Cover Story

Lessons Learned: Beekeeping Across the Pond By Ron Couch

- November 1, 2017 - Ron Couch - (excerpt)

Clare Densley on river dart bridge with abbey church in background

I suppose most folks have a “Bucket List” and one of mine, for at least a decade, was to become a beekeeper. That dream became a reality about six years ago, and I now have nine colonies in my northeast Texas backyard. Of course, now I have a “Bee List” as well as a “Bucket List.” Over a year ago, I stumbled upon a book entitled Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey, by Brother Adam Kehrle. Prior to reading the book, I had little knowledge about the Abbey or the monk who founded the Buckfast bee strain.

After reading the book, I was curious whether Buckfast Abbey still existed and, if so, if they still had a bee program. I started my search on the internet. This led me to the Buckfast Abbey website, where I learned that the Abbey is located in South Devon, U.K., is still very much alive and well, and that it will celebrate its 1,000-year anniversary in 2018.

Buckfast Abbey offers a honey bee training program, which sounded fascinating, so I decided to email their main contact for bee information, Ms. Clare Densley. I wanted to learn if any of their program would fit into my schedule. I discovered that the bee programs last for several weeks, and a short visit to Buckfast would not be long enough to complete any of the courses currently offered. I had almost crossed Buckfast Abbey off my Bee List when Ms. Densley mentioned that I was welcome to visit with her and her associate, Mr. Martin Hann, for a few days at the Abbey. Our plan was to stay at the Abbey, meet with some of her beekeeping classes, visit the apiaries that Br. Adam had established, visit the main bee operation center (the Bee Barn), and of course discuss anything honey bee.

I accepted Ms. Densley’s invitation and I invited Jesse Wright, a veteran beekeeper and friend of mine, to accompany me. Finally, on July 12, 2017 we left our 95°F Texas weather, looking forward to our trip and 30-degree lower temperatures. After a long flight and recuperating for one night at an airport hotel, we were forced to learn the differences between M, A, and B highways, drive on the “wrong” side of the road, and circle the roundabouts, until we finally arrived at Buckfast Abbey. The trip only took four hours longer than anticipated, after we veered onto an alternative “faster” route.

Buckfast Abbey is located in an absolutely beautiful and quiet location, perfect as a spiritual home to Benedictine monks. Upon our arrival, we noticed a small private cemetery with no visitor access. We later learned that Br. Adam is buried there in the shadow of the Abbey church. The Abbey Church is a beautiful structure both inside and outside.

Buckfast Abbey’s main function is, of course, not bees. But the bees do bring in many visitors, who are interested in the activities offered by the monks, some of which are bee-related. The Abbey is well known for its famous Buckfast Tonic Wine, but unfortunately no tours are available to view that process.

Buckfast Abbey has excellent accommodations for both large and small groups. Certainly, their facilities would be a wonderful venue for a beekeeping conference (excellent Wi-Fi). We stayed at one of their three cottages, St. Benet’s, with dining areas less than a five-minute walk from our door.

The first morning after we arrived at Buckfast Abbey, Jesse and I met with Ms. Densley and Mr. Hann at the Bee Barn located on the Abbey grounds. Ms. Densley is the Abbey’s Head Beekeeper, a former Government Apiary Inspector, and former schoolteacher. Mr. Hann is an Apiary Inspector for the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), who also works at the Abbey one day a week assisting Ms. Densley as part of the teaching, planning, and maintenance team. They invited us to examine colonies at the Abbey, allowing us to notice differences in their hives and ours back home. Their bees produce a lower amount of propolis than we expected, and they have no small hive beetles. Jesse and I both thought that the frames were a little lighter than our frames in East Texas. Of course, the real difficulty in keeping bees in South Devon is the weather. Cold weather mixed with large volumes of rain is a real deterrent to beekeeping. The weather in South Devon is better for ducks than bees. Certainly, East Texas is also less than ideal for keeping bees with its abundant heat in the summer and periods of drought.

The draw for us to come to Buckfast Abbey was Br. Adam, so our visit included everything we could learn about him and his Buckfast bee breeding program. Br. Adam’s story begins in 1898 when he was born to a poor German family. At the age of nine, his mother sent him away to Buckfast Abbey to become a monk. Two classifications of monks existed then: Choir Monks and Lay Monks. Br. Adam became the latter. Lay Monks were the laborers that kept the Abbey a self-sustaining entity. They were farmers, carpenters, builders and provided many other essential skills to keep the Abbey self-sufficient.

Br. Adam had originally been assigned to work as a stone mason, but it was soon determined he was too frail for the task, and in 1915 he was reassigned to assist Br. Columban Wanner, the Abbey’s beekeeper since 1895. When Br. Adam arrived at Buckfast, beekeeping was an important and integral part of ….