The Buckfast Africa Team. Brother Adam stayed home this time, 1989, when Kenya was visited. The others from left: Bert Thrybom, Erik Bjorklund and Erik Osterlund from Sweden and Michael van der Zee from Holland.
It was Africa we visited and of course we took a tour to the big animals, among others elephants and giraffes.
In the western part where we went first, traditional huts were still widely used for living.
It was Mt. Elgon on the border to Uganda that was our first destination to seek for the Monticola bee, Apis mellifera monticola. Its peak is over 4,321 m (14,170 feet) above sea level. (Photo: Bert Thrybom)
We had rented a 4-wheel drive Land Rover from 1954, which we named The Old Lady. Without it, the expedition would have been impossible. The first day of search took us directly to the most probable place, the highest possible place. But there we needed armed guards. Four of them, to protect us against mountain lions and smugglers.
Besides 12 persons in the Land Rover, we also had to carry a lot of fuel. And to park on a side slope was very beneficial, not to loose any drops of gas. Besides the 4 armed guards and the 4 of us, were our two local contacts and two interested officials.
On Mt Elgon there’s a big rain forest creating a very special climate together with the almost daily afternoon rains and night frosts up where we were going.
When we had passed the rain forest, well above 3,000 m (9,800 feet), we started to look for bees. We heard bees and saw a few but couldn’t locate the nests. We stopped at this place because other expeditions had stopped there before. But we decided to go on, as our local contacts knew that further on a beekeeping tribe had lived until recently, close to the tree level.
We were approaching the tree level on about 3,500 m (11,500 feet), with the peak in the background, quite close to the Ugandian border.
We found the former village of this tribe and also log hives that had never come in use.
One of the guards found the first log hive up in the trees. And this very first colony of Monticola bees would show itself to be the very most important one, as it was the only one on Mt. Elgon we found that had enough drones for us. It turned out to be the wrong season for a surplus supply of drones, in late February. We wanted to avoid the rainy season which would come a little later. But this season was also kind of an autumn for the bees here. This bee, especially here on top of Mt. Elgon, has become accustom to be able to survive on a few short working hours a day. Footsteps were cut out in the trunk for easier climbing and harvesting of the colonies in the trees. When doing so, the hive was normally opened in one end, one year, and harvested the length of one arm into it. Next year, it was opened from the other side if possible and harvested from that side.
Number one, M1, we called this colony, had an old queen with worn out wings. It had prepared 4-5 cellcups for making a new queen. That’s why they had saved such a lot of drones. We were happy, collecting drones in cages, for later semen collecting when back down on our 2,200 m (7,200 feet) headquarters. The loghive was fully built with nice waxcombs with no bracecomb and the bees were very easy to handle. They were totally black and uniform, and as it was later to be seen, they were somewhat bigger in size than the bees lower down the mountain sides. The workers had very little hair, with very thin hairy bands on the abdomen.
Not far away was the second loghive, called M2.
This M2-colony was remarkably filled with honey. From this colony we managed to save the queen which we put in an Apidea mini nuc, together with some clusters of bees. This way it was much easier to get her to survive the whole trip and gave us the possibility to bring newly laid eggs home to Europe, together with semen. This second colony turned out to be the one that gave us eggs and thus virgin queens back home which were inseminated with the semen from the drones from M1.
The guards found their job watching over us a little unusual and beneficial. They brought surplus honey back home, this guard, in his water bottle. They were also active in helping us to try and locate the hives, and it was another guard that found two of the three hives in this place for us.
We also found a third hive up here at 3,500 m. Here we see the insulation put back on the hive, and then the hive was put back in its place in the tree it came from. Brood combs and some food were saved for the bees and put together with sticks right through the combs to hold them in place. The bees would fix the rest and the drones would supply mating possibilities for the new virgins.
When we were safely back “at home” at “The Green Roundabout”, our headquarters and the only house made of stone in the neighbourhood, we squeezed drones and collected semen in the light of torches, as we had no electricity. Bert Thrybom had brought his microscope for this purpose. This semen was stored in thin small tubes with antibiotics in the ends, wrapped in toilet paper for the rest of the trip. The toilet paper was always kept wet to keep it cool. When possible, it was kept in a refrigerator, though only a few days in total.
This hive, called M5, on about 2,500 m (8,200 feet) just below the mountain rain forest, belonged to a commercial beekeeper about 80 years old, a Salvation Army Officier, who came and preached for us in the weekend. It had somewhat smaller bees and it needed somewhat more smoke when handled, but it was not too bad. It also filled the hive quite good with combs. Further down the mountain side, the hives weren’t filled very good with combs, which may have indicated a higher swarming tendency. The cellsize of the wax I have, later measured on a sample to be 4.6 mm from this hive. The bees on the mountainsides of Mt. Elgon don’t need to abscond during any season as there never is a really dry season, totally without nectar. It rained a little most every day, especially very high up. This 80-year old beekeeper got in return from us, a bee suit and gloves for his son, who was going to take over the bee business.
