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Buckfast Bees

This is now the third beekeeping season coming to a close at Crieff Hills conference center. Initially, there were 3 hives on site. Now there is a bee yard of 12 hives. Oddly, during a drought season when we expected no honey we averaged 50 pounds per hive.

Usually, August is the dirth (drought) month but, this year, Ontario experienced a summer long drought. This should of translated to no honey crop since blooming trees, shrubs and flowers were actively conserving water primarily to stay alive. Normal functions like nectar production and seed set were sidelined. This was borne out where there was a total crop failure for trees – no elm, hickory, maple and oak seeds. But, somehow, the bees did manage to find nectar and produce a reasonable amount of honey. I am at a loss to explain how.

We do know that different improvements to the bees helped them cope with our abnormal spring and summer weather. First, we changed the surrounding crops to reduce exposure to the neonicitinoide sprays. Usually, Crieff Hills rotates crops of soybeans and corn grown on its property but this has been changed. This change will be highlighted in the next article since this is a great step, environmentally, for the property.

This spring, the Buckfast bee strain was introduced to the hives at Crieff Hills. There are very few queen bee breeders in Ontario that offer this Buckfast strain since this involves rearing queens in isolated mating stations. Virgin Buckfast queens must only mate with Buckfast drones in order to keep the genetic purity of this line. We were lucky enough to purchase pure Buckfast queens from the University of Guelph that has isolated queen mating stations on islands in Lake Simcoe. These islands are far enough away from the mainland so queens only breed with the Buckfast drones.

So why are Buckfast bees so important? First, you must realize that Buckfast bees are not a typical strain of bee used by the honey industry. The vast majority of beekeepers use the Italian 5 banded or Black Russian bees. To truly understand the uniqueness of Buckfast bees I need to take you on a history tour.

Records indicate, since 1882 Buckfast Abbey in England have had bee hives. In 1919, Brother Adam took over the bee yards at the Abbey after most of the bee hives were wiped out from diseases and parasites. He spent 78 years traveling all over the world acquiring bee breeding stock. In his lifetime, he traveled over 100,000 miles and even went to the Sahara desert region. Eventually, a strain of bees was developed through Brother Adam’s genetic program that were highly resistant to many things, but especially tracheal mites.

In North America, interest in the Buckfast bee was not generated until the mid 1980’s when the Varroa mite was accidentally introduced into Florida. The mites, originating from Asia, had developed a balanced relationship with the Asian bees where colonies would not collapse and die. The story is much different for eastern bee populations separated by an ocean of water. These hives turned out to be completely defenseless to both the varroa and trachael mites. Uncontrolled mite infestations in untreated hives usually led to bee colony deaths. Worldwide, estimates are in the hundreds of thousands for bee colony losses due to mites.

Mites are external parasites that attack both the honey bee and brood. They also affect feral (our wild populations) colonies. The mites suck the blood from both the adults and the developing brood. This weakens and shortens the bee’s life. Emerging brood may be deformed with missing legs or wings. Open wounds left from sucking blood allows transmission of diseases and viruses.

So you can well imagine, North American beekeepers became interested in this Varroa resistant bee strain from Buckfast Abbey. Today, licensed Buckfast queen bee breeders throughout North America are continuing the Buckfast bee line.

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