Washington Post Article


Monk was authority on Honeybees

by Richard Pearson, Washington Post Staff Writer

Brother Adam, 98, a British Benedictine monk who took charge of his monastery’s ailing honeybee population during WWI and went on to become one of the world’s greatest authorities on bee-raising before being forced into retirement in 1992, died of unreported causes Sept. 1.

Brother Adam, born Karl Kehrle in the old German kingdom of Würtemberg, died at a nursing home near Buckfast Abbey, the Benedictine monastery in Devon, Eng., where he had been sent by his mother when he was 12.

In 1915, Brother Adam was sent to the part of the monastery where bees were raised for their honey, largely for the monks‘ consumption. In 1919, Brother Adam became a full monk. By then, he was something of a „king“ bee. He recalled in a 1992 newspaper interview that in 1918 „all the bees in Britain were destroyed by a disease they got from a parasite.“ Shrugging off such problems as world war and Greek-Turkish strife, Brother Adam went on to say „That’s when I went out to Asia Minor and found a nice friendly bee in Turkey. That got me interested in breeding queens resistant to disease.“

Brother Adam took to his role of beekeeper with an almost otherworldly enthusiasm and success. His bee cross-breeding resulted in the legendary „Buckfast Superbee,“ claimed by many authorities to be the hardiest and most prolific honey producer ever bred.

In the 1990s, the US Agriculture Dept. turned to Brother Adam for help when honey production in the US was severely curtailed by acarine disease, a viral infection that had crippled British honey production 75 years before. The monk sent off shipments of special Buckfast queen bees that saved the day. His acarine-resistant bees are said to have earned his abbey more than $30,000 a year and is said to have a world-wide effect on honey production.

During the years, Brother Adam travelled more than 100,000 miles in search of bees, visiting Asia, continental Europe and North America. He travelled by car, donkey, and on foot. Before WWII, he had even searched for bees in the Sahara. From the early 1950s to early 1980s, he concentrated his searches in the Mediterranean world and the Middle East.
Only eight years ago, he travelled to Africa, where a fellow researcher carried him on a bamboo chair strapped to his back up Africa’s highest mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro. Their quest in search for the area’s monticola bee was filmed for television.

As his fame spread, Brother Adam’s honours increased. He was awarded honorary science doctorates from universities in Sweden and Britain. In 1974, he was made a member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.
Perhaps another measure of fame came to light in 1982, when police issued a nation-wide alert for two queen bees and 11 combs with worker bees and drones, all stolen from Brother Adam’s lab at the abbey.
The kidnap victims, who had been genetically engineered from Buckfast and Greek strains by Brother Adam over a nine-year-period where memorably described by police as „three quarters of an inch in length, with dark brown and dark grey stripes.“
Police were reported to have mobilised an estimated 4,000 Devon beekeepers to help in the search.

As time marched on, it took its toll on Brother Adam. He maintained something of a distracted air, with his white hair and the German accent he never lost. By the early 1990s, Brother Adam, who had been described as „selectively deaf“ by some of his superiors, also had trouble keeping his balance and had developed cataracts. A group of French beekeepers, chagrined that the famed monk might have to give up bees, came up with more than $5,000 to secure the services of one of France’s leading eye surgeons.

When, in 1992, disaster struck. A new abbot took charge and ruled that what was described as genetic engineering foolishness had to stop. From then on, bees were only to be raised for honey to be used by the monks or sold at its gift shop. Breeders on four continents were outraged, venting their anger to both the specialised and general press.
Brother Adam’s search for an „environmentally green“ bee that would end the need for chemical additives to European honey had to be abandoned. Many felt his work close to success.

He was the author of seven books, three of which are regarded as classics: „Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey,“ „In Search of the Best Strains of Bees,“ and „Breeding the Honeybee.“

On his „retirement,“ a popular plaint was that Brother Adam would not last long without his bees and that he had enormous knowledge that he had yet to share. The monk disagreed, saying everything he knew was in his books, but that „I may have forgotten one or two things and didn’t put them in my articles, … lots of mystery in bees, you know.“

from Richard Pearson
Washington Post Staff Writer
[Return to Goldenbook] Published on Sept. 4 1996 in THE WASHINGTON POST
a newspaper of general delivery in Washington, DC, USA
Received on Thu, 5 Sep 1996 on BEE-L kindly typed by Cecile T. Kohrs