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 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. 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 now been adopted that befits the environmentally-aware generation of the 21st century.
It is that of gentle bee-keeping, with the emphasis shifting from commerce to community and 40 hives are today kept for research and education instead of the 400 cultivated simply for their honey. A popular feature of gentle bee-keeping is the workshops that creatively engage visitors and locals into good practice.These include art workshops, sessions for children and classes in keeping bees for beginners and improvers. The Abbey also has a community apiary where people can work together as a group with the bees if, for whatever reason, they cannot keep bees at home.

Bee Department Staff

Clare Densley has been keeping bees since 1992 and has worked at the Abbey for 10 years. She has also worked for two years as a seasonal bee inspector for Devon. "Working at the Abbey Bee department is the best job I have ever done. I'm so lucky to be able to indulge my passion for bees and get to share it with others."

Martin Hann has been working as a seasonal bee inspector for Devon and Cornwall for 3 years. We are incredibly fortunate to have Martin as part of our teaching, planning and maintenance team. His knowledge and experience complements and enriches the bee department's ethos to understand honey bee behaviour and therefore work with them as much as possible.

According to Clare Densley, the Abbey's Head Beekeeper, interest in bee-keeping is becoming fashionable.

Bee-keeping is the new yoga, really, she jokes. Everyone thinks they can save the world with bees, which is not quite true but there is that feeling about it. She adds: The main focus of our work is to promote gentle bee-keeping, working with the bees to promote better understanding of bees, and to get involved in research which helps the honey bee. It's about being respectful of the bees, not pushing them too hard, not seeing them as a commodity, working with their natural instincts and not working against them. People can get much more out of it, she continues. The more you can understand them the more you can work alongside them rather than force them into a role we predetermined for them. It's learning from the bees and enjoying the bees.

The research in which the Abbey is involved includes combatting the Varroa parasite that has done so much damage to the British bee population since it emerged in this country in 1993. The Buckfast bees are also treasured for the contribution they make to the local environment in general. Forty hives each acting as homes to up to 80,000 bees during the summer months mean there may be more than three million bees active within a three-mile radius of the abbey. They fulfil a crucial link by pollinating flowering plants that in turn produce seed, nuts, fruit and vegetables.

Bees are part of the food chain, explains Miss Densley.
If you didn't have flowering plants you wouldn't have the next stage up and the whole thing would fall apart. She adds: When you see bees working they are working for themselves, but we benefit. The honey bee in particular is valued for its flower constancy, keeping to the same species of flower during a single trip of up to 500 visits. The variety also differs from bumble bees in that it forages from early in the year and is also an enthusiastic communicator, indicating to other bees the locations of rich food sources.

The bee department at Buckfast Abbey has changed from honey production to education. For more information on the different bee keeping courses and events throughout the year, please click here.