NOVA: For "Tales From the Hive," did you have to build any special viewing
platforms to shoot inside the nest?
Thaler: Directors of other bee films have typically brought honeycombs into
daylight and shot them with macro lenses. I wanted to show the viewer an approximate
picture of a bee city, so we built a mini-studio outdoors that was
absolutely pitch-black. In that studio, six bee populations (including
the population seen in the apple tree in the film) were set up so that
the bees could make an unhindered escape down a corridor to the outside.
We built the respective sets with empty honeycombs, set up the lights -
which were very small light sources, partially reflected by mirrors—and positioned the camera. As soon as everything was set up, we replaced
the empty honeycombs with full ones from the bee population, which gave us two to
three minutes to get the shot. That's why it took an average of two hours for a good set up.
Thaler films a honeybee colony that has set up shop within the hollow trunk of an apple tree.
For the bee population in the apple tree, we prepared a hollow tree trunk by making
it accessible from all sides. It was impossible to predict how the bee swarm's
architecture would be laid out, so we had to be prepared for all possibilities.
NOVA: When working the hive, do the bees get used to your presence and
leave you alone? Why wasn't the beekeeper attacked when he kidnapped the queen for marking?
Thaler: When the weather is nice and nature offers the bees a plentiful
supply of nectar and pollen, it's very easy to work with them, because all the
bees are thinking about is honey production. They must know (or you have to know)
that only during a few weeks of the year, nature gives bees the opportunity to collect
enough honey reserves for the winter. On such days, they let anything be done to them.
When the weather changes during such a phase, however, they react aggressively to
any disruption by humans. Unfortunately, very often we had bad weather, and on
such days, not just the beekeeper but the whole team got stung many times.
NOVA: In the scene where the bear attacks the hive in the log, were you
alerted when the bear arrived in the area, or was it serendipity that you happened
to capture its attack on film?
Thaler: In Austria, bears have begun to appear again over the past few
years. They are very shy, and it is a big coincidence to meet a bear in the
woods. We had to shoot this sequence with a bear who is used to humans.
The enterprise was not entirely harmless, however. We built a cave for
the bee population in the woods and filled it with large honey reserves.
The scent of the honey lured the bear to the scene, and the story developed
from there. We had no control over how and from where the bear would dig
out the bee population. Towards the end of the scene, he became quite wild
and unpredictable, because numerous bees had stung him on the snout.
With bees hovering all around him, Thaler films the swarm on the tram wire in Graz, Austria.
NOVA: The scene in the film of the swarm gathering on the tram wire in downtown
Graz is amazing. How did that come about? Were the bees planted there, or did they arrive
on their own?
Thaler: Sometimes it happens that an entire swarm gets lost in a city, and though
we arranged this scene, it is is not fictional but really happened in Vienna a few
years ago. The scene posed a major headache for the beekeeper, because the wire was
very thin, and it was hard for the bees to form a swarm cluster. Yet I was convinced
from the beginning that the scene would work.
The trick was really simple. First we caught the queen from a population and put her
into a cage. Then we added five or six pounds of flight bees and shut them in a box
for two days. We fixed the queen's cage to the tram wire, opened the box, and because
the bees are obsessed with their queen, they began immediately to search the nearby
environment. They soon found the queen, because her scent is easy to pick out, and
within minutes all bees from the box assembled on the tram wire. My job was to
shoot this scene from many different angles during these few minutes; I just
had to be really fast.