An Interview with Norman Gary
Norman E. Gary, PhD is one of the country’s preeminent apiculturists—better known to most people as a “bee wrangler”—and he’s been providing trained bee services for movie and TV productions for over forty years. He’s handled thousands of bees on the sets of movies like The X Files: Fight the Future, Terror Out of the Sky, and Invasion of the Bee Girls, not to mention two Agony Booth-reviewed films: The Savage Bees and Leonard Part 6. He’s the only person besides star Tony Todd to participate in all three Candyman films. Also on his impressive resume are several movies that this website’s target demographic probably missed when they were in theaters, like Fried Green Tomatoes, The Truth about Cats and Dogs, My Girl, and A Walk in the Clouds.
On top of all that, he’s been featured on numerous TV shows, including Fear Factor, The Tonight Show (appearing with both Johnny and Jay), Real TV, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and holds the unique honor of being the very first guest on That’s Incredible when it premiered in 1980. He plays clarinet and leads a Dixieland jazz band aptly named the Beez Kneez, and occasionally plays gigs while covered in bees. As if all that weren’t enough, Dr. Gary appears in the Guinness Book of World Records under the heading “Most Bees in Mouth”; He held 109 [!] honeybees in his closed mouth for ten seconds on October 20, 1998.
You can read all about this and much more at Dr. Gary’s official website, www.normangary.com.
We’ll get to your movie career in a second, but first I must admit I’m more impressed to be talking to someone in the Guinness Book of World Records! It’s hard to believe that it’s even physically possible for a human being to hold 109 bees in his mouth. How in the world did you accomplish that?
I trained the bees using food reward (sugar syrup with flavor) to fly about thirty yards from their hive to a feeding station, which consisted of a sponge soaked in the syrup. Soon hundreds of excited bees were making multiple trips, collecting the “free meal” by filling up quickly and returning to their hive where they unloaded.
Then I removed the “training” sponge and hid it in a plastic bag. Hundreds of bees began “sniffing” the area, searching for the food. I placed a small sponge with the training odor inside my mouth, then opened wide and gently exhaled the training scent. They quickly homed in on the scent, and within a few seconds, filled my mouth to the extent that it was difficult to close my lips for the ten seconds required by the rules.
Then I placed a cylindrical wire mesh to my lips, opened my mouth and gently blew them into the cage, then quickly closed the opening with my hand. Then I moved to a nearby area that was free of bees and allowed them to escape, one by one, through a small opening at the opposite end of the cage. They were photographed and counted accurately. Bees that are in the process of collecting food will not sting unless accidentally compressed. I received no stings during the stunt! And I agree, it is hard to BEElieve!! Basically, you must have a big mouth and know how to keep it shut at the right moment.
So for over forty years now, you’ve been wrangling bees on movie sets. You’ve covered a lot of actors with bees, so I have to ask, did any of them take to it better than others? And did anybody just completely freak when you brought out the bees?
Yes, some were more receptive than others. None of them ever freaked out because I educated and entertained them until they felt comfortable and knew exactly what to expect. I earned their confidence. Efrem Zimbalist Jr. [Terror Out of the Sky] was especially a “super trooper”. His protective bee suit had a hidden defect that permitted two bees to sting him on the chest. He had no complaints! Virginia Madsen [Candyman] was at great risk because she was hypersensitive to bee stings, as determined by medical tests prior to shooting. What a brave lady! Mary Stuart Masterson [Fried Green Tomatoes] was undaunted by thousands of flying bees on her and flying around her. She showed no fear!
Probably your highest profile work to date was on the X-Files movie. Unfortunately, in this age of digital effects, many viewers might be under the impression that Mulder and Scully ran through a computer-generated swarm of bees. But you actually had thousands of bees on the set, and they weren’t non-stinging bees, like a lot of people might assume. Didn’t a member of the film crew get stung pretty bad?
Mulder and Scully ran through thousands of real flying bees. I was literally flinging thousands of bees directly at them as they ran. Computer-generated bee images were used in the background because it was impossible to release millions of live bees simultaneously, as called for in the script. I don’t recall that anyone was stung “pretty bad”. I do recall that someone received maybe a couple of stings. Perhaps he considered that “pretty bad”. But he opted not to wear the protective gear that I supplied to the crew.
I’ve got to ask how you got along with David Duchovny, because in the “making of” featurette on the DVD, he actually says you “seemed a little odd to” him. But he’s a joker with a pretty dry wit in most of the interviews he does, so I’m assuming he meant it in the nicest possible way.
Intensive work by a bee wrangler on the set doesn’t permit much time for verbal exchanges except those that are necessary to achieve the objectives. When I’m bee wrangling I’m extremely focused, perhaps even a “little odd”. But—tongue in cheek—I thought he was a “little odd” too! It’s easy to get that impression when bees are being tossed around big time! I admired him greatly for his bravado.
