Bees in his bonnet? Sure. Bees everywhereDAEGU -- Ask most older Koreans about honey, and one word comes to mind: fake.
Traditionally sold by peddlers, most honey in Korea was once actually sugar water, oftentimes topped with a thin layer of real honey to fool the average shopper who asked for a taste.
Ahn Sang-gyu, 40, is out to change that perception. "My honey is genuine," he said. "I don't sell to people who ask me if my honey's real. I take great pride in my brand."
Speaking in a strong Gyeongsang dialect, Mr. Ahn, thin and shiny-faced, describes himself as a man who loves bees so much so that he wears them from time to time.
Mr. Ahn is not only the owner of a brand of honey products that bear his name, Ahn Sang-gyu Honey, but since 1997 he has also been the holder of the Guinness Book of World Records for wearing bees on his body. He is regarded as the foremost expert on bees in Korea and his life has revolved around living among bees, studying them, extracting honey from them and extolling their virtues.
How is Mr. Ahn able to affix 220,000 live Italian bees (his latest record) to his body, from the knees up? "Bees have an unwavering attachment to their queen," he says. "Once you get the queen on your body, the rest will follow." Will it hurt? "Of course," he replies. "When I put on my 'armor of bees,' I get stung 100 times. A person can get fatally wounded with just one sting or 10, depending on the person, and a 500-kilogram cow will surely die with just 250 stings. But I have been doing this for so long that I've become immune to the poison. You know, I've even been stung 400 times at once, yet I'm still alive and kicking."
As you walk into the Ahn Sang-gyu Honey Museum in Daegu, you are greeted by a large wooden plaque with the biblical verse, "My child, eat honey, for it is good, and the honeycomb is sweet to the taste" (Proverbs 24:13). Mr. Ahn is a devout Christian, and several plaques bearing scripture decorate the museum walls.
The large room displays bee-farming instruments from the past, beehives and honeycombs, along with a list of the benefits of honey and flowers. Rows of honey made by bees that gather pollen from acacias, jujube, or chestnuts, and other products like royal jelly and pollen dust fill the shelves, ranging in price from 39,000 won to 80,000 won ($32-65).
In a secluded part of the woods, not far from the Honey Museum, Mr. Ahn takes two of his employees to help him with his bee-wearing feat. It takes more than two hours to "get dressed," or to wear this blanket of bees. There are seven wooden hives in this particular patch, each containing about 25,000 bees. Unlike the four spectators watching this day, Mr. Ahn does not wear a facial net to protect against bee stings. "I'm a pro," he says. Slowly and carefully, he opens each box and takes out a wooden slate covered in bees and honeycomb while he searches in earnest for the queen bee among the thousands of bees swarming around. As he looks, Mr. Ahn mutters, "Where are you? Has ajumma [queen bee] gone dancing or something?"
In order to calm the bees so that they will not attack him, Mr. Ahn and his crew pump smoke from a tin can filled with burning sticks and paper. When Mr. Ahn finds the queen, which is about 1.5 times larger than the average bee, he puts her in a wooden cage the size of a matchbox. Suddenly, worker bees start to attach themselves to the box by scores. He then pours out the boxes full of bees onto the large table, where they scatter around like spilled jellybeans.
Mr. Ahn takes off his clothes except his underpants and patiently drapes the bees onto his head and shoulders; the rest clamor up his body in multitudes to where Mr. Ahn has slung the queen bee on his neck. He cringes when the bees sting him. He tells his crew to be careful with the bees and not to irritate them, otherwise they will sting him more. As more bees coat his body, Mr. Ahn shows tremendous resilience. "It's more painful than you think," says Lee Sang-hyeon, 31, who has worked for Mr. Ahn for six years.
After about an hour, Mr. Ahn attempts to "undress himself" by climbing on top of one of the bee boxes and then jumping down. This scatters the bees in the air and he then takes a towel and gently brushes the remaining bees off his body. Mr. Ahn's torso is entirely pink with sting marks. He looks as if he is in great pain but suffers quietly. "One thing I pride myself on is my endurance." Today, Mr. Ahn says he was only stung 40 times, which satisfies him.
