In Search of the Perfect Bee – Part 1
By Robin Lawless
When I got the impulse to acquire a hive of bees 15 months ago, little did I realize how much I would be affected by that decision. Luckily, I attended the club’s AGM and probably learned more in that day than from a lot of the material I had read and “googled”. As a new beekeeper, there is not enough I can say about the value of the club, it’s members and especially, the mentorship programme. Without the patience of my mentor, Andrew Hamilton, I probably would have given up by now, but more on that later.
I bought my first Nuc from Colette and Rick Stushnoff and with their help and the healthy bees, I was able to build that Nuc into a very successful hive that gave me 180 pounds of honey last year. The queen was very productive, produced hygienic bees that had a real foraging zeal and were extremely easy to work. That hive is kept in my backyard and often I can work them with very little need to smoke. Last year, I only received one sting and that through my own fault. I decided then that I would like to expand by splitting my first hive this year and acquiring four more hives that I would keep on a farm just west of Regina and about three and a half kilometers from my house.
Over the winter, I read as much as I could about bees. Everything from Lawrence Connor’s books on Increase Essentials and Queen Rearing to Internet articles about diseases and treatment options and anything else I could find to help me figure out my plans for this year. In that research, I came across the studies done by a monk at St. Mary’s Abbey at Buckfast in England. As a boy of twelve, Karl Kehrle was sent from his home in Germany to the Benedictine Abbey at Buckfast by his mother, because of health issues. There he became a monk, Brother Adam, and five years later was assigned to the bee yards at the age of seventeen and stayed at the job until he retired some eighty years later. Soon after Brother Adam joined the head beekeeper, Brother Columban, thirty out of the Abbey's forty-six colonies were wiped out by a disease known as Acarine or as we know it, Tracheal Mites. 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. Not only were the Abbey’s bees affected but all the bees throughout Britain. It was a major disaster to say the least.
In 1915 there were only 16 surviving colonies in the Abbey. All of them were either pure Ligurian (Italian) or of Ligurian origin hybrid between Ligurian and English black bee Apis mellifera mellifera. Brother Adam also imported some more Italian queens.
Brother Adam moved the surviving bees to an isolated valley of Dartmoor, which became a mating station for selective breeding. With no other bees within range, he could maintain their genetic integrity and develop desirable traits.
Brother Adam investigated various honey bee races and made many long journeys in Europe, Africa and Middle-East searching for pure races and interesting local stocks. The book In Search of the Best Strains of Bee tells about his travels in search of genetic building blocks. Brother Adam imported more bees to cross with his developing Buckfast bee.
Every new strain of bees Brother Adam brought in was first crossed with the existing Buckfast Bee. In most cases, the new desired qualities were passed on to the new generation and the new combination was then made stable with further breeding work. Every crossing with a new race took about 10 years before the desired genes were fixed in the strain. Over seventy years, he managed to develop a vigorous, healthy, and fecund honeybee, which he christened the Buckfast bee.
The Buckfast contains heritage from mainly A.m. ligurica (North Italian), A.m. mellifera (English), A.m. mellifera (French), A.m. anatolica (Turkish) and A.m. cecropia (Greek). The Buckfast bee of today also contains heritage from two African rare and docile African stocks A.m. sahariensis and the A.m. monticola, but not the "Africanized" A.m. scutellata."
It took him years of breeding and experimenting and travelling the world in search of different species, but eventually he was able to come up with the consistent results he was looking for. Because of the somewhat isolated sites of the apiaries on Dartmoor, Brother Adam was able to maintain genetic integrity and develop the desirable traits he had determined.
These traits were pretty extensive and consisted of the following characteristics:
Well, when I read all that, I figured that these were the bees for me. Realizing, however, that I could not go to England and acquire some Buckfast queens, I gave up on the idea. Then, shortly after, in a recent issue of Bee Culture magazine, there was a small ad in the back for Buckfast queens from a breeder in Ontario – Ferguson Apiaries. I contacted Geoff Wilson our Provincial Apiarist to ask if I could import some Buckfast queens and he set the import protocols in motion, which included a request from me to the provincial Ag. Minister. After what seemed like a very long time, several emails back and forth to Bill Ferguson and to Geoff, and permission granted from the Ministry, everything came together.
Being new to all this, I was a bit hesitant when Bill’s wife, Rosemary, told me they would ship the queens out that night via Canada Post. If you are like me, you probably have some horror story or two about Canada Post, but the Fergusons assured me it would be okay. I expected the package to arrive in two days time, but to my surprise, I got a call the next day from Canada Post. The caller said the postman tried to deliver the package but there was no one home, so instead of leaving the bees in the back of a hot postal van, he drove the bees back to the main outlet, where they were kept in the supervisor’s office. I could pick them up anytime. I was so impressed with the driver and the postal service for their care and concern over my queens. I picked them up shortly after the call, signed for the package and then stayed answering questions from several postal workers about bees and honey and queens for a few minutes more.
I had ordered four queens from Ferguson’s; two for requeening and two from which to build Nucs. With more advice from Andrew and a bit more reading, setting up my Nuc boxes, it was time to introduce the queens. Thanks to the wet weather and humidity lately, the bees were not that happy about me pulling hives apart and searching for queens or cells. After a close check on the one hive that I assumed was queenless, I found it was. I inserted the new queen in her cage and saw that she was instantly accepted by the colony. They were all attracted to her pheromone and circled the cage. The other hive that needed a queen was a split I made from my very strong backyard hive. That cage was added in the same fashion and with the same reaction. The two Nucs were built from frames from the two stronger hives at the farm. Those queens were added in their cages after a couple of days of the bees being left queenless. The acceptance again was immediate.
That was a week ago. I checked the hives last night (July 16), and they had both eaten through the candy plugs and released their new queens. Both hives were much calmer and in a more pleasant mood. Seems they like the infusion of the Buckfast genes. Both new queens had fattened up and were busily moving around and laying eggs. The proof will be in the next six weeks when both hives will be replaced by the Buckfast stock according to studies that Bill Ferguson has made over the course of his breeding programme.
I’ll follow this up with my results and conclusions in Part Two of In Search of the Perfect Bee.
If you are interested in further information about the Buckfast Bee or Brother Adam, here are some links: Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey by Brother Adam – Northern Bee Books – ISBN 0-907908-37-3