In common with other monasteries of the medieval period, it is likely that bees were kept at Buckfast in those days, though we have no records to prove it. Monasteries often kept bees as a valuable source of sugar and also wax for making candles.
What we do know is that, from soon after the re-foundation of the monastery in 1882, bees have been kept at the Abbey. Two monks who were involved, and contributed to the beekeeping journals of the time, were Fr. Maurus Masse and Br. Columban Wanner.
Early in the twentieth century, one of the youngsters who came to Buckfast from Germany with a view to joining the community was assigned to assist Br. Columban. This was Br. Adam Kehrle. He began helping Br. Columban at the tender age of twelve, but he was destined to continue working with the bees for over seventy eight years and to become an international authority in the field.
Soon after Br. Adam joined Brother Columban, thirty out of the Abbey's forty-six colonies were wiped out by a disease known as Acarine. All of the bees that died were of the native British black bee variety. This bee was renowned for being hardy, but somewhat ill-tempered. The bees that survived the outbreak were all of Italian origin.
In 1919, after Brother Columban retired, Brother Adam was put in charge of the bees, and he set about rebuilding the colonies. His intention was to use cross-breeding to develop a new bee which would be hardy like the black bee, but disease-resistant like the Italian bee, and a good honey producer.
Brother Adam made extensive journeys all over the world to get breeding stock. He concentrated on countries with a distinct indigenous race of bees, going chiefly to isolated country regions where the purity of the native strains had been maintained. He even went to the Sahara. Over the years, he travelled more than 100,000 miles in search of bees.
The result of all these travels, as well as many years of patient experiment at the breeding station on Dartmoor, was the Buckfast Bee™. This bee is a good pollen gatherer, and is normally gentle. It also has a lower tendency to swarm than many other varieties, and is resistant to Acarine
Buckfast queens are now kept by beekeepers all over the world. Brother Adam wrote three books about the Buckfast Bee™, including "In Search of the Best Strains of Bees" (1983), and "Beekeeping at Buckfast" (1975). In 1974, he was awarded the O.B.E. for his work.
Br. Adam resigned from the Bee Department at the age of 93. He died in 1996 in his 99th year.
The Buckfast apiaries continue to thrive today. Until recently they were under the management of Dr. Dhafer Behnam. He came from Iraq and brought the experience he gained from running and breeding a large number of colonies in Baghdad. Besides his academic knowledge in natural science with a degree in medicine and specialization in skin diseases, he was also trained in Germany to manage honeybee pathology. His experience was boosted when he worked as a consultant for the FAO and WFP of the United Nations.
In 2010 the emphasis of the Buckfast Bee Department switched to education, particularly on teaching beekeepers and running courses for those who wish to start beekeeping or learn about bees. A Community Apiary scheme has been developed with the intention of opening up beekeeping to all. For more information please email firstname.lastname@example.org
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