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Regular-sized bugs on the big screen: Ulee’s gold

Welcome to another installment of “Regular-Sized Bugs on the Big Screen,” a series of Bug Week blog posts meant to tip the Bug Week Board of Critics’ hats to arthropods that appear alongside human actors in feature films.

Today, we’re stepping back from The Swarm to examine Ulee’s Gold, a character-driven slice of life indie film from 1997. It stars Peter Fonda, son of Henry Fonda, one of the many stars of our other review film this year, The Swarm. Perhaps Henry’s experience with The Swarm convinced Peter that he could make a better “bee movie” and redeem the family name (or, maybe he just thought that he couldn’t possibly do any worse.)

Peter Fonda plays Ulysses “Ulee” Jackson, an old-school, low-key beekeeper in Florida, who is raising two granddaughters because their father (his son) is in prison for robbery and their mother is mixed up in drug activity. Ulee’s life is further complicated when his son’s accomplices begin demanding hidden loot they believe is hidden in one of Ulee’s bee yards, the fields where he keeps his bee hives.

Patricia Richardson, best known as the mom from the television sitcom Home Improvement, co-stars as Connie Hope, the down-to-earth nurse who is drawn into this dysfunctional family’s drama. Ulee’s Gold strives to keep it real as far as insects are concerned, showcasing knowledge and settings largely provided by a real beekeeping family in the Panhandle town of Wewahitchka, in Gulf County.

The honey bees appear in the first few moments and never quite leave the film, even when they leave the frame. The bees and their behavior patterns come across as thinly veiled representations of Ulee’s family members and the ways they handle (or refuse to handle) the pressures of everyday life. This parallel between bees and humans works well for the movie’s character development, considering the clearly defined roles, social structures and divisions of labor present among the bees and members of the Jackson family alike.

Ulee’s operation is based in Northwest Florida, so its principal product is tupelo honey. This sought-after honey variety is produced only in Northwest Florida and South Georgia by bees with access to tupelo trees in bloom. Tupelo honey has a taste that is frequently described as floral, delicate, and fruity, and it can cost roughly $15.00 per pound. Like most real-life tupelo honey producers, Ulee is responsible for a large part of the supply chain. He cares for the bees, harvests the honey, then filters, bottles and sells it.

Unlike the human protagonists in other films we’ve reviewed, Ulee doesn’t want to eliminate the arthropods running loose around him, he wants to co-exist with them. He deals with bees by donning his beekeeping attire, calming the insects with a bee smoker, then carefully transporting the hives to their seasonal sites by truck. The bees are presented as a source of well-being and a standard part of the protagonist’s everyday life rather than a destructive force. The primary peril associated with Ulee’s beekeeping duties is back pain.

Ulee’s Gold moves at a pace that would not sit well at all with modern, adrenaline-addicted moviegoers. The film develops most of its characters nicely and shows off beautiful settings throughout Florida, but it struggles to weave aspects of crime drama into an otherwise quiet, family-driven plotline that feels dated in a few of its sensibilities.

The Bug Week Board of Critics found the bees more interesting than their human co-stars by the end. Still, the film does drum up some buzz around honey bees and the people who handle them in an entomologically sound way while making the audience crave tupelo honey.

None of the characters, even the sleazy and obnoxiously deserving antagonists of the film, are ever on the receiving end of a bee sting, which is in line with the understanding that people who encounter bees should stay calm, as well as the fact that bees typically do not sting unless they are provoked.

That said, near the end of the film (spoiler alert), Ulee accurately expresses a few problems that bees face in real life 19 years after the film’s release. He says, “Mites are choking them, pesticides are killing them, the drought’s starving them…they’re fine.”

So, where Henry Fonda helped promote inaccurate information about honey bees when he appeared in The Swarm, his son Peter has helped put things right with Ulee’s Gold. It demonstrates, in its quiet way, that bees are helpful insects and important pollinators that have a huge impact on both domestic agriculture and global food production. Ulee’s Gold mercifully avoids demonizing honey bees and depicts these Big Money Bugs as friends instead. Therefore, the Bug Week Board of Critics gives Ulee’s Gold a C- for entertainment value, but an A- for scientific accuracy.

To learn more about honey bees, check out this document — http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/in1005

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UF/IFAS Photo by Tyler Jones