An article that appeared in the GBBG newsletter ‘The Four Seasons’ written by Michael Maunsell about the world record bee beard attempt of Philip McCabe that took place in Ireland on 25th June 2005, owing to production limitations the pictures that accompanied the original article could not be published. This page includes the original text as well as the author’s accompanying photographs.

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My initial reaction to Philip’s announcement, on the RTE programme Mooney Goes Wild, was one of amazement and disbelief. Philip has done Irish beekeeping a power of good on this programme and has strenuously worked to allay the public’s fears and raise the profile of beekeepers and beekeeping in Ireland.

However on hearing of the Beard of Bees I thought this is a bridge too far. Anybody who has been to the FIBKA annual week long course in Gormanston would also be very apprehensive since Philip has supplied the bees for demonstration and examination at this course for a number of years. These bees could at best be described as ‘sharpish’.

Philip’s aim was threefold. Firstly to advertise the great achievement of hosting Apimondia 2005 in Dublin. Apimondia is the worldwide congress of beekeepers to be held at the RDS from 21st to 26th of August. Secondly Philip hoped to raise much needed funds for two well known charities, Bees for Development that supplies bees, equipment and training for beekeepers in Third World countries, and Bothar, the Irish based organisation that provides livestock including bees to families mainly in Africa. Thirdly and finally Philip did hope to really have a go at that world record set by Mark Biancaniello in California with 350,000 Italian bees that are renowned for their docility.

However the Dark European Bee is regarded as aggressive by comparison with other European races and has an ability to detect single thickness of material covering a human body and proceed to staple this material to the body when riled up.

Philip approached Micheál MacGiolla Coda of GBBG with the idea and Micheál’s response was “fine fine we’ll see what we can do”. Interpretation of this is “great fantastic we will do everything that is humanly possible and you do not have to worry about a thing”.

Micheál set about the task with phenomenal enthusiasm and spent months researching and building up stocks of bees suitable for the mammoth task ahead. The task was compounded by the fact that a lot of our bees did not over-winter well last year and were lost or were weakened considerably (this has been the subject of some very fine theories). The colonies were fed to stimulate egg laying from an early stage and were also tested and selected for docility.

Since this was the first such venture in Ireland a lot of on the spot learning and improvisation had to be done. As the day approached the work seemed to increase in magnitude and Micheál was constantly drawn away to answer the phone to callers both national and international. Help arrived in the form of Micheál’s own family and some members of GBBG. Final selection of the bees was done and they were transferred to the Burncourt field on the Friday evening.

A suitable location had to be selected for the event. Safety procedures had to put in place, contingency plans were also put in place. Questions arose re the press people, photographers, public access, etc., all with safety uppermost. Mr. Eddie Conway of Burncourt provided the field for the attempt. This location was chosen as it contained in one corner a natural amphitheatre in the form of a disused quarry that had been partially filled in level to a depth of a metre to two metres under the field and was surrounded on two sides by very high banks. The farmer very kindly allowed parking in the field adjacent to the quarry.

The day June 25th. finally arrived and all of the preparations and plans would be put to the test. The morning was much cooler than previous days and was dull and overcast for a long time but of more concern was the wind. The high banks on two sides of the quarry would provide great shelter from a southerly wind but when we needed it most the wind blew from a northerly direction and it seemed to be directed right into the quarry and was quite blustery. In short the weather was far from ideal and not what was hoped for. A sizeable crowd of people began to gather, these were a mixture of beekeepers, photographers, journalists and satellite crews. Philip Mc Cabe, Burncourt and GBBG were to be the centre of worldwide attention for the morning and some time to come.

Philip arrived at the venue and seemed to be totally relaxed, with a word for everybody as is usual for him. Philip togged out and was prepped for the event by Micheál and helpers.

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The amount of mental preparation undergone by Philip must have been phenomenal. Some of us can tolerate bees walking on our hands and our forearms and maybe the very odd one that may land and go walkabout on our face just as long as there is no evil intent in mind. It is a totally different proposition to tolerate bees in huge numbers on parts of the body that are not normally exposed to the elements except maybe for an odd fine day or two of the holidays.

Philip had to condition himself not to react to any discomfort that he may feel and especially not to react to any sting that he might inadvertently receive. He also had to be in reasonably good physical shape to stand still on the scales for the required time. Remember that for two hours he had to remain relatively still, no hopping from one leg to another or folding and unfolding of arms, scratching or any of the other many movements that are made consciously and involuntary over such a period of time.

Philip was very well prepared and had time to sign autographs before the event. As with all major GBBG events Dennis played the bagpipes to lead Philip onto the podium that was on a special weighing scales for the record attempt. Philip was so relaxed that he performed a Rocky Routine on route.

Mary Coffee was in charge of the scales, the morning brightened a little and Micheál took the first skep of bees to the specially prepared chute that would tunnel the bees onto Philip’s body. The bees were very slow to move onto his body. The wind played a major role in dissipating the queen pheromone and any bees that took to flight were slow to alight and cluster tightly.

At about the two-hour mark Philip’s legs were really feeling the strain and he had to call a halt to the proceedings. At this stage he had we reckon about 200,000 bees on his body. This is 199,999 more than most people will tolerate. The bees covered his body except for his navel and parts of his well-tanned thighs; his preparation, as I said earlier, was meticulous.

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The next part of the operation was to remove the bees from his body. The original plan was to shave them off gently using plastic rulers, but Philip came up with a different plan and decided to jump off the podium onto the ground in front of him thus dislodging the bees in one go. I must say that for a man that remained so still for the previous two hours that the engine roared into action and he showed great acceleration for the jump.

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Next came the recovery stage of the operation. A lot of the bees were collected and scooped and measured into Apidea boxes used for queen rearing. Some brood boxes were left on the ground at the location and the flying bees entered these and were bringing in nectar on the following day when checked, thus showing little or no ill effects of the previous handlings. Our primary aim was that no humans would get injured or stung, but as beekeepers our primary goal is always the wellbeing of our bees.

When the event was over people adjourned to the local Community Centre courtesy of the Burncourt Community Council for refreshments before departing for home. The whole event was tremendous success. Philip is to be lauded for his courage in undertaking the attempt at the record. He succeeded in two of his aims set out originally and he certainly set an Irish record. He got tremendous worldwide coverage, it went live to Fox, Channel9 and Sky and raised awareness in Ireland and abroad.
VERY WELL DONE PHILIP.

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The event was also a tremendous success for Micheál MacGiolla Coda and his GBBG and his native dark bees. It shows that with selective breeding that our bees could be a pleasure to work with. Micheál encourages record keeping at each manipulation and breed only from the best and cull the worst.

Thanks is due to Philip for his foresight and fortitude.
Thanks to the landowner, Eddie Conway and to the Burncourt Community Council.
Thanks to the members of GBBG who were involved in any way.
Finally thanks to Micheál and the entire MacGiolla Coda family for their tremendous efforts to ensure that everything went as smoothly as it did and that everybody was well cared for, again thank you.

Michael Maunsell