Buckfast breeding principles
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Text, photos and illustrations
This text was written as a base for a lecture held at Apimondia
1999 in Vancouver.
Due to his early experiences
the Benedictine monk Brother Adam came to look at different
races of bees in a similar way as we usually look at locally
strains of one and the same race. With this I mean in the possibilities
of using them in the same breeding program. Every strain and
race was looked upon as a possible genetic resource.
liked to share his experiences and his bees with interested beekeepers.
Photo: Erik Osterlund.
That means that in principle there
is nothing mysterious with the Buckfast or its breeding principles.
It is like any other bee, or could be like any other bee. But
you are free to take from a bigger source of material when breeding
A key word in Buckfast breeding
is drone control. Most often you only select the mother colony
of your new queens and let them mate randomly. Or you may put
together your best colonies in the same apiary, which you make
your mating area for your virgin queens. That’s no bad principle
at all in general. But to make a faster progress you must have
more control of what kind of drones your queens will mate to.
Let me say here that if you
don’t aim at fast progress, but just want to preserve or make
a slow progress, making a mating apiary with your best colonies
regardless of their genetic relationship is a good way, according
to my own opinion. But when you cross different strains that
are quite different genetically, you will in the next following
generations get a quite wide variation, so you need a narrowing
of the genetic upset of the drone side to make progress with a
|Brother Adam in
his home apiary at Buckfast Abbey in 1983 showing the nice performance
of one of his Greek combinations.
Photo: Erik Osterlund
Brother Adam established a special
mating station in an isolated area of Dartmoor for this purpose,
a desolate area with little vegetation, few bees and a hard climate.
He also used instrumental insemination to a certain degree. But
the mating station on Dartmoor has always been the corner stone
in his breeding.
The starting point for the
drones on his mating station was always one single colony. Due
to the heritage of drone you can supply, not only one, but very
many, mating stations with the same drone heritage, derived from
the same single colony, is possible.
If you find a desired colony,
not only one hopefully, but a number of them, and also of some
different origin to avoid future close inbreeding, you of course
breed virgin queens from it. You can call this colony a ‚Mother
colony‘. But you need drones for those virgins. And another colony
you find, may actually would fit very well as a complement to
your first colony, to give a lacking quality, or to strengthen
another, or both.
How do you combine these two
colonies? If you take drones from the second colony, which we
can call the ‚Father colony‘, you don’t get the full heritage
of the colony. You only get the heritage of the queen, as the
drones of the colony only get their genes from her. In a way
that’s not bad, because the queen is the most important individual
in the colony and influences the colony a lot through her pheromones,
maybe even more then we normally are aware of. But 50% of the
genetic heritage in the workers, come from the semen in the queen,
the drones she once was mated to, may be of vital importance
too, to the performance of the ‚Father colony‘.
Workers give the full heritage
of the ‚Father colony‘. But they can’t mate to our virgins
from the ‚Mother colony‘. But virgins bred from the ‚Father colony‘
are sisters of the workers and also give a portion of the full
heritage of the ‚Father colony‘. When these virgins are mated,
for our purpose here not so important to what, and laying in
their own colony, they give drones. And these drones give heritage
from only their mother and thus a portion of the full heritage
of our desired ‚Father colony‘.
A ‚Father colony‘ then gives
their heritage through the drones from its daughter queens. And
you can have many daughter queens, so you can really supply with
enough drones, even if only one colony is the ‚Father‘. Of course
you can, and should if possible also make selection among the
daughter queens, even if the most important selection was done
when you choose the ‚Father colony‘.
|When making a
pedigree of the breeders used according to Buckfast principles,
the colony from which you breed the young queens can be called
the ‚Mother‘ and the colony that has supplied the queens which
are heading the drone producing colonies can be called ‚Father‘.
In this way you can get a pedigree that is similar in appearance
to pedigrees for mammals. You make in the form of a tree, or
like Brother Adam, just on a line. In the latter case you follow
the ‚mother line‘ and the mating for one queen in the line in
every generation given.
