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Regular-sized bugs on the big screen: The Swarm

Welcome to another installment of Bug Week’s recurring movie review feature, “Regular-Sized Bugs on the Big Screen,” where our critics examine films that feature normal-sized arthropods (i.e. not radiation-spawned behemoths) in supporting roles.

Here comes the first of our two reviews for 2016, get ready for… The Swarm.

In summer 1975, Steven Spielberg’s film Jaws broke box-office records and scared the daylights out of moviegoers (and subsequent beachgoers) with its tale of a huge shark terrorizing an island community.

Many commenters believe that Jaws’ success partly came from the fact that it depicted events that could really happen. It’s well-documented that sharks occasionally attack people.

Hoping to capitalize on the public’s fascination with dangerous wildlife, producer/director Irwin Allen developed a similar film that used Africanized honey bees – “killer bees” in the parlance of the day – as its villain. Allen was best known for making sci-fi TV shows and disaster movies, including 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure and 1974’s The Towering Inferno.

In July 1978, his “bee movie” reached theaters. It was called The Swarm. Hoo-boy, does it stink.

Among its problems, The Swarm has too many stars and sub-plots, cheap-looking sets and special effects, and amazingly over-the-top dialogue. It flopped at the box office, failing to recoup its production costs. Today, The Swarm is considered a classic of the so-bad-it’s-good genre. (If you’re a fan of bad movies, look for the 156-minute extended cut.)

From an entomological perspective, The Swarm’s biggest flaw is that it presents misleading information about Africanized honey bees, and may have frightened people unnecessarily back at the time of its release.

The film was inspired by news stories about African honey bees, Apis mellifera scutellata, which you can read about here http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/misc/bees/ahb.htm.

Here’s a factual three-paragraph history of Africanized honey bees in the Western hemisphere:

In the mid-1950s, a Brazilian scientist brought African honey bees to southeastern Brazil for research purposes, hoping to improve honey production. In many respects, the African bees were identical to gentle European Apis mellifera strains already present in Brazil, which you can read about in this “Featured Creatures” document from the UF/IFAS Entomology and Nematology Department — http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/misc/BEES/euro_honey_bee.htm.

However, African honey bees are far more aggressive about defending their hives from perceived threats, compared with European honey bees. It’s believed that evolution selected for this characteristic, as African honey bees struggled to survive in arid environments filled with predators such as the ferocious honey badger.

In 1957, about two dozen swarms of the captive African bees escaped and began cross-breeding with local honey bees, creating “Africanized” honey bees that possessed genetic material from African and European strains. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Africanized honey bees expanded their range in South America and it was feared they might eventually reach the United States and become established here.

The Swarm’s pre-release ad campaign took that legitimate concern and turned it into hype.

Here’s the voice-over heard at the beginning of one television commercial for The Swarm: “It is a documented scientific fact that a gigantic swarm of killer bees is now moving toward the United States. Only the resources of modern technology MAY be able to stop it in time.”

Sounds like an imminent threat, right? It wasn’t.

When The Swarm was released, in July 1978, Africanized honey bees hadn’t even reached the border between Colombia and Panama, which separates South and Central America. Nonetheless, the film posits that Africanized honey bees were present in Texas in enormous numbers. (In fact, the first confirmed report of Africanized honey bees crossing the Mexican border into Texas came in 1990.)

Here’s the basic plot – as the film opens, a team of military personnel investigate mysterious deaths at an underground military base somewhere in the Texas desert. Eventually, it’s determined that the base was attacked by Africanized honey bees, which were attracted by the sound of an alarm. The bees attack a small town, then move on to Houston. Scientists use the bee-attracting alarm to devise a trap and kill the bees. The end.

Though we could spend days recounting the head-scratching awfulness of The Swarm, a few examples of its entomological inaccuracies should convince you that the bad-movie “buzz” on this film is well-deserved:

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Goofy Misstatement: The film implies that all of the Africanized bees in Texas are part of one enormous swarm that’s roaming the state.

Fact: Africanized bee colonies may contain tens of thousands of individuals, but no honey bee colony expands to include billions, as the film implies. When a colony becomes unmanageably large, new queens develop and small swarms depart to start new colonies elsewhere. Also, honey bee colonies do not wander aimlessly; the first objective for a newly departed swarm is to find suitable habitat for building a hive.

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Goofy Misstatement: Early in the film, Dr. Arthur Connors (Henry Fonda) states that the venom in just three Africanized bee stings is enough to kill a person.

Fact: The venom of Africanized bees (or pure strains of African honey bees, for that matter) is no more potent than that of the European honey bee strains. Although a highly allergic individual might die from three bee stings, for the average person this situation would be an annoyance rather than a health crisis. The primary reason Africanized honey bees are dangerous is that they defend their hives so vigorously and may sting hapless human victims dozens or even hundreds of times.

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Goofy Misstatement: Three times in the film, someone receives a non-lethal dose of venom from the bees, and begins having hallucinations in which a giant bee floats in mid-air before them. A different person experiences this phenomenon each time.

Fact: Although a severe bee-sting incident might cause someone to experience hallucinations, there is no reason to expect that multiple victims would all have bee-related hallucinations, let alone the EXACT SAME bee-related hallucination.

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Goofy Misstatement: Bee expert Dr. Brad Crane (Michael Caine) grimly notes that the bees seem to be chewing up Styrofoam beverage cups and using the fragments to line their nests.

Fact: Africanized bees line their nests with wax that they produce themselves.

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Goofy Misstatement: No-nonsense military man General Slater (Richard Widmark), debates bee motivation with Dr. Brad Crane, after the bees have attacked a small town:

Slater:  “When that swarm finds out some of their friends have been taken captive, they might come BACK to Marysville!”

Crane: “Are you endowing these bees with human motives, like saving their fellow bees from captivity, or seeking revenge on mankind?”

Slater: “I always credit my enemy, no matter what he may be, with equal intelligence.”

Fact: Although honey bees are not capable of conscious thought (so far as we know), captive individuals could potentially “communicate” with a nearby colony by releasing distress pheromones, causing bees in the colony to become agitated and more likely to sting people. So, in a way, the general’s actually a little bit right.

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Finally, we’ll leave you with an exchange between Dr. Andrews (Jose Ferrer) and Dr. Hubbard (Richard Chamberlain) inside a soon-to-explode nuclear power plant. Technically, there’s no entomological misstatement here, but the dialogue and accompanying action certainly implies that no place is safe.

Andrews: “Billions of dollars have been spent to make these nuclear plants safe – fail-safe. The odds against anything going wrong are astronomical, DOCTOR.”

Hubbard: “I appreciate that, DOCTOR. But let me ask you – in all your fail-safe techniques, is there any provision against an attack by KILLER BEES?”

Alarm: WHEEP WHEEP WHEEP

Bees: (louder and louder buzzing)

Fact: If you listen closely, you can almost hear Dr. Hubbard drop the mic as the living curtain of bees envelopes him.

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Bottom line? Unless you’re a bad-movie connoisseur, steer clear of this bug bomb. The Bug Week Board of Critics awards The Swarm a D for overall entertainment value, an F- for scientific accuracy, and a conciliatory A- for unintentional humor.

If you’re interested in a dramatic but more credible look at Africanized honey bees and their history, there’s a National Geographic documentary with the unfortunate name, Attack of the Killer Bees. It’s available online.

To learn the facts about Africanized honey bees in Florida, read this EDIS document — http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/mg113

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UF/IFAS Photo