The significance of Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey
PUBLISHED: 14:29 06 November 2019 | UPDATED: 10:17 07 November 2019
The emphasis may have changed from its origins but bee-keeping is still at the centre of life at Buckfast Abbey, writes KATHRYN KELLY
In common with other medieval monasteries, it's likely that bees were kept at Buckfast Abbey as a valuable source of sugar and wax as well as for some medicinal purposes.
But it was only after the monastery was re-founded in 1882, that beekeeping there can be said to have truly come into its own. One of the leading figures in the revival was Brother Adam Kehrle, a German monk, who went on to work with the bees at Buckfast for over 78 years, becoming an international authority in the field.
Soon after Brother Adam joined the beekeepers in 1916, 36 out of the Abbey's 46 colonies were wiped out by disease. Brother Adam made it his life's work to re-build the hives, going on to breed the hardier Buckfast Bee, which attracted worldwide fame. He was awarded the OBE for services to beekeeping.
These days, the Buckfast Abbey Bee Department is run by Clare Densley, assisted by Martin Hann - and its role has changed from honey production to education. The bees are still very active, but now their output is harvested for the consumption of the Benedictine community and no longer sold.
"Adam arrived from Germany in 1910 when he was 11 years old," says Clare. "He started training as a stonemason, but he had asthma and struggled with the dust, so he was put to work helping Brother Columban and Father Maurus Massey look after the Abbey bees. He loved this role and later took over the running of the bee department in 1922."
Brother Adam developed a breeding programme at Great Sherberton Farm at Hexworthy on Dartmoor in that year. He subsequently travelled the world to bring back queens with the aim of producing a bee which was both gentle and very productive.
"Adam became a beekeeping celebrity and people were captivated by a charismatic monk who was pursuing an exciting and worthy task," says Clare." While we no longer use Buckfast bees here, they continue to be held in high esteem by many beekeepers."
Brother Daniel, who has been at Buckfast Abbey for 40 years, was the last person to work with Brother Adam and remembers his time in the beekeeping department with great affection: "Brother Adam is often portrayed as being obsessive, but he wasn't, he was just demonstrating good agricultural husbandry and he had a natural interest in genetics.
"As we know, bees are crucial to our whole way of life. I enjoyed my 15 years working in the bee department, particularly taking the bees to Dartmoor in August and retrieving the honey during the week of Widecombe Fair - around the second Tuesday in September. I miss it."
Clare has been keeping bees since 1992 and has been at the Abbey for 12 years. She has also worked as a seasonal bee inspector for Devon. Her interest in the natural world started as a child growing up in Bristol: "I was always trying to escape to the countryside on my Mum's bike. I had a passion for nature and secretly wished that my parents were farmers. Bees satisfy all of my yearnings for being involved with the natural world and they are a wonderful way to engage with the environment."
Clare has seen some big changes during her time at the Abbey: "When I first worked here, we had 400 colonies and the remit was mainly honey production which was sold in the Abbey shops. In 2010, the focus changed to education and most of the hives were sold. We have around 25 colonies now.
"I like this much more, as in my heart I'm not a commercial beekeeper. I love teaching people about bees as well as how to keep them. I get real enjoyment from showing the bees to people who have never experienced the complexities of honeybee society."
Another fascinating aspect of the beekeeping department's work is the running of classes to promote mindfulness and to help overcome chronic pain conditions, such as Fibromyalgia.
"When you open a colony of bees, you must focus entirely on what you are doing, so as not to harm or upset them. You must relax and move slowly with careful and deliberate movements," adds Clare.
"The inside of the hive smells amazing. The bees respond to your care and confidence and just carry on with their activities. They have the potential to sting you, but when the sun is shining and they are all busy, it seems that they are allowing you into their very intimate and special world. It is such a privilege and totally mesmerising. Afterwards, you feel uplifted and special."
This year has brought the Buckfast Abbey beekeeping department to national prominence when Clare was interviewed by Fiona Bruce for the second of two episodes of BBC One's Antiques Roadshow, which was broadcast on Easter Sunday.
"The film crew was lovely and interested in the bees", says Clare. "I was conscious of the hive being open for longer than I was comfortable with during the takes, but I liked the fact that viewers could see the bees being lovely on national television.
"Fiona Bruce's late dad was a beekeeper. He was a member of the North Devon Beekeeping Association and came to the Abbey on a few occasions. Fiona was keen to visit for that reason. She was good company."
Another important aspect of Clare's role is her charitable work. This includes being a trustee of Farmable, which provides rural activities for veterans to help them cope with conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Clare also has a long association with Help for Heroes and works with Breakthrough Transformation Trust, a local Christian organisation which helps young people turn their lives around when they have been excluded from mainstream education.
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Buckfast Abbey runs a range of beekeeping courses throughout the year. These include courses on Keeping Healthy Bees, Swarming and How to be a Better Beekeeper.
Clare Densley adds: "I love everything about working at the Abbey. It's a community. My job is so varied, and I work with a great guy - Martin Hann.
"We both love the teaching aspect, but we also enjoy learning as much as we can about bees. I do get quiet time with the bees, though, and relish the chance to work through a hive by myself at times."