Bees Swarm at Burbank

  • On Location
  • -
  • October 1977

by Karen Feld

It’s not often that motorists on the freeway can spot the stars of a major motion picture literally swarm over the tops of their cars from the backlot of Burbank Studios to Griffith Park. Then again, it’s not often that the stars are not only Michael Caine, Katherine Ross, Henry Fonda, Olivia De HaVilland, Patty Duke Astin, Bradford Dill-man, Slim Pickens, Ben Johnson, Richard Widmark, and Lee Grant, but 22 million bees. Irwin Allen’s $12 million production, “The Swarm,” is currently underway on Midwest Street at Burbank Studios.

Irwin Allen, who compares himself to Cecil B. DeMille, has had tremendous success at the box office with disaster films — ”The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno.” Some may think of “The Swarm” as yet another in this series, since the plot line revolves around African killer bees who mate with the South American bees and migrate across the Gulf to the town of Maryville, Texas, home of the Flower Festival, where upon they commence killing humans and cattle. But Allen now looks at things more optimistically and calls this film a “survival” picture. In fact, in this film Michael Caine and others do survive.

Even the production crew survives, since Allen has taken every precaution to ensure their safety while on the set. The stars and entire production crew, totalling 140, have been outfitted in bee suits, costing between $30 and $40 each. It looks like a surrealistic scene to watch the production of the bee scenes. Each suit consists of a white nylon gabardine coverall with a zipper around the neck, armpit length gloves, a pith helmet with a net veil that protects the neck and face. If worn at all times, the suit is an adequate protector from the bees, but a few people have been stung when they take off a glove or lift up the veil. First aid personnel are on the set at all times when the bees are being used. The bees shy away from light colors, so those on the set who do not wear the suits take great pains to dress in light colored attire. The bees gravitate to dark colors and sunglasses, so even the stars of this feature have traded in their shades.

‘Many of the bees come from the Southern California area, but some hives were brought in from other parts of the country. They are using as many drones (males) as possible, since they do not have stingers, but at this time of year they are not as plentiful. The drones are fed by the worker bees, so both are needed. Nine beehandlers have removed stingers from thousands of worker bees. The bees are put in a refrigerated (45 degree) van on the studio lot and when they become dormant from the refrigeration, the stingers are snipped with a scapel. This does not harm the bees in any way, production personnel insist. Due to the short life span of a bee — about six weeks — millions are needed. It is not possible to remove stingers from all of these, so some of the ones used do have the stingers.

Twenty-five people in the production crew work directly with the bees. At the back of the lot are 350 hives, each containing 50,000 bees, that’s 17 1/2 million bees.

There are certain logistical precautions that must be taken due to the bees. All stages have large signs: “Caution Live Bees, Stay Clear,” but the bees are under control, never straying far from the Queen.

Allen is always careful not to put his stars, who are obviously not all wearing protective bee armor while on camera, in peril. The people working directly with the bees learn to make their movements fluid, rather than abrupt, so that the bees are not apt to be as aggressive.

Allen feels that the bees are a pleasure to work with and not at all temperamental. They don’t even know they are movie stars.

Michael Caine, who plays the role of the entomologist studying the bees, says, “They [the bees] will come at you and hit you as though they are stinging you but they don’t. They let a quarter of a million out in that cafe scene the other day. It’s kind of uncanny. It’s like being in a dangerous situation and no danger is hurting you. The trouble is they go for your eyes and hit you in the eye. It’s alright for me, I wear glasses, but it’s the actors who have to die in the movie, who have to be covered with them that’s terrifying to see, because it’s just one mass of crawling bees.”

The bees only land where the Queen is. If Allen wants it to look like a person’s clothes are covered with bees, the Queen is placed in a box underneath a suit collar. All the bees will then settle on the man’s suit.

“It’s early in the picture yet,” says Caine. “I have 22 million bees to look forward to in the very last sequence.”

Irwin Allen’s “Swarm” is scheduled for. a July 1978 release.

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