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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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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