Having about 10,000 bees on your face is one of the best ways to demonstrate how calm and fun bees can be. I have done a few bee beards for demonstrations at fairs and the most common question I get asked is how the bee beard works. I will give a walk through of how we do it. The basic idea is to make the bees think they are in a swarm, but instead of gathering on a tree branch or the like, the bees gather on someone’s chin.
Step 1) Prepare the bees. We find a small, friendly colony and move it during a high flight time to a different apiary site. The foragers cannot find their way to the colony and the colony is left with primarily younger bees. After about 24 hours, we locate the queen and put her in a cage. Next, we shake about 3 lbs of bees from the colony into a package, focusing on the bees from combs with brood. Then we add the queen, feed the bees with a can of sugar syrup, and put them in a cool, dark location for at least 24 hours. We spray the bees periodically with sugar syrup. Well fed bees are less likely to sting, so we keep them fat and happy.
Step 2) Prepare the person. I put vaseline under my eyes and on lips to prevent the bees from crawling there too much. I put cotton in my ears and up my nose to prevent bees from crawling in. I sometimes tape down my collar and sleeves, and tuck my shirt into my pants and tuck my pants into my socks. It isn’t a good look, but it prevents the bees from getting into my clothing.
Step 3) Add bees. We spray the bees with sugar syrup one last time, then open the package and remove the queen and attach a string to her cage. I sit down in a chair, then an assistant ties the queen around my head, so the queen rests under my chin. I hold a lunch tray against my belly and my assistant dumps the bees onto the tray. The bees will smell the queen, crawl up to her and gather there. The bee feet feel strange and electric as they grip the skin on my face and neck. The cling to each other and hang down like a beard. The bees will “think” they are in a swarm, so they should not be defensive.
Step 4) Remove bees. When I am are ready to get them off, I first remove the queen and place her where I want her to be: either back in the package, or on the next person in line. To remove the majority of the bees, I stand over where I want to bees to go and jump down hard, jarring the bees off. The rest are removed with a soft brush. I let the package sit for a few hours, and after the bees have fully gathered I put the bees and queen back into their old colony.
***Disclaimer: Do NOT try this if you aren’t prepared for something to go wrong with the bees. You will have thousands of stinging insects on your face, so you have to be physically and mentally prepared to deal with getting stung many many times, and potentially on the face. For every bee beard I’ve done, I’ve been stung at least once and I do know of one beard where a person was stung 50+ times. The vast majority of bee beards will go fine and you will get a sting or two at the most. However, if your bees aren’t fed well, the person is not relaxed, the weather is chilly and/or rainy, your bees just have a poor temperament, or some other factor is not in your favor, then the beard could go awry. Keep calm at all times; panic will only increase the stinging. If you have an audience, staying calm becomes even more critical since your panic could endanger others. We keep soapy water to kill the bees and a large shop vacuum around to vacuum them off the person just in case. Demonstrations should be done in screened tents or cages with small wire mesh or some other barrier, but be prepared to deal with escaped bees and people’s fear of them. And, like with all beekeeping, use common sense.