Calm Before The Swarm: The Buzzing World of Bee Bearding
Standing on their respective scales, wearing only shorts and goggles, the two men looked like they were weighing in for an amateur swimming competition. In a matter of moments, they would indeed be swimming—not in water, but in hundreds of thousands of swarming bees.
In July 2011, when Wang Dalin (pictured) and Lu Kongjiang, two beekeepers from the Hunan province of China, faced off to see who could attract the most bees to their flesh, Dalin won. After one hour, he was cloaked in 57 pounds of the buzzing creatures. With one pound equaling roughly 4,000 bees, that’s a total of 228,000 bees. Amazingly, it was still thirty pounds shy of the World’s Record set in 1998 by American animal trainer Mark Biancaniello.
Dalin’s feat was the latest in the strange worldwide pursuit known as bee bearding. Though, in looking at the photos of Dalin head-to-toe in bees, it wasn’t so much a bee beard he was sporting as a bee-otard.
I wondered, what would compel a person to do this? For answers, I spoke with two longtime bee bearders and all-around bee experts, Tim Lawrence and John Gibeau.
Lawrence, Director of the Honey Bee Health Program at Washington State University, says, “Bee bearding is kind of a hammy thing to do, really, but it always draws a crowd and amazes people. For me, it’s strictly a teaching tool. It demonstrates that bees can be trained and shows swarming instincts, plus the role that pheromones play.”
Gibeau, President of the Honeybee Centre in Vancouver, agrees. “It’s a stunt that’s essentially good PR for the bee world, to demonstrate that they’re gentle and easy to train.”
The process of training bees to go all Ulysses S. Grant on your face starts with what Gibeau describes as “a strong colony with a young queen.” A young queen is preferred for her strong pheromones, which keep the other bees under chemical allegiance.
First, a section of the population is separated from the colony, which “gets them away from the defensive behavior they have,” says Lawrence. Along with the queen, they are transferred to a box. For two days, they’re fed a heavy diet of sugar syrup. “Once they’re full of nectar,” Gibeau says, “this puts them in a nice, serene state.” The queen is then taken out of the box and placed in a plastic vial with tiny holes. The vial is draped around the neck of the bee bearder. The other bees swarm to the queen (to help the bees along, an orientation pheromone called Nasanov is often added to the box). Voila, a bee beard.
“You’re basically tricking the bees into swarming,” says Gibeau. “A bee beard is simply an emulated swarm.”
Does It Tickle?
And how does that feel when it’s on your face?
“Unnerving at first,” says Gibeau. “It’s an odd sensation of tickling. But there’s a tremendous amount of apprehension, because you’re waiting for that stinging to start. In your mind, you think, they’ll all sting at once and you’ll drop dead. But that never happens, so the apprehension is followed by relief, relaxation then grounding.”
“It’s warm,” says Lawrence. “They’re relatively heavy, and you can feel the tarsal claws clinging to you. There’s a calming buzz. And it’s interesting to have a bee look you directly in the eye.”
Bees and humans have a long history together. Cave paintings dating to around 13,000 BC suggest that early man gathered honey from wild colonies, and used smoke to subdue the bees—a practice that’s still a mainstay of beekeeping. But how about bee bearding?
The invention is commonly attributed to a Russian beekeeper named Petro Prokopovych. His innovations in the early 1800s included the still-used beehive frame (which allowed for easier honey harvest). Though Prokopovych was certainly influential on modern beekeeping, Gibeau believes that bee bearding has probably been around much longer.
“Mankind has been keeping bees commercially for over 5,000 years, starting in Egypt, so I’d be surprised if they didn’t figure it out back then,” he says. “Picture a beekeeper working in a field and a swarm landing on him or her, and there you have your first bee beard.”
Get Them Off Me
So the question remains, once you’ve got a bee beard, how do you shave it off?
“You can go hours with them on you, but you can be out of it in seconds,” says Lawrence. “You simply jump straight up in the air, come down and all the bees fall off. Then you walk backwards and you have people gently spraying you with white smoke, as the queen is removed from around your neck.”
For those not practiced in the “jump and shake” method (and the wrong kind of flailing around can result in multiple stings), Gibeau says, “There’s also a vacuum system that will take the bees off right away. It’s gentle, so it doesn’t hurt them.”
While both Lawrence and Gibeau were aware of Wang Dalin’s recent feat, neither seemed overly impressed. “It’s unique and novel, and the public thinks it’s cool,” says Gibeau, “For me, I like that it’s yet another demonstration of how bees are gentle.”
“Bee bearding has never been a competitive thing for me,” says Lawrence. Then with a chuckle, he adds, “But you know, I’m 6’4”, and I could probably handle a hundred pounds of bees, if I wanted.”
Tim Lawrence giving a lecture on pheromones, while covered in a bee beard and helmet.
John Gibeau giving a bee beard to two volunteers.