In reality you may not decide
beforehand definitely which colony will be the ‚Father‘ a certain
year ahead. But you may have a number of them, which you take
daughters from, with the purpose of choosing one sister group
for the mating station. The performance and wintering ability
of the sister group may give the last selection argument.
And this is actually how Brother Adam worked.
This method is used when your
goal is to develop your strain, and develop it quite fast, and
make it more stable. When you have reached such level that you
don’t want to risk what you have got, you may end up in a downward
path, if you go on to long with this method. You will end up
with too close inbreeding, even if the pedigree don’t reveal
it. But if you constantly try out new strains and races and eventually
incorporate the result in your main strain you probably don’t
end up there, if you watch out and avoid the closest inbreeding
when selecting ‚Father colony‘ for your ‚Mother‘ colonies. That’s
the way of Brother Adam. He was always curious on new races and
strains, and their eventual possibility to contribute to the
progress and development of the Buckfast bee.
If we work with the Buckfast
bee as it is, our method may be to look at local works with the
Buckfast bee as different sources for tryout. And get breeding
material from each other now and then for tryout purpose and
eventual incorporation in our own local variety of the Buckfast
When we stop using new races
in a Buckfast type of breeding it is even still more important
then before to avoid close inbreeding. Close inbreeding
is our biggest enemy destroying what we have achieved. With inbreeding
you loose a lot of the genetic varieties, and further progress
becomes less possible and less probable. But in rare instances,
especially when you just have crossed two very different strains
or races, it can be a tool to help you get more predictable results
in the following generations.
It’s important though, in all
this theorizing, to remember that it is not the theories that
give you good bees. You have to actually do the work, make tryouts
and watch the bees. Watch the bees carefully. Maybe they are
telling you that you are doing the right thing. Maybe they tell
you that you are working after the right theories. Maybe they
will give you good colonies and you don’t understand why these
odd colonies are that good. Be humble enough to admit that it
is a possibility that you don’t know everything and take care
of such colonies in your breeding. Work according to your theories,
but make also some choices and tryouts by so called intuition.
And let the bees tell you afterwards what you have got. Brother
Adam always advised you: Let the bees tell you.
And when selecting Mother and
Father colonies, don’t only look at single colonies. Look at
the sister groups as a group, how they perform compared to other
sister groups. But without your ability to discern differences
between the colonies you have little help of any breeding
system. It is of vital importance that you can see the differences
in performance and behaviour. And be able to take in account
differences that can influence the result, as strength of the
colonies the queens are introduced to, when they are introduced,
if the colonies have different kinds of hives, if they are managed
differently, if they are placed in different apiaries with different
nectar flows and pollen availability.
Keep watch for positive ‚extremes‘
among your colonies. When you combine different strains, at a
certain stage among the generations, you may get a wide variation
concerning certain qualities. Of course you shift the queen in
colonies with too bad such variation. But if such an odd colony
show up that has a good and maybe rare quality in a very remarkable
way, you have to use that colony, at least a little, in you breeding,
even if it to some degree may have a less desirable quality.
Take care of the positive extremes.
Brother Adam said that you
need at least 100 colonies to be able to be sure to be
able to make progress in your breeding efforts to develop your
bee. Also he said that you have to look in the colonies and get
to know the bees yourself if you are the one who will
make the selection of breeders.
Brother Adam never hesitated
to share his findings and his bee with other beekeepers
who wanted to try them and to use them. He always answered your
questions, but you most often had to find out the questions yourself
and do ask them to get the knowledge, besides reading his books.
Today the Buckfast bee from
Buckfast Abbey contains heritage from mainly A.m. ligurica
(ligustica) (North Italian), A.m. mellifera (English),
A.m. mellifera (French), A.m. anatolica (Turkish)
and A.m. cecropia (Greek). The Buckfast bee of today may
also contain heritage from A.m. sahariensis and A.m.
which are included in the Buckfast strain, are Mellifera from
England and France, Ligurica (Ligustica) from Northern Italy,
Cecropia from Greece and Anatolica from Turkey.