This 80-year old beekeeper was smart and had developed his beekeeping somewhat. This loghive, like many others of his close by, were placed this way to be easier to harvest for him. He had seen that the bees placed the honey above them, therefore he tipped his hives over a bit like this, and always harvested from the back. He had also provided some of his hives, which were not protected by trees, with metal sheets, against the rain.
At another place high up in the forest we negotiated with a villager for searching his hive. Erik Bjorklund and Michael van der Zee were good at this kind of job.
Here we also got a fungus, that was said to quiet down bees when put in the smoker. We tried it at another place and it seemed to work.
This colony was named M4. Erik Bjorklund is restoring the hive with broodcombs and some food.
The surplus honeycombs were harvested in a bowl and the queen and some bees put in an apidea mini nuc and shut and brought back “home”.
The Apideas were put up in trees away from predators back home. I had bought sugar locally and put in moistened sugar in the food chamber. The wax foundation had been brought from Sweden, and this turned out to cause difficulties. The bees didn’t draw this foundation very good at all, and when done a little, the queen didn’t lay anyhow. But when I took some comb from a top bar hive in the neighbourhood and put those in the small miniframes instead, the queen began to lay. When in Kenya, I thought maybe the bees didn’t like the smell from our wax. I saw that the cells in the combs taken from the native hives were much smaller. Okay, the wax may have had an influence, but as Frances G. Smith in the 60’s had problems with African bees and big sized cells on our European wax foundation, I realize today that the cells on the foundation I brought were too big for these bees and queens brought up there. When we left for Europe, we dumped the Apideas near the airport after taking broodcombs with eggs and wrapped in moistened toilet paper in plastic bags, losely put together to permit some air flow. Back home, they were put in a queenless and broodless colony. The ideal would have been a broodless colony with a virgin not yet laying.
In the neighbourhood where we were staying, they were keeping Kenya Top Bar Hives, actually a part in an aid program. The bees in these hives were mostly influenced from the Monticola, but some swarms came from the upper hills, and mostly those were more difficult to handle and the further down the hills you came the more difficult to handle became the bees. The Monticola, then, is a resource for the area to keep a stock of more easily handled bees, for the benefit of the people.
When going high up in the mountains we were not experiencing boiling water in the radiator of the car, but boiling gas in the carburetor, especially in hot weather and coming up close to 3,000 m (9,800 feet) on a steep road. We then poured gas on a piece of cloth and put it on the carburetor to cool it, which it did very quickly when the gas evaporated. We had to do this a couple of times. Then we filled the carburetor with gas from above and at the same time tried to start the engine, to get it to take gas on its own. After some time we were going again.
The Old Lady needed repeated services and Michael van der Zee was good at that. Especially the starter engine needed our attention. We really didn’t want that one out of function.
Out in the west of Kenya where we were, not many white people were around, so we really got attention. It was not difficult at all to get the car covered, when a photo was announced to be taken.
In Africa I learned the importance of “bottle-time”, a time of rest and fellowship, and for needed fluid. For us, mostly Coke or Fanta, even out here in these remote areas. Now, this time of fellowship with whatever nice people were at hand, and with God, I learned is actually what life is all about. It was enough with an earthen floor in a hut, sitting in old furniture, holding something in your hand (if not fresh water at hand even a bottle of Coke could do) as a help for fellowship, to be able to sit and talk together and feel the acceptance and appreciation from the others. That’s what we need a lot in our western world too, a lot of coffee breaks for example. That’s what we were doing sitting in a café, me at the window without any glass. I was easily spotted from outside, a rare white person. The schoolgirls were amazed by my appearance and wondered, if I was as fragile as I looked. So they came close from outside and touched my arm with their fingers to see if they would penetrate my arm or not. We were really exotic to them.
Mount Kenya was the second mountain we visited. Its peak is 5,200 m above sea level (17,000 feet). But that high we didn’t go. Up there it was snow. On Mt. Kenya there had been big forest fires burning down a lot of the mountain rain forest. The climate here was different from that on Mt. Elgon. Here they didn’t experience as much of the daily rains.
At 2,500 m (8,200 feet) on Mt. Kenya, we visited an apiary with a number of Kenya top Bar Hives. The bees were smaller than high up on Mt. Elgon. The color of the bees were not uniform, but some colonies were uniformly black. The temper varied. One colony was very bad tempered, but others were very calm and could be handled almost without smoke. We saw a swarm flying in the distance.
This hive was very easily managed and was uniformly black colored. The bees had a very peculiar trait. They very easily sensed the smell of their queen and followed her, even when we moved the Apidea far away, and the bees from the hive were coming to take spot of their new home as they seemed to think, as their queen was there. The strong pheromones from the queen and trait of finding and following the new place for their hive, when it was moved, also within the same apiary, I found to exist also in the new combinations made in Sweden later on. But this queen in this particular Apidea never came to give any heritage to these combinations.
Our contact knew where to find a cliff colony well above the tree level, up on about 4,000 m (13,000 feet). Of course we wanted to find out if this colony should be very close in appearance to those on top of Mt. Elgon. (Photo Erik Bjorklund.)
