The temperature is rising. The snow is melting and basements everywhere becoming indoor wading pools. Daylight savings time has collected its hour from us, and the first day of spring has come. Spring, for me, has always meant the beginning of the field season. A time to get back to working outside. With this also brings allergies, tick bites, poison ivy, mosquitoes, and the occasional bee sting. Among those, the biggest fear I have is the bee sting. This is due to the fact that I am allergic to bee stings. Or as my doctor told me in an all to happy prize winning type of way “Congratulations, you’re now allergic to bees” after I had an altercation with a bee that swelled up my arm.
I think that everyone has some mild type of fear of bees. In the same way that we don’t like snakes, or spiders. These things can hurt us, even kill us. It’s only natural to have some unconscious fear of them. But bees can’t kill you. Or can they?
Some fun facts about bees before we begin. Although bee stings are one of the largest killers of humans within the animal world, this is primarily due to allergic reactions to the venom and not from the number of stings a person is inflicted with. The average person who is not allergic to bee venom can take as many as ten sings per pound of body weight. This means that most human adults can withstand upwards of 1000 bee stings. That being said, I would steer clear of a large swarm of bees if you ever happen upon one.
The story goes that a biologist working with various species of bees decided to cross breed the European and the African honey bee in order to possibly produce more honey and be able withstand the warmer climates of South America. The result was the Africanized honey bee, or “killer” bee, we have come to know them as. In 1957 a bee keeper accidentally let some swarms of these hybrid bees loose. Word spread about deaths related to stings inflicted by these killer bees. Fear grew when it was predicted that swarms of these bees would reach North America by the 1970s. Although Africanized bees did reach the United States, it was not until the mid-1980s. However, national buzz about killer bees was loud enough to catch the ear of filmmakers. And swarms of bee movies ensued.
Creature features were very popular during the 1950s. Films like Them! (1954), Tarantula (1955), and The Black Scorpion (1957) reflected the public’s growing fear of the atomic age. For some reason radiation always increased the size of the animal. From giant ants to Godzilla, this idea that the things we do have a profound effect on the world around us permeated popular culture. From film and television to other media like that of comic books.
As with all nationals fears, this fear of killer bees was reflected or rather exploited in film. From the late 1950s to the late 1970s there were numerous bee related movies to hit the big and small screen. Such gems as Wasp Woman (1959), The Deadly Bees (1967), Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973), Killer Bees (1974), The Bees (1978), and The Swarm (1978). These films used the nation’s collective fear of Africanized killer bees not only to generate cash but also, like all other creature features, speak about issues of the day through subtext. Issues such an environmental threats, sexually transmitted diseases and governmental interference into personal rights. So grab your epi pen and lets take a look at a few of these films. Starting with 1967’s The Deadly Bees, then the Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973), and ending with the star studded The Swarm (1978). Now if you’re looking at the previous list and thinking that Wasp Woman (1959) is not really a killer bee movie you’d be correct. I put it on the list because is a Corman classic and one of the first films that came to mind when I was compiling this list. As will all my posts, be aware SPOILERS AHEAD.
Disregard to multiple threats marks the opening of The Deadly Bees (1967). An unidentified British ministry, no not the Ministry of Silly Walks, gets a letter from a beekeeper threatening to harm people if not taken seriously. Which is exactly what they do not do. I mean a person who claims to have bred a hybrid killer bees must certainly be insane. No one can breed a hybrid killer bee. Or can they?
Vicki Robbins is a pop singer who is shooting a television spot when she collapses from exhaustion. The doctor says she needs to get some rest and relaxation. Her manager is not liking this of course. The doc knows a guy who owns a farm on Seagull Island. So he immediately calls him to confirm that Vicki can stay at that stranger’s house alone on an island named after the most annoying bird ever. At least she wasn’t going to stay on Albatross Island. Once at the farm of Mr. Ralph and Mary Hargrove Vicki settles in enjoyable couple of weeks in the country. Immediately Vicki notices strange happenings going on at the Hargrove farm. Other than the fact that there’s not a lot of farming happening. Mr. Hargrove is a beekeeper, much to the dislike of Mrs. Hargrove. Who seems to only enjoy chain smoking and feeding her dog. At the first introduction of the character I actually thought that Mrs. Hargrove was Ralph’s mother. Ah, the effects of smoking. Vicki meets the Hargrove’s neighbor, Mr. Manfred who is also a beekeeper. Mr. Hargrove is doing some strange things with large needles at night. This activity along with the death of Mrs. Hargrove’s dog from a bee attack leads Vicki to become very suspicious of Ralph Hargrove.
