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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!

Ancient Egyptian bee Hieroglyph

In prehistoric times there was no sugar.  Sweetness was only to be found in fruits and berries–with one gleaming exception. Pre-agricultural humans were obsessed with hunting honey (in fact there are rock paintings from 15,000 years ago showing humans robbing honey from wild bees).  The golden food made by bees from pollen and nectar of flowers was not merely delectable: honey is antiseptic and was used as a medicine or preservative.  The wax was also valued for numerous artistic, magical, medicinal, sealing, and manufacturing purposes.

But wild bees were hard to find and capable of protecting themselves with their fearsome stinging abilities.  One of the most useful early forms of agriculture was therefore beekeeping.  The first records we have of domesticated bees come from ancient Egypt.  An illustration on the walls of the sun temple of Nyuserre Ini (from the 5th Dynasty, circa 2422 BC) shows beekeepers blowing smoke into hives in order to remove the honeycomb.  The first written record of beekeeping—an official list of apiarists–is nearly as old and dates back to 2400 BC.  Cylinders filled with honey were found among the grave goods discovered in royal tombs.

Honey was treasured in the (sugar-free) world of ancient Egypt.  It was given as a fancy gift and used as an ointment for wounds. Although honey was too expensive for the lowest orders of society to afford, ancient texts have come down to us concerning thieving servants “seduced by sweetness.” Wax was also precious.  Wax tablets were used for writing.  Wax was an ingredient in cosmetics, an adhesive, a medicine, and a waterproofing agent.  Wigs were shaped with wax. It served as the binding agent for paints.  Mummification required wax for all sorts of unpleasant mortuary functions.  Perhaps most seriously (to the ancient Egyptian mind at least) wax was necessary for magic casting.  By crafting a replica of a person, place, or thing, Egyptians believed they could affect the real world version.

According to Egyptian mythology, bees were created when the golden tears of Ra, the sun god, fell to earth.  Bees are even a part of the foundation of the Egyptian state—one of the pharaoh’s titles was “king bee” (although Egyptians might have grasped rudimentary beekeeping skills they missed many of the important nuances of hive life and they thought the queen was a king).  The symbol of fertile Lower Egypt was the honey bee and the Deshret–the Red Crown of Lower Egypt is believed to be a stylized representation of a bee’s sting and its proboscis.

The Red Crown of Lower Egypt

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

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