Breeding Bees At Buckfast Abbey

In the first and second decade of the 1900’s, devastating losses of honey bee colonies occurred in England.  At the time, the cause was unknown but since it seemed to have started on the Isle of Wight, the disease was named for its apparent origin. Much later it was recognized that the problem was caused by the parasitic mite Acarapis woodi or tracheal mite.  A young monk working with bees at Buckfast Abbey in Devonshire, England became intrigued by the tolerance or susceptibility of different races of bees to this disease. This monk, known as Brother Adam, spent the next seventy years breeding bees with a singular devotion.

Brother Adam was able to apply the recent revelations about genetics by designing a breeding system. He recognized that because queens mate with multiple drones of unknown genetic backgrounds he would have to control the mating to achieve significant results.  Fortunately, Buckfast Abbey was relatively close to the Moors, an area where no trees grow so no bees can survive in the wild. By moving colonies to this area with the drone stock he had selected, he could ensure that the virgin queens in his nucleus colonies could only mate with his selected drones. Going one step further, he inbred the drone lines and had the drone colonies headed by sister queens. The drones produced in these colonies are therefore almost genetically identical so he could do pedigree breeding as it is practiced in mammal breeding programs. Each year one drone line was selected and multiple queen lines were mated with it. This produced a number of combinations to test each year. Pedigree breeding allowed him to keep records of all the genetic combinations from both the male and female side, similar to the family trees people use to record their ancestry.

Brother Adam’s breeding system had a three year cycle.  In the first year a minimum group of thirty queens of each combination were produced and introduced to colonies.  In the second year the mature colonies were tested and several breeder queens were selected from each group. In the third year, larvae from breeder queens were grafted to rear new queens. The drone producing colonies were re-queened in the fall if a new drone line was required the following year. Since worker bees eject drones in the fall, only drones from the new queens were present in the spring.

Brother Adam believed that managed honey bee colonies should be productive, easy to manage and pleasant to work with. His main selection criteria were therefore; low tendency of swarming, lack of aggression and calmness or what he referred to as comb stability.  He developed a simple scoring system for recording observations of these characteristics. Colonies were also required to be above average in honey production to be selected for breeding.  Because all combinations were made with only one drone line each year it was most important that the drone line have all the main characteristics consistently expressed.  He travelled extensively to search for strains of bees which had positive traits and crossed these with his stable drone lines. Some of these new combinations proved worthwhile but others were abandoned even after years of re-crossing. High swarm tendency was the hardest trait to eliminate from some strains.

Many bee breeders, especially in Europe, have adopted Brother Adam’s methods and used his stock. After seventy-eight years of beekeeping Brother Adam retired in 1990 at the age of 93 and passed away September 1st, 1996 at the age of 98. His legacy of breeding productive, gentle bees is carried on internationally by many breeders.