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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!

The 1988 Jamaican Bobsled Team

In high-low poker the person with the best hand of cards splits the cash pot with the person with the very worst hand.  I mention this because, in addition to spotlighting the world’s best athletes, every Olympics seems to feature an athlete or a team who wins the hearts of the fans because they are in way over their head.  The 1988 Olympics in Calgary, which marked the apogee of this trend, featured several different underdogs who became more famous than the actual winners.  The Jamaican bobsled team came from a nation which doesn’t have ice except in tropical drinks.  Their story is actually an inspiring tale of Olympic fraternity: other bobsledders lent them equipment (including bobsleds!) and helped them out with coaching and advice.  Although they did not officially finish in 1988, they showed great improvement and returned in subsequent winter Olympics (and were canonized in a not-entirely-accurate John Candy comedy).  Here’s a video of them zig-zagging down the track and crashing (it isn’t a practice run either).

Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards at Calgary

The 1988 Olympics also featured my favorite Olympic story—Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards, a far-sighted, big-chinned amateur British ski-jumper.  When I say “far-sighted” I don’t mean he looked deep into the future of the sport, I mean his vision was seriously impaired and he had to wear heavy glasses at all time.  These spectacles would fog up during his jumps which caused all sorts of problems (and you really don’t want any problems on a ski jump).  Eddie ran out of funds, so he trained with ski boots many sizes too large and lived rent-free in a Finnish mental hospital (ostensibly as a low rent boarder rather than as a patient).  On each of his jumps Eddie skirted dangerously close to death or contusion, yet he always provided an immensely entertaining spectacle.  The audience was a bit baffled by the flying-squirrel-like physiques and esoteric gliding skills of the winning ski jumpers, but bonded instantly with a lunatic everyman sliding off an immense ice-ramp for reasons of obdurate pride.

1998 Japanese Women’s Hockey Team

In the 1998 winter Olympics, the Japanese women’s hockey team (which was made up of miniscule, hyper-polite athletes) earned an automatic invitation to the tournament because Japan was hosting the Olympics.  I seem to remember watching a match where they were playing against craggy-faced giants from some icebound northern country and every single Japanese player fell down at the same time. Some of them didn’t (or couldn’t) make it upright for a while.

Eric “The Eel” Moussambani

In 2000 Eric Moussambani Malonga (aka “Eric the Eel”), a swimmer from Equatorial Guinea, stunned the world by taking longer to complete the 100 meter freestyle than competitors from other nations took to swim the 200 meter freestyle. “The Eel” who had been training for only eight months in a tiny hotel pool, had qualified for the Olympics when the two other swimmers in his heat were disqualified.  He swam his heat by himself—and won (even though he appeared to be sinking at the end).

Hamadou Djibo Issaka

Of course I would not mention these famously…tenacious…Olympians of yesteryear if the 2012 games did not already feature an athlete notable for his gallant but ineffectual effort.  An optimistic (albeit small-framed) sculler has already made a name for himself by, well, by not rowing as quickly as his competitors.    Hamadou Djibo Issaka was working as a gardener in the landlocked desert nation of Niger until he received a wild card spot (which nbcolympics.com explains are issued “to ensure all 204 National Olympic Committees can take part even if no athletes have qualified.”)  Although Djibo Issaka only practiced rowing a single scull for 3 months prior to the Olympics he demonstrated his spirit and determination by competing against the finest rowers in the world.  Yesterday, he gamely rowed a 2000 meter course in front of 20,000 cheering spectators.  Although he finished 300 meters behind his closest competitor in the heat, he was pleased not to have fallen out of his boat (which is what happened the first time he got in a scull in a two-week camp last November) and he is enthusiastic about Niger’s future rowing opportunities once they actually get sculls to practice with.

Hamadou Djibo Issaka rowing at the 2012 Olympics

Although he is now known as “the sculling sloth” the 35 year old Djibo Issaka was undaunted by his last place finish.  He will be rowing again on Friday and is looking forward to 2016.  I am glad that the Olympics include all sorts of athletes!  It makes the entire spectacle more exciting and unpredictable.   The gold medal champions embody the Olympics motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius” (“faster, higher, stronger”), but the amateurs who refuse to give up embody the Olympics creed.   To quote Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

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