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The Buzzing World of Bee Bearding

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Imaginechina/Corbis

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.”

Video Extras

Tim Lawrence giving a lecture on pheromones, while covered in a bee beard and helmet.

John Gibeau giving a bee beard to two volunteers.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

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Oakley Originals, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0
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Animals
Could Imported Sperm Help Save America’s Bees?
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Oakley Originals, Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0

It might be time to call in some sexual backup for male American bees. Scientists have started impregnating domestic honeybees with foreign sperm in the hopes that enlarging the gene pool will give our bees a fighting chance.

These days, the bees need all the help they can get. Colonies across the globe are disappearing and dying off, partly due to the increased use of neonicotinoid pesticides and partly from a parasite called the varroa mite. The invasive mite first landed on American shores in 1987, and it's been spreading and sickening and devouring our bees ever since.

Part of the problem, researchers say, is that the American bee gene pool has gone stagnant. We stopped importing live honeybees in 1922, which means that all the bees we've got are inbred and, therefore, all alike. They lack the genetic diversity that allows species to adapt to changing conditions or new threats. So when the mites come, they all get hit.

Many apiarists now rely on anti-mite pesticides to keep their charges safe. While these treatments may help keep the mites away, they aren't great for the bees, either—and the mites have begun to develop a resistance. But beekeepers feel like their hands are tied.

"I lost 40 percent of my colonies to varroa last fall," Matthew Shakespear of Olson's Honeybees told NPR. "I'm not taking any more chances. We've already done five treatments, compared with the two treatments we applied this time last year."

But there might be another way. Experts at the University of Washington have started to—how can we put this delicately?—manually encourage drones (male bees) in Europe and Asia to give up their sperm. All it takes is a little belly rub, and the drone, er, donates 1 microliter of fluid, or one-tenth of the amount needed to inseminate a queen bee.

"They're really accommodating," bee breeder and researcher Susan Cobey told NPR. 

It's hardly a painless procedure, but researcher Brandon Hopkins told Mental Floss it's no worse than sex in the wild. "In natural mating he uses pressure from muscles and hemolymph to evert [his genitals], (inflating it and forcing it to pop out)," Hopkins wrote in an email. "In the lab we apply pressure to the head and thorax to create similar pressure to cause the eversion. In both cases (naturally and artificially) the male dies from the process of mating."

So far, the scientists' attempts to crossbreed foreign and domestic bees have been successful. Within their test colonies, genetic diversity is up.

"This doesn't mean they are superior in performance to the other bees," Hopkins told NPR. "It means we have a better chance of finding rare and unique traits." Traits, Hopkins says, like genetic resistance to the varroa mites—a quality shared by donor bees in Italy, Slovenia, Germany, Kazakhstan, and the Republic of Georgia.

Other beekeepers are opting for a more hands-off approach, introducing imported queens to their domestic hives. Shakespear bought his from Cobey, who reared them from bees she collected in Slovenia.

"Maybe these new genetics can deal with the varroa mites naturally," Shakespear said, "rather than having to rely on chemicals. It's time to start widening our gene pool."

[h/t The Salt]

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Animals
Study Finds Pesticide Makes It Hard for Bees to Fly on Target
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Scientists say a widely used pesticide can affect honeybees’ ability to fly, making it harder for foraging bees to find their way home. They published their findings in the journal Scientific Reports.

Bee populations worldwide are currently facing a mountain of threats and difficulties. Parasites, habitat loss, and even antibiotics have all been implicated in the bees’ decline, but it may be pesticide that’s doing the most damage.

Foraging honeybees (Apis mellifera) regularly take in small amounts of chemicals like thiamethoxam, a neonicotinoid pesticide that’s regularly sprayed on monoculture crops like cotton, soybeans, and corn. A little dose won’t kill the bees, and it won’t keep them from coming back to consume more the next day. Over time, that chronic exposure can mess them up.

Biologists at the University of California San Diego’s Nieh Lab wanted to know if and how thiamethoxam could affect bees’ ability to fly. They exposed honeybees to low doses of the pesticide for two days, then strapped each one into this unusual contraption—the bee version of a treadmill.

At first, the pesticide almost seemed like it was doing the bees a favor. Thiamethoxam-exposed bees initially flew much farther and faster than bees who’d never been near the chemical.

The problem is that they weren’t flying anywhere in particular. They seemed disoriented and soon wore themselves out in their mad, flailing dash to get where they wanted to go. On the treadmill, this panic-type flying didn’t do them any harm, but in the wild, these erratic, exhausting flight patterns could keep the bees from ever getting home.

To make matters worse, given a choice, the bees almost always opted to consume pesticide, and they ate more when their food had been laced with the stuff.

"The honey bee is a highly social organism, so the behavior of thousands of bees are essential for the survival of the colony," co-author James Nieh said in a statement. "We've shown that a sub-lethal dose may lead to a lethal effect on the entire colony."

Header image by Luc Viatour via Wikimedia Creative Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

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