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Buckfast Bees

A websearch on "Buckfast Bees" will give you many websites with largely the same information, including the usual "cut and paste" about Brother Adam and the history of the Buckfast bee. They virtually all mention "Isle of Wight Disease" and state it was caused by acarine. This is the old view that has been thought to be incorrect for many years, yet none I looked at acknowledged that.

Many beekeepers seem to think that Buckfast are a breed of bee, but they aren't. It is popularly seen as a hybrid, but then some sources suggest it is a "hybrid between many races". This in my book makes it a mongrel. Br Adam himself, in an article in "Bee World" in 1950 states "The Buckfast bee is a cross between the native British and the Italian bee".

Buckfast bees are very prolific and can build up into huge colonies. Br Adam designed the "Buckfast Abbey hive" that used 12 Dadant frames, instead of the normal 11 used in the Modified Dadant (MD), that has the largest conventional brood box commercially available.

My first experience of Buckfast bees was in my early beekeeping years, when one of my BKA members had 4 colonies in his garden, close to a church. He was almost a "let alone" beekeeper, as many were then, not inspecting his bees on a regular basis. His method was to requeen all his colonies in April every year with imported Buckfast queens, put supers on and leave alone, apart from when he thought there was a problem, then removed them in August to harvest the honey. When everyone else locally was averaging around 30lb of honey he was getting 100lb. The queens were raised abroad, I think in Israel at that time. Attempts were made to leave the queens for a second year, but they often swarmed and when the daughter queens started laying, the colonies often turned aggressive. This reputation is still experienced by beekeepers who have tried to breed from them. I was in a meeting when Br Adam was asked about aggression in colonies headed by daughter queens. His answer was "buy another one"! When Br Adam controlled the breeding and sale of Buckfast queens, I rarely heard a bad report all the time the original queen was in the colony, it was later when the problems occured.

I have never owned Buckfast bees myself, but I have handled what I have been told were them on many occasions. If correct, then they were very variable, both in colour and characteristics. Some queens are very light and some quite dark, with drones and workers being variable colours. This observation has been supported by some of the supplier sources. If Buckfast are a cross between two sub-species, then they are a hybrid and the resulting hybrid vigour is probably the reason for their reputation as good honey producers, but surely that is for only one generation. If the queens are replaced by the bees, then we have nothing different than the vast majority of other bees.

Since Br Adam's death, the rearing of "Buckfast" queens has been continued by beekeepers worldwide and there are those who do it using the principles set out by Br Adam. I think problems come because there is apparently no genetic definition of Buckfast, even Br Adam kept changing it. I have no doubt there are good, reliable suppliers, but there may be opportunities for those who may be less careful, perhaps causing concern amongst genuine breeders.

I was once invited to an apiary to "see my new Buckfasts", that were apparently bought from one of the lesser known suppliers. There were four of them and they were as variable, if not more so, than many bees I have seen from beekeepers who take in swarms. The colour of queens, drones and workers varied considerably and so did their temper! I don't know where they came from, but I would have culled them all - and quickly. The earlier Buckfast I mentioned were very different from many of the Buckfast I see today. The queens abdominal segments were a sort of light tan colour, with the last two segments dark. The workers were consistent in colour, which many modern ones aren't. It is interesting that Buckfast Abbey no longer keep Buckfast bees, they use locally dapted mongrels.

Despite what is sometimes said about breeding from Buckfast, I believe that to avoid some of the problems I have seen, you should replace queens regularly from a reliable breeder. This of course adds to the cost of beekeeping and takes away one of the major joys - queen rearing.

A rather amusing story I have is I gave a lecture on "Bee Improvement" to quite a large audience. At question time, an attendee, who happened to be the county education officer, said they had "native" bees. I was a bit suspicious, so I asked where they came from. I was told "they are Buckfast and they come from Devon, don't they?"!

Roger Patterson.

Page created 26/09/2015

Page updated 01/12/2022