Assyrian Sculpture (ca. 10th-8th century BC)

Imagine having a thick luxurious beard which would make an Assyrian king proud.  Pretty appealing! OK, now imagine if that heavy beard were composed of tens (or hundreds) of thousands of live bees.  Aagh! The loveable little black and yellow creatures are instantly transformed into the stuff of horror! What is wrong with people?

I am too horrified to think of a caption (image credit http://www.thehoneygatherers.com)

With their complex societies, compound eyes, elaborate gendered castes, and preternatural work ethic, bees can sometimes seem quite alien, but nothing the insects do strikes me as so strange as the behavior of the humans involved in the activity of bee bearding.  Since the ancient beginnings of apiculture, beekeepers have put bees on their own bodies to demonstrate their command over their “livestock”.  This practice took a dramatic leap forward in the early 19th century when a visionary Ukranian beekeeper named Petro Prokopovych started popularizing some of his innovations by coaxing large numbers of bees to cover his face and neck in large numbers!  The practice was subsequently adopted by numerous 19th century carnival folk, showmen, and honey sellers in order to stir up interest and make some money, and it continues to this day.

Illustration to “Kidder’s Guide to Apiarian Science” by K.P. Kidder (1858)

In order to create a bee beard, a beekeeper separates a group of bees from a hive and puts them in a box for two days (making sure to feed them with plenty of sugar water).  The beekeeper then puts a tiny cage containing a young queen bee underneath his/her chin, and waits with quiet, calm determination as the carefully released workers follow the queen’s strong pheromones and surround her en mass.  In effect the bee-bearder is creating an artificial swarm—a state of affairs when bees abandon their traditional defensive behaviors.

Undoubtedly you are wondering what it is like to wear an entire colony of flying, stinging insects like an otherworldly scarf.  The Toronto Star asked bee beard expert Melanie Kempers to describe the experience and she said;

It’s kind of like monkeys in a barrel. The original bee holds onto the face and they hold on to each other. It’s kind of little claws, holding on to the skin, If I try to move my face, they hold on with all their might, it feels like a sunburn. The skin is tight.

That’s a pretty blasé way to describe wearing a lot of living things—and bee beards can be made up of truly huge numbers.  In 1998, the record holder, an American animal trainer named Mark Biancaniello, wore a beard (or maybe a body suit) consisting of 350,000 bees–which together weighed just under 40 kilograms (about 87 pounds).

There is a brave Chinese beekeeper somewhere inside there, I swear!

As in many other matters, Chinese beekeepers have been pursuing this record.  Although the East Asian apiarists have not beat the record yet, they have done a good job coming up with impressive bee beard stunts.  In fact, a pair of Chinese beekeepers, Li Wenhua and Yan Hongxia, were wed while wearing matching bee swarms! The real trick behind bee beards is safely removing them.  Apparently the wearer leaps straight into the air and comes down in a jarring fashion which knocks the bees loose.  Then assistants spray the remaining bees with white smoke as the beekeeper removes stragglers with gentle shaking motions.  That is what I have read at any rate, I have no intention of trying this myself!