When he returns this day to the Honey Museum, his wife, Lee Ok-hee, 39, says, with gentle humor, "Why do you act so macho? You know I don't like it when you wear bees."
Growing up in a rural part of Daegu, Mr. Ahn felt comfortable around livestock. That fact caused him to decide to attend Daegu Agricultural High School. During his first year there he was struck by the capabilities of bees when he learned that it takes bees 5.6 million visits to flowers in order to produce 1 kilogram of honey. "It just blew my mind when I saw that these tiny creatures, the size of thumbnails, can create honey that was thousands of times larger than themselves," he says. "I consider it a greater achievement than man building skyscrapers."
Mr. Ahn even organized a club, Bongwuhoe, meaning "Meeting of the Friends of Bees," with 35 of his classmates, and spent the remainder of his school years studying bees and reading them. "In those days, I was physically punished because of my obsession with bees," he says. "I never thought much of textbooks, and instead, spent 10 hours just staring at beehives."
Immediately after graduation, Mr. Ahn set about becoming a beekeeper as a full-time profession. He borrowed 2.5 million won from a wealthy local businessman, with an interest rate of 35 percent. "Back in the early 1980s, it was a lot of money," Mr. Ahn says. After buying 22 boxes of bees, tents and honey instruments, he jumped into a ferryboat to Jeju Island, a great place for finding flowers. But because of the strong winds that hit the island in the spring of that year, Mr. Ahn lost many of his instruments and bee boxes in a week. When he returned to Daegu, the acacia flowers were the first to bloom. Once, he was able to produce 240 liters of honey in just two days. In three months, he paid his benefactor back in full.
Throughout the 1980s, Mr. Ahn traveled to areas where flowers bloomed in abundance, such as Cheolwon and all over Gyeongsang province. "I was a mess then," he says. "I spent all my time roaming around the country in search of flowers for my bees. I wore tattered clothes, my hair was long and dirty and I had patches of honey all over my body. People mistook me as the bogeyman. But I was too immersed in bees to care about what other people thought."
By the summer of 1987, Mr. Ahn's collection of hives had grown to 180 boxes. But that was the year that Hurricane Selma hit Gyeongsang province and all of Mr. Ahn's bees were washed away by a flood. "Words cannot explain the utter desperation I felt when I saw the bee boxes floating past me as I swam to shore," he recalls. He returned home totally broke, crying and vowing never to deal with bees again. But when the acacia flowers began to bloom the next spring, once again Mr. Ahn "went crazy for bees."
He borrowed 5 million won from the bank and restarted his business. Miraculously, 1988 was the year that Korea produced the most honey in its history. "In that year alone, I produced more than 800 bottles [1,600 liters]," says Mr. Ahn, who was able to get married and buy a home with the money he made in just that year.
Hard times have come and gone. Throughout the 1990s, recurring gypsum disease that afflicts bee cocoons wiped out many bees. It was Mother Nature at its worst and best. "After 20 years in the bee business, I feel humbled in the face of them," he says. "It feels like I am taking care of babies." But Mr. Ahn now runs a profitable business compared to average local beekeepers because of his reputation.
One thing Mr. Ahn has never given up on is constantly learning about bees. Lee Dong-gyu, a producer at SBS television, says, "He doesn't drink or smoke, but spends all his time up in the hills with bees or in his shop. He lives according to the physiological cycle of bees."
One day back in 1995, Mr. Ahn saw a peddler on the street selling placebos by showcasing snakes around his body. The idea that it sells to act as a jester hit him and suddenly he got the idea of attaching bees onto himself. Since then he has appeared in countless newspapers, magazines, and TV shows to exhibit the amazing feat. He has even attempted bungee jumping with more than 200,000 bees attached to his body to commemorate the World Cup matches. Mr. Ahn wants to show the world that humans can become close friends of bees.
Mr. Ahn is very strict when it comes to selling honey. He does not deal with wholesalers or retailers when selling his brand of pure honey. His Daegu honey museum is the only place people can buy his honey. "If I sold through retailers, my honey would become contaminated," he says. "I don't want my label ever to be associated with fakes."
by Choi Jie-ho