Bees – Past

Br Adam OSB

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 which Br Adam believed to be Acarine. The bees at the Abbey which died were of the native British Black bee variety. Br Adam admired their hardiness but found them to be not as easy to handle as the good-tempered Italian strain of bees. The bees which survived 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. Brother Adam's books can purchased via the bookshop.

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

Bees – Present

A new direction has been adopted by the current bee department that befits the environmentally aware generation of the 21st century.
It is that of gentle beekeeping, with the emphasis shifting from commerce to community. Around 30 colonies are nurtured today for education, research, and “wellbeing” instead of the 400 hives kept previously - mainly for honey production.

The department runs beekeeping courses, workshops, and honeybee experience days which aim to engage those who are interested in learning how to keep bees; improving the existing knowledge and skills of established beekeepers; and sharing the intricacies of life inside the hive to those who are simply curious and want to understand how bees fit into our world and what can be done to help them. They also deliver talks, either by zoom, or in person.

The bee department runs a community beekeeping project where people can get involved with working with the bees in an informal setting alongside some wildlife gardening which aims to create a natural and beneficial habitat for all pollinators.

Bee Department Staff

Clare Densley first started keeping bees in 1992 and has worked at the Abbey since 2008. She also worked for two years as a seasonal bee inspector for DEFRA.  "Working at the Abbey Bee department is the best job I have ever done. I'm lucky to be able to indulge my passion for bees and get to share it with others."

Martin Hann also worked as a seasonal bee inspector for the government for 6 years before joining the Abbey “bee team”. His knowledge and experience complement and enriches the bee department's ethos to understand honeybee behaviour and engage with the seasons as a basis for the way which they are managed. “Every year is different: our management of the bees needs to be flexible and consider the weather patterns as they occur. If we had a fixed plan, we would soon be in trouble.”

Clare and Martin agree that the main focus of the bee department is to promote gentle and intelligent beekeeping “because by improving our knowledge and understanding of how bees function: their natural rhythms, behaviours, and instincts, we will get the best from them.” 

Clare thinks that working with honeybees in this way is a great way to engage with nature. “One of the bonuses of looking through a hive is the way it can distract you from a stressful and busy life. It can be a very mindful experience which lots of visitors find calming and are surprised at how good they feel after witnessing nature so intimately. Watching a baby bee being born is amazing and I still get excited when I see it happening even after all these years as a beekeeper.”

Honeybees, alongside other pollinators, also fulfil a crucial role in the natural world by pollinating flowering plants and so facilitate the production of seeds, nuts, fruit, and vegetables. Bees are an important part of the food chain, even if you don’t like honey, and they keep plants healthy by promoting diversity and vigour! 

 For more information on the different bee keeping courses and events throughout the year, please click here.