She begins to meet and discuss this with Mr. Manfred. The death of Ralph’s wife only solidifies Vicki’s suspicions. Although the official cause of death is determined to be “death by misadventure”. It is doubtful Vicki shares the ruling of the court. On a side note, I think I’ve found what is going on my tombstone.
She and Manfred devise a plan to prove that Ralph using bees as a murder weapon. In each of these deaths we see the hands of the killer opening a hive and shaking the bees free. Almost reminiscent of the black gloved killer in an Italian Giallo film.
Vicki does some snooping, finding some notes of Hargrove’s. She snaps some pictures of them and takes them to Manfred. Hargrove is aware of this as he has been lurking outside in his bathrobe watching Vicki. The next morning while Vicki is getting ready the swarm of bees attacks her in her room. She only escapes by lighting a towel on fire that has been stuffed in the door of the bathroom. Before dying of smoke inhalation she is pulled from the room by Ralph. Waking up later in her room, she is determined to leave and takes Ralph’s truck. He pursues her and catches up after she has crashed into a tree. Vicki wakes up again in her room still with an immediate desire to leave. Doris grabs her clothing from the bed post offering to wash it. If the audience hasn’t caught on to the deliberate camera movements indicating it was her dress that was attracting the bees, they know now as Doris is attacked while walking home with it.
This also would give you the idea of who the mad beekeeper is. Vicki still doesn’t want to stay so she goes to wait out the rest of her time at Manfred’s house. He goes by the Hargrove farm to pick her things up and to acquire a book he’s told Vicki will help them prove that Hargrove is the killer. Vicki is looking around his house and finds a copy of this book along with some other books written by him. Turns out Manfred is a really good beekeeper. When he returns he decides to reveal that he is the killer and that he must kill her. He brings out a special vile of bee attracting fear juice. But Vicki knocks him over, spilling the stuff on him. With a well placed log Manfred is put out of his bee sting misery as the whole house goes up. Vicki is of course saved by Hargrove. As the movie ends we see a representative from that unknown ministry show up to look into the killer bee threats they’ve received.
The Deadly Bees (1967) was released by Amicus Studios. Directed by Freddy Francis of Hammer fame and with a screenplay by Robert Bloch the film was poised to be something of a hit when in pre-production. However, once it was released it was a critical and box office flop. The film has the aesthetic feel of that of a Hammer or other Amicus films. Even the Hammer regular Michael Ripper. But with a slower pace, the film doesn’t seem to strike the amount of fear it was going for. Maybe this is because Brittan wasn’t expecting killers bees to arrive on their shores so the fear was not as palpable. The idea that someone could use bees as a weapon brings up a lot of questions. Why was he not trying to sell this to the highest bidder? Why did he not become a hit man? Did any of those bees make it out of Manfred’s house? If so what is the impact of this on bee populations throughout Great Britain?
Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973), aka Graveyard Tramps, begins with a death of an unidentified man in a motel room. Before the credits have finished rolling another man bites it. Although the first dead man is registered to the motel as John Doe, it is later determined to be that of Dr. John Grubowsky. A determination that brings special agent Neil Agar in to investigate this mysterious death, given the government’s involvement in Dr. Grubowsky’s research. Special Agent Agar is with the State Department’s Office of Security. As he begins to look into the already increasing body count that has occurred within the first few minutes of the film he meets the laboratory’s librarian Julie Zorn. Julie is played by the vivacious Victoria Vetri, best known from When Dinosaurs Roamed the Earth (1970) . She tells Agar that she was there when Grubowsky died. That they were lovers and that “We balled and we balled and we balled. Then he dropped dead.” A type of death that would only be lamented by the man in the Led Zeppelin song Hey Hey What Can I Do. An autopsy reveals that all of the men have died from coronary thrombosis. This caused from exhaustion, particularly related to sex. The local law enforcement led by Captain Peters is baffled as to the cause of these deaths. But Agar is suspicious of it being related to the Bandt Laboratory and what ever goes on there.
So Captain Peters holds a Town meeting. Probably one of the worst town meetings ever put to film outside actual town meetings. Captain Peters breaks down the list of eight dead men so far, “…Two scientists, a policeman, a cannery worker, a barber, a gas station attendant, a real estate broker, and a grade school teacher.” He reiterates the fact that all of the deaths have been male and that they are not occupationally specific. Peters then refers to Dr. Murger. Dr. Murger advises the locals to abstain from sex as a precaution just in case these deaths are related to a new unknown STD. That “Venereal disease has swelled to epidemic proportions…” This does not bode well with the fun loving free spirited peoples of Peckham, CA. As one local put it “These guys are dead from balling and you don‘t even know what’s causing it.” Later he is given a chance to find out when he happens upon the widow Grubowsky outside the bar. In order to try and keep the people safe a curfew is enacted, which no one adheres to whatsoever.
