps because American beekeepers are pushing to breed for Varroa mite resistance and creating hybrids with Africanized bees.

It’s not clear what causes the aggression, though second generation queens are less “pure” in terms of their strain because they’re the daughters of a “pure” queen who mated with whatever local rakehell was flying about. If any genetic tendency towards aggression is recessive, it’s possible that mating with a bee that also has that genetic signature is like, no pun intended, kicking a hornet’s nest. (Okay, pun intended.)

The beekeeping sites I’ve been lurking around recommend requeening a Buckfast hive whenever the old, pure queen is on her last legs. Some sites go further, saying never ever ever establish a hive with a Buckfast queen from Florida or Texas, where Africanized bees are present.

My Buckfast queen is allegedly coming from Central California, so I’m hoping that she is as sweet a bee as bees can be and passes that trait to all of her daughters. I’m also going to be wearing a bee suit, which will offer much better protection than my gaping bee jacket. As with everything else on this adventure, we’ll see.

You can read more about Brother Adam and the Buckfast bees at the abbey’s official Bee Department site.

Thanks for reading. We’ve got more than two months to go before the bees arrive, but I am working on other posts that share some of the amazing things I’ve learned about bees in the last year. And as I start accumulating hive components, tools and other gear, thanks to my supporters, I’ll be updating you on that as well.

Until then, bee well!

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4 thoughts on “Bee Preview #2: Brother Adam’s Bees

  1. Pingback: The Bees Are Coming! The Bees Are Not Coming! The Bees Are Coming! WINTER IS COMING! – The Honey Op

  2. Pingback: Bee Preview #2: Brother Adam’s Bees by The Honey Op | Beekeeping365

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