Quest for a Superbee

Can the world’s most important pollinators be saved? How scientists and breeders are trying to create a hardier honeybee.

Brother Adam must have known he had become a beekeeper at an unlucky time. It was 1915, and he was a 16-year-old novice at Buckfast Abbey in southwest England. Rapid bee die-offs have been recorded for centuries, but the catastrophe that confronted the young monk was unprecedented. A mysterious disease had wiped out almost every apiary on the Isle of Wight and now was devastating the rest of England. Brother Adam found his hives suddenly vacant, bees crawling beneath them, unable to fly. That year he lost 29 of the abbey’s 45 hives.

Scientists eventually linked the disease to a previously unknown virus. But the research came too late to save Britain’s native dark brown honeybee. Almost all the surviving hives were hybrids, the progeny of local drones that mated with foreign-bred queens. The apparently superior vigor of these blends made Brother Adam think about breeding a disease-resistant bee.

In 1950, after years of preparation, he finally got his chance. Commandeering an old abbey car, he traveled over the next 37 years through Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, collecting more than 1,500 queens: the hardworking bees of northern Turkey, the hyper-diverse bees of Crete, the isolated bees of Sahara oases, the deep black bees of Morocco, the tiny orange bees of the Nile, the supposedly placid bees of Mount Kilimanjaro. He took his exotic menagerie to a remote station in the moors, miles from other bees with their unwanted genes. Performing countless breeding tests in pristine solitude, he created the Buckfast bee—a superbee, as it was quickly dubbed. Tan-colored and robust, it was reluctant to sting, zealously productive, and resistant to what had come to be called Isle of Wight disease. By the 1980s Buckfast bees were sold across the world. Bee breeders are rare. Brother Adam had become something even rarer: an apiculture celebrity.

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