Brother Adam made many journeys,
especially around the Mediterranean, to find different races
and strains to try out. One of his last journeys was to Tanzania
in Africa to find the black mountain bee in East Africa. And
one of his last statements was that the African continent
is a genetic treasury.
When you hear of Africa, the
first thing you may think of concerning bees is so called Africanized
bees in America, which in principal as its base has a number
of colonies of A.m. scutellata from southern Africa. You then
may think of extremely swarmy bees with a very strong defensive
behaviour. And this Scutellata bee is common in the southern
and eastern lowland parts of Africa. You shouldn’t forget here
that this bee is very important economical base for beekeepers
in South Africa and that since the arrival of it to South America
the honey production has grown substantially.
races in Africa are at least as differing from each other as
the European races are between themselves. African honeybees
are not only Scutellata (the Africanized bee), but also the interesting
and promising Monticola from the East African mountains.
What could be surprising is that
there are other bees of another extreme relatively close to Scutellata
in Africa. Above the mountain rain forests on the mountain slopes
in East Africa you have a bee with a relatively very low swarming
tendency. Actually, when combined with the Buckfast bee, you
get an extremely low swarming bee, that given ample room
for egg laying, food storage and for the bees themselves, they
don’t need any regular swarm control. They may even get along
with the old queen till the colony just die with her without
even trying to shift her. But that’s going too far concerning
low swarming tendency. That bee is A.m. monticola. On
some of the mountains it is black, on other they are more brownish-red
in color. But they are usually bigger in size than Scutellata
and much easier to handle. They have less hair and often black
hair, especially on the thorax. Who knows what other interesting
bees may be found on this huge continent.
After the reports of the resistance
of Scutellata to the varroa mite in South America and the reports
from the expedition of Brother Adam to East Africa I began to
get the idea that African races may have something in common
that makes them more tolerant to the varroa mite. Later on I
have realized that it is in first place a tolerance to secondary
infections following the mite, possibly in first place virus
infections from APV and DWV, and viruses contributing other types
of infections like nosema. Now lately I have also realized at
least one trait they have in common compared to European strains
of today, namely the size. Is that of importance?
When an opportunity opened
up to form an expedition to Kenya, I jumped on this train
and we were four that went there in March 1989. Michael van der
Zee from Holland, Erik Björklund, Dr Bert Thrybom and I
from Sweden. Many Buckfast groups in Sweden and from other places
supported this trip.
|An opened log hive
on 3500 m on Mt Elgon on the border between Uganda and Kenya.
It is fully built with wax, contrary to log hives low down on
the mountain side. Those log hives were seldom as full of waxcombs
as this one. The colonies swarmed long before. The colony was
relatively friendly and easy to handle. It was actually wrong
time for drones when we were there. But this colony had a very
old queen and had kept a large amount of drones, apparently in
preparation for shifting the queen as soon as it was possible.
We came back to Sweden with pieces
of combs with eggs, and semen in small tubes. Queens were
bred and inseminated. The semen was used after some glucose had
been added to give the semen energy to move. More queens were
bred from the resulting queens and the first crosses done.
In the beginning the colonies
were kept in genetic isolation from the environment, queen excluders
on the bottom boards and the like, until more experiences from
the bees were secured. Very soon it was evident that this bee
was no threat, but a possible resource.
Tests were being made in varroa
infested areas to find out eventual varroa tolerance. Concentrations
were made on the growth rate of the mite during one season
and the total number of mites compared to control colonies.
The first findings were positive but not sensational at all.
The number of mites was somewhat lower and the development time
of the brood was and is somewhat shorter.
After some years my attention
was called upon to the secondary infections and I realized
that the worst enemy was not the mite itself, but these secondary
infections. No colony died just by many mites, but due to other
extra ordinary developments of different types of diseases. Most
often so called wingless bees were reported. And I have seen
no other explanation for these deformed wings then the Deformed
Wing Virus (DWV).