Agar and his new sidekick Zorn set up a meeting with Dr. Murger at his house. Unfortunately Murger experiences vehicular manslaughter before he can make it. After the police have cleaned up the mess that was Murger, Agar decides it might be time to call his boss. He tells Julie to wait for him by his car where she is almost raped by a group of men, if not for Agar’s return. This assault on Julie is in retaliation for what the men deem as women trying to kill the men of the town. They feel that if they run a train on her, she can’t kill them all. Or as Captain Peters noted earlier “The natives are getting restless.” Murger’s death is not similar to the others, but Agar’s instinct tells him that these are all related somehow. Later as Agar is searching Murger’s office and finds a secret room. Where he also has an encounter with Joe, Murger’s lover. This substantiates Julie’s observation earlier as why Murger was never seen with a woman and why he couldn’t be killed through conventional bee girl means.
Per Agar’s suggestion, a military quarantine in put in place blocking all the residents of Peckham from leaving. The number of employees at Brandt dwindles. This is reflected in the lunch room where Dr. Kline is approached by the normally standoffish Dr. Harris. He asks her to dinner, which she graciously accepts. Dessert, coffee and sex lead to his demise. His body is discovered the next day at the cannery. The body count, well I’ve lost tract of the body count by this point, but it’s high. Dr. Harris calls the recently deceased man’s wife to lure her to her hive. We finally get to see the bee girl transformation in action. This is long process. First the woman is covered entirely in Cinnabon frosting. Then she is put into a chamber where thousands of bees enjoy the icing. When she comes out the frosting has become a thick layer of dried Elmer’s glue, which is peeled off here. She is then subjected to some gelled light. Finally a kiss from the queen and she is a black eyed beauty in search of a mate. This makes all the other bee girls very excited. Her first victim, Captain Peter’s who has come by to inform her that her husband is dead. A fact she doesn’t seem to upset about. The Captain makes it out alive though. Epic fail for her first attempt at mating.
Agar meets with the remaining doctors to discuss his theory of some sort of genetic mutation. Dr. Williams isn’t buying it and leaves. Dr. Ferrara says hell work on something to present to the State Department. He also says that a mutation of that type would leave traces of gamma radiation. It’s always gamma radiation. Julie notes that they can use a detector to determine if the women are giving of gamma rays. Which they do at the funeral of Dr. Grobowsky. When Agar listens to the recording of Dr. Ferrara and hears Dr. Harris on the recording he knows Julie is in trouble. He rushes to the lab to stop then bee girls from transforming Julie. Fortunately they have yet to reach the Cinnabon frosting stage. Shooting the computer releases a smoke that kills all the bee girls. Of course Julie and Neal make it out alive. The film ends with Neal finally getting Julie into bed, the camera zooming out to the flowers outside where bees are pollinating a flower.
Julie Zorn is the film’s “final girl” who is saved from being turned into a man eating she bee. Yet she is actually involved in the first death having balled Dr. Grubowsky until he dropped dead. The film begins and ends with sex in a way. What would have been more fitting end would be if Julie was a bee girl the whole movie and only revealed right at the end. The final shot of the bee on the flower right at the end almost visually hinting that while the score to 2001 plays. The use of this track is probably where all of the film’s budget went.
All of the men in this film except for Agar and Captain Peters sink to there most base instincts and are killed because of it. Not one man can resist the lure of a beautiful woman, even after it’s proven that sex kills. Even a solider guarding the road block is lured away by a random woman into the woods and killed. The death toll is nothing compared to the impact bees have in the next film.
The Swarm (1978) also begins with a death of a man. Well, more than one man, an entire base in fact. The military shows up to an empty base where all the personnel are dead without any rhyme or reason as to what caused their deaths. Out of nowhere Dr. Crane appears, unscathed by whatever it is that killed the other men. He also has no security clearance to be in the base. The team sent in to secure the base noticed his windowless van outside the entrance. He tells them that he saw a swarm of bees coming toward the base and that he followed the swarm. You see, he is an entomologist. This leads to a heated debate about the fact that he gained access to a secure military installation.
After a search of the base, Flame Thrower Team 6, find the medical doctor who as locked herself along with some other men in the medical wing. She confirms that it was in fact bees that attacked the facility. In an attempt to figure out how to help the men who are still alive but severely stung she brings up a paper she recently read. Which just so happens to have been written by the good Dr. Crane. General Slater is not buying any of Dr. Crane’s story even after two of his helicopters go down from a bee attack. Needless to say after some credential checking, the President put the doctor in charge of the whole operation. Although the operation will never be given a cool name like Operation Pollinator or Operation Buzzkillington without the government in charge. The doctor tells the military to bring in a number of scientists to help him. They begin to test how the venom of the sting works on the human body.
