Making Queens: Brother Adam

Buckfast Home Apiary 1965 (photo: David Kemp)

The recent passing of David Kemp prompted me to review some of my notes from when I interviewed him. Mike Palmer often says that he believes Brother Adam’s method of raising queen cells produces the best queens. Mike has slightly adapted it to suit his needs, and others who make hundreds or thousands of queens each year do something similar. My understanding of Brother Adam’s cell-building method follows, based on information from the man who did it at Buckfast for ten years. Andy Wattam, who worked for David before eventually becoming the top man heading the UK bee inspectorate (2009-2016), also helped fill some knowledge gaps.

Best Time For Mating

Brother Adam went for a brief but intense period of queen rearing rather than spreading it out over months. He used to keep meticulous weather records, going back many years. As David Kemp said, “he found out from his records that the first ten days in June were the best for mating queens on Dartmoor, and we worked around that. He said that one year in every so many, it will backfire on you, and it did one year whilst I was there, but usually it was the best time.”

For queens to be mated in the first ten days of June, grafting would have been done in the window from 11th-21st May. The cell builder colonies would start being made up ten days before then i.e. early May. It’s typically suggested that we keep bees according to the conditions rather than the calendar. With the unpredictable British weather, especially on Dartmoor, Brother Adam ‘went for it’ and hoped that the Gods would be kind. As David said, most times, he got away with it. Who could accurately predict the weather on Dartmoor a month in advance anyway?

Golden Dagger Tin Mines

There were actually two mating apiaries on Dartmoor. Most people know about the famous Sherberton site, but there was an overspill mating site at Golden Dagger Tin Mines a little further north (see map). 

Mating Sites on Dartmoor
Mating Sites on Dartmoor

Buckfast Home Apiary

Adam set up his cell builder colonies on the right-hand side of the home apiary at Buckfast. On apiary visits in early May, frames of sealed brood (with adhering bees) were taken away from larger colonies. This helped equalise colony strength, and no doubt reduced the urge to swarm. They had ten to twelve cell builders, each of which needed about twelve frames of sealed brood adding to them.

Cell Builders

Firstly, bear in mind that Adam used 12 frame modified Dadant boxes, which are enormous. He would add a second box to create double brood colonies with a queen excluder between boxes. There had to be at least ten brood frames in each box, which came from the other apiaries. The queen, in the bottom box, was clipped. Once that brood emerged, the colony was bursting with young bees, and the urge to swarm was overwhelming. Such colonies make the best of queens. After nine days, any queen cells formed in the top box were removed, ensuring every single one was gone. They shook bees off the frames to make sure none were missed. I would also check the bottom box to remove any cells, but I’m not sure they did. With a clipped queen, I don’t suppose it was critical.

Step One – Make up double brood colonies with loads of brood

Ten days after making up the cell builder, most of the brood had emerged. As shown below, they moved the hive to the side (heavy work) then placed a new floor where the hive had been. The top box went onto the floor. Next, the queen was removed from the bottom box to keep her safe, and about seven frames of bees were shaken onto the ground in front of the new hive. Adam left a one-frame gap to receive the grafts and added an empty feeder. The queen was returned to the other hive, now depleted of bees, and it was taken to another apiary and promptly fed sugar syrup.

Step Two – Move hive, new floor on old site
Step Three – Top box goes onto new floor
Step Four – Shake in more bees
Step Five – Ready for grafting

Then it was time for grafting. A frame from a hive containing the breeder queen was examined to find larvae twelve hours old. These are tiny. The comb containing such bounty was cut out with a sharp knife, and the frame returned. It was taken into the grafting shed, which was kept humid by continuously boiling a kettle. The comb containing larvae was cut to within 1/8th inch of the midrib with a hot knife. It was then easy to gently lift each larva out of its cell and into the waiting wax cups, which had been primed with a small puddle of royal jelly mixed with distilled water. Each bar of cups took twenty larvae, and there were three bars per frame. 

Step Six – Add grafted larvae

The frame of sixty newly grafted young larvae went into the gap left in the centre of the cell builder. Sugar syrup was added to the feeder unless there was a good honey flow. Brother Pascal generally did the grafting when David Kemp was there, although sometimes David would do it. As David says, “He’d do three bars, so that’s 60 cells, then it would be taken carefully in a cloth to Brother Adam who was waiting anxiously like a man waiting for a child. He put the frame in the gap in the cell builder colony with a finger space on each side, so the bees had plenty of room to cluster around the cells. He worked on a percentage. I think it was about 80%. Some years he’d get nearly 100%, but other years less. And then the grafting would be over. We started at about ten o’clock in the morning, and by lunchtime, it was all done.”

Adam left the cells in the cell builder ten or eleven days after grafting. They were then taken to Dartmoor and carefully placed into the mating hives (four queens per hive, with dividers between). 

Variations On A Theme

I noticed no reference to a ‘pollen frame’ by David, nor can I find it in Adam’s book Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey. Presumably, with such a vast population of bees, the presumption was that they would soon bring in enough fresh pollen to properly feed the larvae. Also, they are in swarming mode with nurse bees primed to make cells and hypopharyngeal glands bursting with goodness. Mike Palmer makes cells throughout the summer, re-using cell builders repeatedly. His modifications are: 

  • using a pollen frame that sits adjacent to the grafting frame
  • not removing the old hive containing the queen to another apiary – instead, it is rotated 180 degrees, so the entrance faces the opposite way. 
  • once cells are sealed, Mike recombines the old queen-right hive back to the cell builder, with the queen below an excluder in a box downstairs
  • continually replenishing nurse bees by adding frames of sealed brood from nucs kept at the cell builder apiary

Richard Noel in Brittany has modified Mike’s approach further by removing cells a couple of days after the grafts are put in. They go to other colonies for finishing off. He says that the same cell builder (starter) can be used for several rounds of grafts. Brother Adam kept it all in one colony rather than a starter/finisher system. We all have to find out the approach that suits us, but surely the starting point must be to understand what the great man, Brother Adam, was doing. He knew queens pretty well.

Bee Talk

Oh, by the way, I am speaking at Broughton Village Hall for North Lincolnshire Beekeepers on 28th February at 7pm. Please come along and hurl tomatoes/flowers as appropriate if you are in the area. I might even try to sell you my book.

One thought on “Making Queens: Brother Adam

  1. […] And that, in a nutshell, is how I make queens. Pretty much the same method as used by Mike Palmer, and going back a few years, Brother Adam.  […]

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