A question rose in my mind
that I had never seen written down anywhere. What is the normal
amount of varroa mites in a tolerant colony? Everyone seemed
to be concentrating on the growth rate of the mite and the total
number of mites in a colony, but no one gave a number of mites
which was the goal to not reach. I came to realize that the concentration
probably should be made on secondary infections instead of on
the number of mites, even if both areas are of great interest.
As the bee I have bred from
this Monticola-Buckfast crosses are differing a lot genetically
from the main Buckfast strain I feel I have to call the new combination
something else then Buckfast, so I call it Elgon. But
it is bred in the spirit of Brother Adam and according to
the principles of Buckfast breeding.
Today one of the most successful
Elgon breeder is Poul Erik Karlsen on the island Bornholm
in the Baltic, belonging to Denmark in Scandinavia. 1999 season
was the fifth for many of his colonies without any type of treatment
against the mite. For the rest of his colonies it was his third
season. And they are thriving and giving him good crops. Around
him have been and still are in a small scale, other beekeepers
with big problems. He lost many colonies just after the arrival
of the mite to the island. And so did others, and still do. Today
there are not more then 4-500 colonies on the island, of which
Poul Erik has about 200. Before the mite arrived there were 2500.
Is his bee varroa tolerant? Well, Poul Erik doesn’t care what
they are called. He is happy not to have to treat anything and
to have thriving bees that give good crops.
|An apiary of Poul
Erik Karlsen on Bornholm. Many of his colonies had not been treated
anything against the varroa mite for five years, when the photo
There is though an interesting
experience from Bornholm to tell, that have to give us something
to think about further and more to investigate. Do chemical
treatment increase the susceptibility to secondary infections
like viruses? There are reports that indicate this. And if
it is so, we have no great use of tolerant bees if we use chemical
treatments, and we will have great difficulties discovering such
bees if such treatments are used. Do all kind of chemical treatment
have the same kind of bad influence in this respect? Probably
not and hopefully not.
In August 1998 Poul Erik Karlsen on Bornholm treated 90 of
his colonies with formic acid to find out the level of the
number of mites in his colonies, as he had not treated at all
for a number of years then. 60 of these died of dysentery during
late winter. Another 25 of these didn’t develop properly during
spring and secondary infections and the mites took over in these
colonies so he killed them. If Poul Erik had had new mated queens
available of his own strain he would have had just shifted queens
in the strongest of them to try to restore them. He had finally
three left, of which the bees shifted the queens in two of them.
He has of course bred from these three colonies.
Of his 110 untreated colonies,
of which many went into their fifth year without treatment, one
died of mice. He used these colonies to make divides and build
up his number of hives again. Is the right conclusion that chemical
treatments decrease the tolerance to secondary infections?
Also an initial investigation
in Israel have given interesting results concerning the possibility
of Elgon bees being virus and varroa tolerant. More tests
are on its way there. Also more tests are being done in Sweden
and in other places.
The experiences of the possibilities of Elgon bees
to tolerate secondary infections and the varroa mite have been
more differentiated. It is evident that as I myself don’t
have the mite in my apiaries, I might select the wrong breeder
concerning virus and varroa tolerance. I am dependant on beekeepers
that have the mite, that they make tests, which contribute to
my breeding, as I can get pieces of combs with eggs from selected
colonies to graft from. So I warn people to think that if you
manage to get queens from Erik Österlund you will get varroa
tolerant bees. I would guess that if you get queens from Poul
Erik Karlsen on Bornholm you have a bigger chance of getting
Let me also say that it seems,
if these bees are more tolerant, that this tolerance is connected
in a big deal, to the queen and her pheromones. It seems
as if these pheromones can have a valuable effect on the harmony
and how well the colony as whole functions, both in a hygienic
behavior against infected brood and in its immune system.