If you've ever trolled the cobwebbed corners of YouTube at 3 AM, chances are high you've come across a clip of Nicolas Cage. Among his fabled performances is the 2006 opus The Wicker Man—most notably, that torture scene involving honeybees. To recap, Cage gets a bunch of bees dumped on his head, which doubly sucks for his character, a policeman who's allergic to the insects. But it's Cage's reaction that makes it gold: "NOT THE BEEEEEEES!" he proclaims with wooden flourish. The internet has been thankful ever since.
John Gibeau is equally grateful. He's the owner of the Honeybee Centre in Surrey, BC, a quaint honeybee farm and store just a half-hour drive from Vancouver. He's also got a side hustle: Hollywood's go-to bee man. And The Wicker Man might be the pinnacle of his résumé. Gibeau helped orchestrate that iconic scene—albeit with the help of a Styrofoam head.
"[Cage] wanted all the bees on him. He said, 'Pour them on my head,'" Gibeau recounts at his farm. We're standing near some old props from the film, including a massive medieval-style beehive replica. "But his people said no because he had committed to another production. They couldn't risk a swollen eye." Hence, the Styrofoam model, awkwardly superimposed with Cage's face in the final scene.
That bit was child's play, though, compared to the semi-nude actress who was draped in 80,000 bees. She's only on screen for a few seconds—just enough for Cage to open a door and recoil—but it involved painstaking work for Gibeau.
He enlisted a costume designer to make leather flesh-toned booties for the actress. That allowed the bees to crawl up her legs, which is how they like to travel. The actress—one of Gibeau's devoted staffers—also wore surgical tape around her body with bees attached. All told, the crew had less than a minute to shoot. As the camera was rolling, "I was pulling bees out of her ears," Gibeau says. The actress suffered only four stings.
Bee handling is a niche business, but the demand is high from Hollywood. Gibeau has amassed more than 30 credits over his 15 years in the industry. Gibeau is ideally situated, just a short drive from the sprawling studio lots in Burnaby. There's also a shortage of bees and beekeepers in the province—the situation is bad enough that thousands of bees are shipped to BC from Alberta each year—making Gibeau's expertise even more coveted.
He's got lots to contend with. Most people seize up when a bee approaches—let alone the thousands Gibeau brings to set—despite the fact that they're remarkably peaceful creatures. Stinging humans, after all, is their version of kamikaze. Gibeau, a former RCMP officer and homicide investigator, goes to great lengths to assuage the actors and crew before introducing the bees. For an episode of Supernatural, he tested 100 people on set to make sure no one was anaphylactic.
It was warranted. For the scene, Gibeau was asked to fill an attic with bees. He arranged 100,000 of them on a tarp, bouncing them in the air to give the impression of swarming bees. All crew members wore biohazard suits. But the director of photography demanded to wear Gibeau's beekeeping suit. "He was the only person with in that room with a full bee suit on. He didn't see a bee when he put his eye up to the camera and he got stung in the eye." Gibeau bursts out laughing. "The chances of that are one in 100,000."
In the event of some catastrophic bee attack, Gibeau is well insured. He carries two liability policies—one worth $5 million and the other $10 million. But Gibeau doesn't just handle bees on set (or hold a bee by its forceps, like he once did for an episode of Fringe). He provides pollen, designs beekeeping equipment and fashions beeswax candles. For the 2004 TV movie Earthsea starring Danny Glover , Gibeau was asked to make 2,500 candles. "I had every staff member at home making candles in their stovetop for about a month."
The demands of filmmakers can be wildly unrealistic. Gibeau was once asked to shoot bees out of a cannon, which he promptly turned down. "They'll ask for the world. That's the lesson of the filmmaking industry." Other requests seem bizarre, but are perfectly reasonable. "One woman came up to me and said, 'I'm menstruating. Should I be worried about the bees attacking me?'" Gibeau recalls. "I encourage that question. And the answer is you don't have to worry. Bees are vegetarian."
Some films depict questionable bee behaviour, like the opening scene in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, where bees are seen travelling in a snowfall. And don't even get Gibeau started on the animated film Bee Movie. "The male bees are the pollinators in it," he says, shaking his head. "It's completely inaccurate. It's definitely not good for education."
Gibeau's biggest gripe might be Hollywood's macabre portrayal of bees. His first credit was the 2002 TV movie Killer Bees, about a sheriff tasked with protecting his townspeople from a deadly swarm. "I would love to do a movie like On Golden Pond with bees," he adds, referring to the 1981 movie about New England retirees. "A nice retirement movie where bees aren't killing anybody."
What about The Wicker Man, where queen bees are used as a ham-fisted metaphor? "I thought it was really good," Gibeau says adamantly. He was shocked at first by the film's critical drubbing, but has now proudly attached himself to its cult legacy. At the local polytechnic university, Gibeau welcomes students in his beekeeping course with a repeat clip of Cage wailing as the bees attack.
"He's the same actor every time," Gibeau concedes, "but he's still a convincing actor if you're feeling the story."
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