People don’t usually think of honey bee breeding programs, but you might be surprised to learn that some subspecies are the result of years-long selective breeding.
Beekeepers look for certain traits that make hive management easier. Of course, they also prefer honey bees that make a lot of honey.
The Buckfast bee is one of the best-known and intentionally bred honey bees. This subspecies has a long history from where they began to where they are now.
Learn all about the fascinating characteristics of these bees, why beekeepers love them, and how they came to be.
What Makes the Buckfast Bee Unique?
Like other breeding program honey bees, the Buckfast bee started out as a cross between numerous subspecies. They are ultimately a subspecies of the Western honey bee, Apis mellifaris.
A well-known beekeeper named Brother Adam is responsible for the development of this breed and carefully refined it over many years.
As a result, the evolution of the Buckfast bee is very well documented. Beekeepers can follow their pedigree back to the very beginning.
Buckfast Bee Origins
The Buckfast bee’s story began at Buckfast Abbey located in Devon, England, where they get their name.
Honeybees were famously raised at the abbey by Brother Adam. The abbey only had 16 colonies left in 1916 that were either Italian honey bees or Italian hybrids. This was the result of disease wiping out their other hives, and he knew improvements had to be made to save the apiary.
Brother Adam brought in more Italian queens and began breeding what would eventually become the Buckfast bee. He carefully studied their behavior to understand what they were doing well and what needed to be improved upon.
He was able to keep his bees from breeding with outside colonies by raising his hives in an isolated valley in Dartmoor. No other colonies were close enough to mate with his queens, so he could maintain and shape their genetics without his queens unintentionally breeding with outside drones.
Brother Adam was mainly interested in the hardiness of Italian bees combined with dark bee crosses. He already liked the Italian honey bees for several reasons but was interested in filling in any perceived gaps.
To find new genetics to improve on what he already had, Brother Adam traveled through the Middle East, Europe, and Africa to find other subspecies he liked. He was able to study the traits of these other breeds to determine which ones could make meaningful contributions to his program.
All told, it took him 70 years to end up with the Buckfast bee, and eventually, the Buckfast bee breeding program attracted other beekeepers in 1971.
Status of Buckfast Bees Today
Currently, this subspecies is bred in over 26 countries by approved breeders who are part of the Federation of European Buckfast Beekeepers, or GDEB (The organization’s name is originally in German, hence the abbreviation: Gemeinschaft der Europaischen Buckfastimker). This is all thanks to the diligent work of Brother Adam in improving the breed and setting out guidelines for its future.
Buckfast bees also offer “hybrid vigor” when crossed with other breeds outside the breeding program. They are well known for helping to improve colonies that are crossed with Buckfast genetics.
Breeds Included in the Buckfast Pedigree
Many different subspecies contributed to the lineage of Buckfast bees, though not all were ultimately accepted into the approved breeding program.
Over the seven decades it took to fully develop this breed, there was a lot of trial and error to get all the desired traits just right. Even those that were ultimately not part of the approved program were still important in helping him determine exactly what he wanted and how to get it.
Subspecies that were at some point involved in creating this breed include:
- Italian honey bees and related strains
- French, Swedish, and Finnish strains
- Turkish and Armenian strains
- Iraqi and Iranian strains
Several other breeds were part of the process as well, but these were the most significant ones that Brother Adam used in his program.
Buckfast Bee Breeding Program Characteristics
The Buckfast bee was intentionally crafted over time for very specific traits.
Brother Adam wanted to breed the perfect bee for productivity, hardiness, disease resistance, strong queens, and many others that he found desirable.
He divided these traits into three groups based on their importance.
These are the most basic characteristics and central focus of the Buckfast breeding program. They provide the foundation for a breed of honey bee that is pleasant to work with and displays certain behaviors that lead to increased honey production.
Primary traits of Buckfast bees are the desire to forage, disease resistance, likelihood of swarming, and fecundity.
The desire for bees to forage means that they are motivated to get out and find pollen and nectar. This is necessary both to feed the hive and make enough honey for the beekeeper to harvest.
