Hollywood is for the Bugs

Actor Taran Killam psyching himself up to be covered in flies while making the movie Brothers in Law.

Actor Taran Killam psyching himself up to be covered in flies while making the movie Brothers in Law.

Sometimes as The Bug Chicks, we get asked to help film producers deal with live insects on shoots. We’ve helped kids handle insects for an Intel commercial, and last week we were on the set of an upcoming Hollywood movie with some cast members from Saturday Night Live. The experience was wonderful and unexpectedly bug-tastic. We always say that “bug” is a universal language, and that insect stories are a great way to connect with people from different backgrounds. Our day on set with famous actors and directors only helped solidify this philosophy.

The SHOOT

They needed an actor to wake up with his face and upper body covered in ants. This was a tricky task because A) ants can bite, B) they can be hard to get in large quantities, and C) we didn’t know of any species we could get that were native to the area where the shooting was taking place. We like bug wrangling, but we want to make sure we are being responsible at every turn. There’s NO way we will be involved if the show goes against our values as scientists or outreach educators. So, after some research and phone calls to colleagues, we came up with a creative solution that worked for everyone, including the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service.

We’re gonna need a bigger cup holder.

We’re gonna need a bigger cup holder.

Instead of ants, we used insects that would look like ants on camera. Enter flightless Drosophila melanogaster and Drosophila hydei. We got our aspirators ready for the shoot and drove down to southern Oregon with 5,000 vinegar flies in tow.

DRIVING THROUGH A MIDGE SWARM

On the morning of the shoot, we drove through one of the most incredible insect phenomena we’d ever seen. In late summer each year near Klamath Falls, midges (Chironomus utahensis) hatch in the millions. These midges emerge for mating swarms after pupating on lake bottoms. What looked like mini-tornadoes over the road were actually swarms of these flies!

mayflies-car

A car covered in midge carnage.

The cast and crew were talking about them throughout the day on set because they were covering all of the vehicles. There were all sorts of myths and legends being bandied about: they were introduced to eat mosquitoes (not true), they lose their mouthparts after mating (not true)… It was so much fun to sit with big stars and talk bugs, dispel some myths, and marvel at biology.

Lights, Cameras, ASPIRATE!

Lights, Cameras, ASPIRATE!

The time had come to bug wrangle. Confession: we were nervous about how this whole thing was going to go. Pouring thousands of flies onto an actor? Trying to aspirate them up in order to get another take without losing them or killing them? Eep!

In the end, there was no need to worry. Actor Taran Killam was an incredible sport and very respectful of his tiny costars. The flies cooperated, and we suffered very minimal losses. (Now we just have to figure out what to do with all of those flies…)

Actor Bill Pullman watching native ants carrying brood.

Actor Bill Pullman watching native ants carrying brood.

It seemed that everyone on set was fascinated with our equipment, the vinegar flies, and our line of work. We spent a great deal of time talking with Bill Pullman (you know him as the awesome President from Independence Day and many other fabulous movies). Mr. Pullman is a total bugdork and is a self-proclaimed biophile! He started the Hollywood Orchard, a community-enhancement program focusing on fruit, and has really gotten into agriculture. It was such a pleasure to speak with him about his passion for farming and food production.

We love our work as The Bug Chicks, where we spend the majority of our time teaching kids. Our day on set with the movie crew reminded us that everyone, from Hollywood stars to makeup artists to comedy writers, is fascinated with the incredible animals we study. We will be in the front row when the movie Brothers in Law hits the screen. Go see it and cheer for the vinegar flies! They should get an Oscar for acting like ants.


Kristie Reddick and Jessica Honaker are The Bug Chicks. Both hold master’s degrees in entomology from Texas A&M University, and their mission is to change the way people think about insects. Kristie’s research focuses on the biology, biodiversity, and distribution of solifuge arachnids in Kenya. As a Bug Chick, she is dedicated to showing young girls and boys that women can be smart, silly, successful, brave, and beautiful in many different ways. Jessica is a professional science illustrator and lecturer whose research focuses on integrated pest management and the effect of honeydew production by black-margined aphids in pecan agro-ecosystems. As a Bug Chick, she is passionate about promoting women as scientists and positive media role models. Follow them on Facebook or on Twitter at @TheBugChicks.

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