Meanwhile in the small town of Marysville. Everyone is getting ready for the annual flower festival. A town full of flowers put up everywhere, how ironic. The young Paul is outside town having a lovely picnic with his parents. He is sent back to the car to get a thermos they forgot. This allows him escape the wrath of the bees which is brought down upon his parents moments after. At least his father didn’t wait to eat his sandwich, so was able to get in one last tasty morsel before becoming a bee pin cushion. Paul manages to drive his parents sweet Mustang back to town. Where he warns the others of their impending doom. Paul just also happens to be the relative of Helena, the medical doctor from the base. So she and Dr. Crane go and see Paul.
Unfortunately for the town of Marysville it’s too late. A large number of residents perish when the swarm comes through. The survivors will later be put on a train to abandon Marysville. This train will be derailed when the bees attack the engineers, killing all but seventeen residents. The bees are heading toward Houston. Something must be done to stop them. So they decide to throw poisonous pellets down, which the bees are supposed consume and then die from. The bees aren’t having any of it. Houston and the surrounding towns are in the process of being evacuated.
When the bees attack a nuclear power plant and subsequently make it blow up, on a small number of people die from this. 36,422 to be exact. Whether its from the explosion or some sort of radiation poison is unknown. Dr. Crane is kicked off the operation. The military has reduced itself to simply torching the bees as they invade Houston. Eventually torching their office, but comes a little later.
For now the doctor has come up with a theory as to why the bees initially attacked the military base. It was because of the sirens that the base uses sounds just like the mating call of the bees. It always has to do with mating. Therefore the bees were drawn to the military base in the first place by the sound of the sirens during a drill. They decide to dump all the oil they can into the Gulf of Mexico. This makes the BP spill look like a drop in the water. Sirens are placed in the water to attract the bees. Then missiles are launched blowing up the bees and anything else living in the Gulf of Mexico. Dr. Crane and Dr. embrace. Credits role thanking the armed forces for their help in the making of this film.
While The Swarm is primarily about the environmental impact that human manipulation of natural processes can cause, it is also has a subtext related to the evasive nature of outsiders. Not to say that this film is overtly racist, it does however elude to some subtle connotations about nationalism and immigration. Perhaps even that of race. The predominately white town is invaded by a foreign species given the name “The Africans”. When the bees swarm Marysville the deputy yells “The Africans are coming! The Africans are coming!” The beginning of the film we see some of the main characters discussing the fact that people come to their little country town for the flower festival but also for the small town, rural aesthetic. Almost as to say that for the rest of the year outsiders don't come to Marysville and shouldn't. There is also a fear that forces outside our control will be the thing that brings us down. Whether it is communism, terrorism or immigration. The first line of defense is the military. But those who wish to infiltrate us might also move to a small town. And what better way to weaken us then to attack our infrastructure like power plants. Both The Deadly Bees and Invasion of the Bee Girls have this similar subtext. Someone who wants to harm you could be your neighbor or a hot woman you know. Threats to our safety come from within our own society. From things we have created.
Just as in The Deadly Bees, it is sound that brings the bees to kill and eventually brings them to there fiery demise. Whereas in Deadly Bees the insects are being subdued by sound, in The Swarm they have been attracted to the sound. It is attraction that kills in all three of these films. Whether you have the smell of fear on you, or you are a horny guy, or just unfortunately make the same sound as a mating call. Once you have attracted the bees you are pretty much dead. In some sense all three films have to do with over population and even perhaps the over sexing of the western world. While Invasion of the Bee Girls comes right out and makes this a clear point, the other two films do this more subtly. The Deadly Bees uses weaponized bees which have been bred intentionally for this purpose. It is mating that first brings the bees in The Swarm to the military base in the first place. Just as Dr. Krim notes to Dr. Crane “The raunchiest thing I ever read. That paper of yours on the mating habits of Bombus Madaros.” “Yeah those queen bees really are something.” Mating has a purpose in all of these films. Those who wish to mate without a purpose, as seen in the horny men of Bee Girls, are punished for it. In the end mating also kills the bees themselves.
In this day and age Genetically Modified Organisms, pesticides, global warming, hydro-fracking and colony collapse are hot button topics within the realm of environmental studies. How we as humans impact the world around us is debated in coffee shops and classrooms around the world. It's nice to take a look back to a time when nature brought a swarm of fear in the hearts of man.
For your viewing pleasure the MST3K best moments for The Deadly Bees
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