Dom Adam Kehrle: obituary

Lesley Bill
Monday 02 September 1996 23:02 BST

The name of Brother Adam is well known in all bee-keeping circles. The small market trader selling his honey on a stall in a French provincial town or the big commercial apiary in the southern United States selling thousands of queen honey bees all over the world will be just as familiar with his work as the academic centres of every continent.

Born Karl Kehrle in south Germany, in 1910, as a boy of 11, he was sent from his home to join the order of Benedictine monks at St Mary's Abbey, Buckfast, in South Devon. Here he was initially named Louis.

Ill-health prompted his move from building work as a stone mason to a lifetime's involvement with the abbey apiaries; the development of the beekeeping enterprise at Buckfast Abbey was both his brainchild and the endeavours of his physical hard work against a backcloth of monastic life.

In 1915 he began his work with the bees, which he took over full responsibility for in 1919. The disastrous so-called Isle of Wight epidemic which caused the wholesale loss of honey bees in the British Isles at the outbreak of the First World War was to shape the breeding programme that Kehrle was to follow. Only 16 colonies out of 45 survived at the Abbey apiaries and these, a cross between Italian and British Blacks or Carniolan and British Blacks, produced his original breeding stock.

In 1920, he obtained a copy of the paper "The Art of Bee Breeding", by Professor L. Armbruster, which set out a theoretical approach to the breeding of honey bees with regard to the laws of the geneticist Gregor Mendel.

Kehrle's goal was clear. He wanted to create a cross-breed of bees with resistance to disease (especially acarine), that were very gentle to handle, that swarmed rarely and were abundant honey producers. He set up an isolation mating station at Sherbeton in the middle of Dartmoor in 1925 where the harsh climatic weather conditions were a test for any honey bee and did not allow wild stock to survive which would create mis-matings.

In 1930 Kehrle resited the home apiary and commenced work on the reorganisation of the honey department, rebuilding the honey extracting plant. When he fell ill two years later and returned home to Germany, it was the first time since he had left home aged 11 - 22 years earlier.

For the next 20 years Kehrle bred with the stocks he had created, selling queens and setting up Buckfast bee production as a commercial activity.

His extremely important study and collection of bee breeding material from Europe and the countries bordering the Mediterranean (both north and south) began in 1950 when shortage of transport and fuel were still very difficult after the Second World War.

He travelled over 82,000 miles by road in his search for desirable bees (plus 7,800 miles by sea - and many more by air): for example to France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Sicily, and Germany in 1950; to North Africa, Algeria, Israel, Jor- dan, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Greece, Yugoslavia, and the Ligurian Alps in 1952. This work continued over many years penetrating into the Sahara Desert itself. It culminated in a trip to Mount Kilimanjaro, East Africa, in search of the black honey bee Apis Mellifera Monticola when he was 89. (The Cretan bee is named Apiasmellifera Adami.)

The result of this work was the distinctive tan-coloured Buckfast bee - gentle, disease-resistant and honey-producing. It is much sought-after today, and is still produced com- mercially on both sides of the Atlantic.

Kehrle's teachings and methods as a practical beekeeper are unsurpassed, and his books, In Search of he Best Strains of Bees, Breeding the Honeybee, and Bee Keeping At Buckfast Abbey, first published in 1975, are still relevant today.

Indeed, as early as 1929 his accomplishments were publicly praised in the British Bee Journal of that year: "Like the bees he never appears to sleep in summer with apiary work, invention and experimentation. He is one of nature's silent workers and the most competent one in Britain."

Ten years later, he was invited to serve on the Ministry of Agriculture Advisory Committee on apiculture, attending quarterly meetings at Rothamsted up until the 1970s, which inevitably brought him into contact with leading beekeepers in Europe.

Not only did Kehrle break new ground in the assessment of different races of bees and bee breeding, but he was commercially successful throughout the world. It was just reward therefore that his efforts should be recognised with his appointment as OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List of 1974. Similarly, he was awarded the Verdienstkreuz in Germany the following year for services to beekeeping.

He was awarded an Honorary DSc from the University of Uppsala in Sweden in 1987 and an honorary BSc from Exeter University in 1989.

In the words of Frederich Ruttner: "Brother Adam's life-long work has contributed substantially to the improvement of the management and stocks of honey bees. This contribution to apicultural research, which in turn has had its impact on honey bee breeding, has yet to be fully recognised."

His love of bees was evident to all who knew him, both in his achievements and his daily life.

Karl Kehrle, monk, bee breeder and beekeeper: born Mittlebiberach, Germany 3 August 1898; clothed a monk as Dom Adam 1916; ordained priest 1922; OBE 1974 ; died Buckfast, Devon 1 September 1996.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in