A lot of people will also know your work from the Candyman movies. I heard that Tony Todd, who played the Candyman, had a hard time working with bees and even had it in his contract that he’d get $1000 for each time he was stung. I find this pretty hard to believe, since he was willing to get covered with bees for all three of those movies. You worked with him, what was his reaction to the bees?
Tony seemed very calm around the bees, even though I had to put him into some very uncomfortable situations while covered with bees. When you’re intimately associated with living bees day after day, you are going to make a wrong movement now and then that causes a sting or two. I do recall a scene where Tony’s stand-in was lying on the ground covered with bees, late in the afternoon, after I had informed everyone that it was too cool and late in the day for safe handling of bees—they get cranky near day’s end! The director insisted on proceeding anyway. There were a few stings, but I’m sure the numbers were greatly exaggerated, giving some credence to the notion that there was some “sting bonus” payment involved! I never see actor’s contracts so I can’t comment. But I do get to see great exaggerations of sting reports. Everyone wants to be a hero (or heroine) and receive a little sympathy if they’re stung. But I enjoyed working with Tony Todd, a truly great actor.
One of the more memorable moments in the Candyman films is when Tony and Virginia Madsen share a “bee kiss”. Basically, the Candyman makes his move with a mouth full of bees. Hearing about the world record you would later break, I had to wonder if this scene was actually your idea! And did you use pretty much the same methods with Tony Todd that you later used to break the world record?
Putting bees in Tony’s mouth was not my idea! That scene was a bee wrangler’s nightmare! My methods were distinctly different. Bee training was not involved. I made a “cage insert” that was placed inside his mouth after I filled it with bees. I used very young bees that couldn’t sting. Virginia Madsen was hypersensitive to bee stings. One sting, if untreated, would have been fatal. I tried, without success, to persuade her not to do this film. I’m glad that she ignored my advice. A great actress rises above such challenges.
In the 1976 TV movie The Savage Bees, you actually got to do a little acting as a tractor driver who’s attacked by killer bees and dives into a pond to escape. Are there any other scenes in any other movies where viewers should be on the lookout for one of your cameos?
My acting career was limited to two films, Savage Bees and Terror Out of the Sky. According to the scripts, I was stung to death by massive numbers of killer bees in both films. Neither role seemed like a cameo appearance! I became an actor out of necessity, not talent. But I think I was as convincing as anyone could have been in those circumstances. During the Savage Bees acting I inhaled a bee and was stung deep in the throat. It didn’t really hurt, but was pretty scary as a first time experience.
The most memorable moment in The Savage Bees is when a Volkswagen Beetle covered with bees is driven into the Superdome. How did you get so many bees to stick to a moving vehicle? And also in the movie, the Beetle is shown being driven through narrow French Quarter streets. So was there any danger to public safety while that was being filmed?
I placed droplets of a highly attractive bee pheromone solution on the car surfaces, and then released thousands of disoriented bees that clustered on the car. During our trip through the French Quarter, hundreds of bees flew from the car and temporarily were “lost” in the area. Immediately after the “cut”, my assistant and I would roam up and down the street, each carrying a large cross held high and covered with pheromone attractant to capture the stragglers! It was a strange sight to BEEhold.
There was no public safety hazard. Prior to shooting, we cleared people and horse-drawn carriages from the streets. The flying bees were harmless. Few people realize that bees sting to defend their hive, and are simply not inclined to sting when released in an unfamiliar location away from their hive.
I’ll never forget the spirited “tag football” action by the cast and crew in the Superdome between shooting. The Super Bowl, it was not.
You were also the bee wrangler for Leonard Part 6, a movie that’s pretty famous for being a massive box office bomb. I’ve heard there was a lot of discord and chaos on the set, which the finished movie would seem to confirm. Did you notice any trouble or disarray while you were on the set? And did you see Bill Cosby at all? Do you think he knew the movie was a disaster?
My time on the set was limited to one long, miserable night. I was asked to make bees behave under the impossible conditions of (1) working from 1 to 4 am when bees normally are “sleeping”, (2) working indoors under artificial lights, and (3) making them behave in very unnatural ways. When the bees didn’t behave as desired, they substituted dyed, sticky cereal that was blown thru the air to resemble bees. I’ll never forget walking on this cereal, becoming taller as I walked, because it stuck to my feet.
Bill was on the set. I met him briefly. I was not sufficiently clairvoyant to sense his thoughts about the future of the movie at that stage. At that time I wondered how they could expect the crew and cast to function well when their sleep cycles were so disrupted.
Out of all the movies you’ve worked on, which one did you enjoy working on the most? And do you plan to do any more TV or movie work in the near future?
That’s a very tough question. Each production had a different “personality”. I suppose it’s a toss-up between Savage Bees and Fried Green Tomatoes. I am standing by to work on future TV, movie, and commercial productions as they develop. However, the use of computer graphics has diminished the need for live bee action in some circumstances. The greatest problem I have is that people don’t believe that I can actually train bees to do almost anything imaginable, on cue and safely. Real bees will always produce the best image quality!