Native Irish Black Bee versus the Buckfast Bee

During 1967 The Beekeeping Research Unit at Clonroche, Co Wexford carried out some comparison trials of Irish and Buckfast Bees – side by side trials.

The stocks used in the trial were six colonies of dark bees of the native Irish strain and six Buckfast strain colonies. The six colonies of dark bees had been over-wintered as full stocks with ample stores and queens reared in 1966. Four of the six Buckfast strain colonies were derived from queens imported in July 1966.

From May onwards the 12 stocks in the trial were in one apiary in a pastoral area of Co. Wexford and were managed as normal honey producing stocks with ten-day examinations for swarm control. This consisted of removal of early queen cells and giving more room in the first instance, but if the swarm preparations were persistent, artificial swarming was carried out, keeping the original stock as strong as possible for the duration of the honey flow. The data resulting from the trials are given in Tables 1 and 2. Winter food consumption covers the period from December to March inclusive. Spring feed covers that given from March 31 onwards. Where the weight of the colony is given this is the gross weight of the stock in its brood chamber, and as the stock components were similar those weights, though only roughly comparable, are useful.

The winter of 1966/67 was a normal one with no excessive cold. April brought some good weather, which allowed long foraging spells for early pollen and nectar and led to a rapid expansion of the Buckfast stocks, with corresponding depletion of stores. A change to cold weather in May made some feeding imperative for these stocks and there was a steady loss of weight by all stocks until the end of June when the main honey flow began. This was extremely heavy, but was terminated suddenly by a change in the weather around July 26 and this was the end of the nectar gathering for the rest of the season.

All stocks were clear of adult disease at the start of the trial, but one of each group showed slight Nosema infection at the autumn check.

Swarming tendency was assessed in three categories: –

  1. Where no queen cells were built throughout the season.
  2. Where swarm preparations were given up after removal of cells and additional supers given.
  3. Where it was deemed necessary to satisfy the swarming urge by making an artificial swarm.

While the Irish strain showed slightly higher food consumption up to the end of March, thereafter the position was reversed, the Buckfast strain being continually short of food, particularly in May. In some instances this was due to rapid brood rearing, but in two stocks (No’s. 85 and 156) the expansion was slow, and the stocks never fully occupying all the 11 frames available to them. The remaining Buckfasts usually had all combs fully occupied with brood and the hives very full of bees. The swarming tendency appeared somewhat greater in the Buckfast and less easily contained than in the Irish stocks.

The Buckfast strain were almost always very easy to handle, being very docile and did not run on the combs, the only difficulty sometimes experienced was the very large quantity of bees in the brood chamber hampering examinations. The Irish strain, although not so docile gave no difficulty during examinations providing they were smoked some time before the hive was opened. They could however, be difficult during bad weather after the honey flow had ceased, but later returned to normal. The Buckfast strain appeared to be more active, particularly when foraging conditions were less favourable, but the results show that this may not be a profitable trait. They also seemed more inclined to rob and seek opportunities to do so.

The difference between the two strains in their preparation for winter was striking. The Irish strain always maintained some stores in the brood chamber and as the summer progressed gradually filled the side combs, making a corresponding contraction of the brood area. In contrast the Buckfasts kept most combs fully occupied with brood until the end of the season and when brood rearing ceased, the brood chamber was almost devoid of stores, but very full of bees. They thus required much heavier autumn feeding. Figures for this are not available as many stocks at the end of the trial were united, but approximately double the amount fed to the Irish strain was required. For this reason it was decided that in a number of cases it was more economical to unite them to feed the full number of stocks.

The results of the trial support similar trials in 1966 that the Buckfast strain do not do so well as the native strain in Irish conditions. The Irish strain put up a better performance on almost every score and particularly in respect of the most important factor – honey production – by yielding almost 80 per cent more. The overall food requirements were less and pre-wintering condition much better. The Buckfast bees were very industrious foragers, but it appears that their excessive food requirement to produce and maintain a large and possibly short lived population undermines their performance in a climate where foraging spells are apt to be few and of uncertain duration. Their ease of handling is an attractive feature, but is of no great interest to a skilled beekeeper used to handling bees in all circumstances. The constant vigilance needed to ensure they do not starve when the spring is late and prolonged involves time and expense not called for by strains of more conservative habits.

The results of the 1967 trial indicate that the Buckfast strain is unlikely to prove as profitable under Irish conditions as the native strain of bee.

Irish Stocks

 

Hive No. Queen Age Winter Food Consumption
Dec-Mar (lb)
Spring Weight
April 1st (lb)
Spring Feed
(lb)
Disease Check
Spring
Disease Check
Autumn
Swarm Category Honey Yield
(lb)
Weight after
honey removal (lb)
46 1966 20 58 Nil Clear Light Nosema b 41 42
37 1966 10 42 7 Clear Clear a 118 60
99 1966 9 43 7 Clear Clear a 127 54
35 1966 15 67 Nil Clear Clear b 130 44
34 1966 13 51 Nil Clear Clear b 89 42
72 1966 8 42 7 Clear Clear b 67 62
Mean 12.5 50.5 3.5 95.3 50.7

Buckfast Stocks

 

Hive No. Queen Age Winter Food Consumption
Dec-Mar (lb)
Spring Weight
April 1st (lb)
Spring Feed
(lb)
Disease Check
Spring
Disease Check
Autumn
Swarm Category Honey Yield
(lb)
Weight after
honey removal (lb)
97 1965 13 46 10 Clear Clear b 56 35
141 1966 9 47 6 Clear Clear b 98 37
56 1966 13 39 12 Clear Clear c 27 49
156 1966 13 41 12 Clear Clear b 58 46
85 1966 10 42 12 Clear Light Nosema a 36 49
71 1966 8 38 18 Clear Clear b 42 49
Mean 11 42 11.6 53 44
This article was compiled for publication in the Spring 2004 Issue of ‘The Four Seasons’ from information in a report written by the then head of the Beekeeping Unit Mr T. N. Hillard which was first published in the April 1968 edition of ‘An Beachaire’,