Here I am investigating the colony. I managed to take samples of the wax and the bees, but they were surprisingly small and bad tempered and not uniformly black. Later I measured the cell size to be 4.8 mm. Mt. Kenya is almost on the Equator.
Back in Sweden a Beekeeper friend had prepared a colony in early March in 1989 for queen breeding. Very, very unusual. It was warmer than normal, about +2°C ( +36°F). I realized that another colony had a drone layer and took away the queen there. This later colony gave me one small queencell and a resulting queen. The first hive, from which the queen and all brood had been taken away, took all the nine larvae it got on a grafting list, and built nine nice cells. But before capping, the bees took away eight and left one capped, even though the colony was fed. Later I understood that I was happy that I had been able to get any queens at all, due to apparently different chemistry, pheromones, or something like that. Later when grafting pure Monticola, very many larvae, cells, virgins and mated queens were lost, before finally getting some accepted laying new Monticola queens. Maybe they had too strong of pheromones, so the bees didn’t know how to react, like the Scutallata react on Capensis workers and queens in South Africa. Anyhow, the resulting first two queens (M13 and M14), were inseminated in my kitchen by Bert Thrybom. First he added a solution with glucos to the semen to give the spermes their mobility back after this long storage. Later on these queens were used for grafting and we were getting new pure Monticola queens already that first season of 1989. The M13 and M14 never left their Apideas, for different reasons. Their daughters were first kept in hives with queen excluders on the bottom boards, while checking the behaviour of the new combinations.
Two pure Monticola bees, the black ones, can be seen in this photo. One surprisingly big, and one smaller than the Buckfast worker bees in the same Apidea. One can see the slim appearance though,of the abdomen and the short hairs. Later I have understood that the bigger size of the pure Monticola workers here, most probably is due to the bigger cell sizes (Grout, 1937) used in Sweden, 5.4 mm, instead of the about 5.0 mm (4.8 5.1) size given by Crane (1990) for Monticola.
A very black, slim and long, M14 daughter and her small first cross worker.
A very dark, but not totally black M13 daughter and her uniformly brownish first cross workers.
A pure, quite enormous Monticola drone. The size I have understood, is due to it being born in a very big drone cell (Baudoux, 1934), from drone foundation I had bought instead of the smaller drone cells the bees build themselves. The color of the hair and the short hair give the drone a very black appearance. The abdomen of the first cross drone is not that very black due to longer hair and cross combination effects. Further generations of course split the appearance of the drones in different kinds. The short black hair on thorax, which give the thorax a very black appearance can be seen here and there many generations later, maybe because it is so easily spotted.
A colony with first cross workers, daughters to a M14 daughter. Very nice brood pattern.
The Buckfast group in our county, where I am chairman, now began working with this new combination between the Buckfast bee and the Monticola. Also Sahariensis crosses were used, a North African race, also with shorter development time for the brood, and smaller size of the workers. This was a good help in avoiding inbreeeding due to the narrow base for breeding, as we wanted to preserve as high degree of heritage of the Monticola as possible, till we knew the real value of this new bee. Here three of the group is present, Bjorn Lagerman, Leif Stromberg and Sven Kivling. Not present is Gunnar Krantz, Stigake Gerdvall and Alrik Wahltersson.
A German visitor inspecting a combination with both Sahariensis and Monticola heritage, in this case with Sahariensis as motherline (This colony was named 450 by me).
Poul Erik Karlsen on the island Bornholm in the Baltic, is another Elgon beekeeper, successfully keeping bees without any kind of chemical or treatment method at all against the varroa mite since 1995, for the bees he keeps today. Some odd colonies can’t handle the mite. If the queens are shifted early enough in such colonies, either by Karlsen or even sometimes by the bees themselves the colony recovers till autumn. But in some few instances of this later type, they don’t. He today runs about 100 hives. Climatic and management differences is seen to have importance in the final performance of the bees in connection with the varroa mite. For those interested, the cell size at the moment in Karlsen’s colonies is 5.3 mm. This photo is taken in October 2000 of a colony that was seriously affected by the mites in the middle of the summer 2000. He left the hive to follow what would happen. As the queen was old, the bees shifted her themselves. When we looked into this colony, Karlsen wasn’t sure what he’d find. We found a full box of bees, a new queen and no “wingless” bees. Is the explanation new fresh pheromones from a new queen which also was mated to drones with good heritage? An observation of these Elgon bees is that the size of the workers is smaller than in ordinary Buckfast colonies, even if they are born in the same size of cells.
This queen is not a direct result from our expedition to Kenya. But descendants from her, are used in test combinations with the Elgon bee of today. The queen is a first cross Lamarckii (Egyptian) x Buckfast and the workers here, a second cross to Buckfast. The Elgon bee is so called due to its origin in great depth from Kenya, in combination with among other bees, the Buckfast bee. Even if the Elgon bee is bred according to Buckfast principles, I can’t call it Buckfast as its heritage differs substantially enough and it’s not bred there. But I’m very grateful for what I’ve learned from Brother Adam and Peter Donovan at Buckfast Abbey.