Disease resistance is crucial, as there are several diseases that can easily wipe out entire colonies. Breeders have continued to work on improving them to be completely resistant to varroa mites, which are currently a major issue for modern-day beekeepers.
Buckfast bees are unlikely to swarm, so beekeepers are less likely to have to intervene to prevent swarming.
The last primary trait is fecundity, or the queen’s ability to fill a certain number of frames with brood.
Secondary characteristics relate to how productive the hives are in making honey. These traits outlined by Brother Adam are hardiness, adaptability, and industriousness.
Strong, hardy bees are able to fly further and have a strong sense of smell to seek out flowers. They also have a longer lifespan and can tolerate colder weather, so they are more likely to survive through winters where temperatures drop. Strong bees can also defend their hive more effectively against robbing from other hives or wasps.
Adaptable bees are more frugal with resources when needed. They can regulate brood appropriately depending on current conditions without raising more bees than they can feed. They’re also ready for spring growth without starting too early in the season, so they’re adequately prepared for the nectar flow with the right timing.
Finally, Buckfast bees are industrious. They’re skilled at gathering quality pollen, and they’re motivated to build out comb for food storage and brood.
These traits are selected to make Buckfast bees easier for beekeepers to manage during inspections. Tertiary characteristics are temperament, orientation, and hive-building techniques.
Temperament is the most important for beekeepers. This breed is known to remain calm when the hive is being manipulated, and they aren’t aggressive toward their beekeepers.
Well-oriented bees will return to their own hive easily without drifting and ending up joining another colony. This is especially important for queens returning from their mating flights, helping ensure they end up back where they should.
Proper building techniques are another important aspect of hive inspections.
Buckfast bees don’t make excess propolis, which makes inspections easier as the boxes aren’t so tightly glued together by the bees. They’re less likely to construct “brace comb”, or extra comb built in places that can result in killing the queen accidentally.
This breed is known for their beautiful frames. They create even and consistent cappings on honey cells, making the frames ideal for cut comb. Many beekeepers specifically work on selling this type of comb, which remains intact for customers to enjoy in a less processed form.
Breeding Program Results
Focusing on careful breeding has led to a bee that many beekeepers believe is far superior to others out there. As a result of Brother Adam’s travels and dedication, this breed has adopted ideal traits selected from many other breeds combined in a single subspecies.
Buckfast bees are capable of making large amounts of honey. This is due to a combination of factors, including their willingness to forage for resources, keeping their population in check, and quickly building out comb to store the honey in.
Breeders continue to work on improving the Buckfast bee to keep up with new challenges. This makes the breed always somewhat of a work in progress, as in any quality breeding program.
Several breeding programs have successfully improved Varroa Sensitive Hygiene (VSH), the bees’ ability to deal with and fight varroa mite infestations.
This is considered a crucial behavior modification for today’s beekeepers who often struggle with keeping varroa mite numbers under control. Testing and treating for mites can even potentially harm the colony, so a breed that is more likely to handle mites on their own with less human intervention is a huge benefit.
Buckfast Bees Are a Labor of Love
So much work went into perfecting this breed, and breeding programs are still closely monitored to continue to help the breed improve to this day.
Many beekeepers love Buckfast bees for their long list of desirable traits. These honey bees are highly sought after for their survivability, calm and docile demeanor, and desire to work hard.
It isn’t always easy to get Buckfast bees, especially outside of Great Britain, where they were originally developed.
Interested in learning more about these miraculous pollinators? Visit my bees page to learn all about the different roles within the beehive, different bee species, beekeeping, and more!
- About the Author
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Hope Schwartz-Leeper is an avid reader, writer, and lover of all things nature with degrees in English and Philosophy.
Born and raised in the Northeast, Hope has always had an affinity for spending time outside. Growing up and attending college in New York, then living on Cape Cod and finally settling in Rhode Island has given her plenty of experience with the climate and environment of these areas.
She loves growing her own food and plants and is always trying to grow something new. She’s hoping her apple trees will one day bear fruit, but for now she’s excited about anything that comes from the garden.