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The Walrus and the Honeybee: Remembering Buckfast
Not bad for a Monday morning. There’s a chill in the air, which seems about right for the time of year, but the sun is shining and I’m settling down to write something for my humble little blog. Well, it’s actually a bee blog, but it’s also small and occupies a quiet, rarely visited corner of the web. There are no tumbleweeds floating around in this part of the internet, just graphs of traffic statistics that remain stubbornly flat. When I worked for General Electric, they were obsessed with “double digit growth.” You won’t find any of that here, although I assume “0.0” is a two-digit number, sort of? Oh, good.
We had relatives from Kent visit us this weekend which was very nice. I took them to my apiary yesterday and was pleased to see that some of my bees are still flying and bringing pollen. I saw one live wasp, so I’ll leave the wasp traps out for a little while longer. I also saw hundreds of dead wasps, drowned in the sweet liquid at the bottom of the traps. I hate wasps at all, but a walrus has to defend its bees.
I was going through an interview I had with David Kemp in August. He is a bit of a legend as he worked alongside his brother Adam at Buckfast Abbey from 1964 to 1974 before becoming a beekeeping inspector for many years. He spent his whole life with bees and is part of the history of beekeeping in this country. He has kindly allowed me to have some photographs of his time at Buckfast which will feature in my upcoming book. They still need a little cleanup in Photoshop to remove specks of dust and odd spots, but they offer a fascinating glimpse into the past. Many thanks to Andy Wattam for taking the digital scans and sending them. Andy was a national bee inspector until a few years ago and also spent time at Buckfast Abbey, but in the 1980s his boss was David Kemp.
One thing I immediately noticed about Mr. Kemp was that he could talk. That’s a good thing, because I had very little to do in our conversation, other than checking the battery status of my recording device. However, he rarely answers the question directly. It was probably because my questions were pointless, or maybe because they triggered memories, so he went off on tangents down memory lane. That was fine by me; all I wanted was to enjoy my time with him and listen to his stories.
We were at a pub called The Fox in Kelham on the River Trent near Newark. I arrived at 11.50am with a burst bladder, traversing the foams in a walrus wagon and was shocked to find the pub didn’t open until midday. Ten minutes may not sound like a long time, but unfortunately it was longer than my water plant could handle, so I had to sneak into a quiet area by the hedge and relieve myself (the other kind of chick). I suppose I could have been arrested for “poisoning a hedge” or something, but I wasn’t caught.
Here is a small excerpt from my interview with David:
He doesn’t know, no answer[NENABÍZEJTE]But on their return from the moors they would be picked up and weighed on a scale and fed using a large feeder if they needed it. They picked up the hive and knowing the weight of the hive they could figure out what supplies were needed. Honey was collected on the moors. We drove up with a team of men on a truck. The beekeepers removed the extensions from the hives – they left them in the bee escapes over the weekend – and we piled the extensions onto the truck and moved to the next apiary.
He was great at organization, he was Adam. It was spot on, typical German.
SD You were one of the many helping or…
He doesn’t know, no answer[NENABÍZEJTE]No. When I first went there the advert said ‘Apiary assistant required for Buckfast Abbey’ and I had been keeping bees since I was 9 years old and was fascinated by how bees worked. I bought bees from France and the Isle of Wight from Douglas Roberts and saw the crosses. Douglas Roberts’ bees were fantastic, not only were they quiet but they also carried lots of honey. French bees were cruel.
SD Were they?
He doesn’t know, no answer[NENABÍZEJTE]Oh… they do a good job, but do they sting? When I was a gamekeeper I had some French bees and my labrador came up and stung him around the lips and ears. The first time he left me, he came back to the house
SD is really not his fault
He doesn’t know, no answer[NENABÍZEJTE]Whenever I went to the hives after that, he stayed about 25 yards away. But the French bees I had were ugly. You could deal with them on a very good day, but at the slightest hint of rain or thunderstorms or anything like that… and if they were closed for a long time, they would just take it to the beekeepers.
You never wore gloves when I was at Buckfast. No suits like people wear now because they weren’t.
SD Just a veil?
DK I had an African Rifles World War II hat and a black mesh veil and apron. The apron band held your veil and the apron kept you from getting messy with the sticky honey.
But going back to the staff, when I got there and met Brother Adam for the first time, he came in one Saturday morning with his hands in his sleeves and his hood… he looked like something out of MacBeth. He took me down to the beekeeping department where brother Pascal worked who was also an excellent beekeeper – he had been with bees for 25 years – he was really good…
He doesn’t know, no answer[NENABÍZEJTE]So Brother Adam, Brother Pascal and I worked on the bees. Brother Bernard did the mail and things like that; sending honey at Christmas – it went to Fortnum & Masons and several shops in London, and a lot went privately in little boxes to different people. So we rode together for a good number of years.
SD So you were in a very privileged position
He doesn’t know, no answer[NENABÍZEJTE]Yes, and looking back, how do these things happen? Why did I apply to work at Buckfast Abbey? Although the hunting I had been doing for the previous six years, I could see that it was all about to change. All the shooting went for money. When I was applying to be a beekeeper, one of the old gamekeepers said it was the best thing I had ever done, and that all the shooting was for money.
It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I thoroughly enjoyed my 4 hours of talking and am delighted with some of the stories I got. Just think when he first went to Buckfast there was no varroa, no canola and there were vast meadows white with clover. They had to deal with the often inclement weather around Dartmoor and, much later, bad brood, but for a while it must have been an idyllic place to keep bees and learn from brother Adam, who was “ahead of his time” according to David Kemp.
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