Luis Slayton, owner of Bee Strong Honey and Bee Removal, stands outside his residence in rural Hidalgo County — swallowed by a “beard” of bees — greeting both his neighbors, then the more than 500 viewers of his Facebook livestream.
“This is what we do for fun out here,” he said on his front-yard studio, surrounded by cameras. Under the thick cloak of bees, he’s sporting two shamrocks, a scorpion and a bee tattoo.
Slayton, a high school friend and his uncle are clenching Natural Light beer cans and engaging in casual dialogue, unfazed by the disoriented bees filling the atmosphere. The bees will eventually find their way onto Slayton’s body.
Around his neck is a Donna High School Redskins lanyard with a special pheromone and a queen bee attached to it. The bees instinctively gather around the queen and adopt Slayton’s torso as their temporary “hive.”
About halfway through the “stunt,” he reports being stung about a 100 times, but he’s yet to flinch.
“I stopped questioning it a long time ago,” he said of his ability to endure hundreds of bee stings at a time. “God has given me the gift to do what I do.”
“You got to like the pain a little bit,” he said, citing his “hardcore” upbringings as his main source of endurance.
Though the 38-year-old has made a name for himself in the beekeeping world, he’s also finding his place in academia. In fact, he’s less than a year away from earning his doctorate in curriculum and instruction specializing in science. He hopes to use that — along with his two master’s degrees — to help write science curriculum that accurately reflects contemporary bee behavior.
“I’ll be Dr. Slayton without a shirt taking out beehives pretty soon,” he said. “That alone is a feat on its own. An entomologist is in a lab most of the time, but I’m interacting with the bees every day.”
Climate has always defined the way bees function. According to Slayton, as the climate changes and the weather becomes less predictable, the way bees behave has transformed as well.
“Maybe you can read about something in a book, but I can show you a video that shows three queens in a swarm of bees,” he said, in contrast to “mainstream science” which suggests there’s only one queen per hive at a time.
A queen bee is a mature female capable of reproducing. Having several queens in a swarm increases the colony’s chances of survival, Slayton said.
Some bee behaviors haven’t necessarily changed, but have merely amplified.
For example, when a hive senses a cold front, the female “workers” (who are responsible for gathering nectar) drive the male “drones” (whose only role is to mate with the queen bee) out of the hive to improve their chances of survival. Once the weather is suitable, the queen simply produces more drones.
That’s what beekeepers call a “purge,” Slayton said.
Beekeeping runs in his family, and after a brief hiatus as a public school teacher, he dedicated himself to the business. He follows the same business model as his predecessors, and even uses the same frames, boxes and Mason jars that his grandfather did.
When he receives a call from someone with an unwanted beehive in their home, he removes it — usually shirtless and with his bare hands — and gives the honey back to the homeowner.
The bees are taken to his bee farm where they’ll be maintained throughout the seasons. He makes a living off harvesting honey from the bees, taking the hives to farms for crop pollination and doing educational presentations.
Until he’s able to teach in a university setting, he’ll continue educating through his YouTube videos and Facebook posts. He has more than 13,000 subscribers on YouTube, and his most popular video has 2.9 million views.
What seems to compel most of his audience is his ability to confidently approach a hive without protective gear. He often gets labeled as irresponsible by fellow beekeepers for doing so, but the shock value adds the type of awareness he needs to educate broader audiences, Salyton said.
“I get more hate from other beekeepers that can’t comprehend the fact that I’m able to do what I do,” he said. “I don’t do this to show off. I do this so people can understand that we need to save them.”
To him, performing stunts like the “beard of bees” is a special treat.
In about 30 minutes, the bees have encompassed his entire upper body. He brushes his face every few seconds so they don’t get in his eyes, and struggles to suppress his giant smile so the bees don’t find their way into his mouth either.
“It makes me happy to do what I do,” Slayton said. “It’s not a job for me; I do what I love to do every single day.”