There’s buzz, of both the insect and human variety, surrounding a new documentary about Burt Shavitz, the co-founder of natural skincare product line Burt’s Bees.
Out now, Jody Shapiro’s film Burt’s Buzz traces Shavitz’s inspiring life, following his journey from army photographer to a simple man selling honey out of a big, yellow bus. Left with a bounty of beeswax, Shavitz started making candles and other products from the extras.
This small-time business eventually grew into the golden-hued company people know today. But Shavitz’s story doesn’t stop there. His life is now a bizarre ballet focused on being the face of the company, while still staying off the grid in his rustic Maine home.
To get some insight into Shavitz’s back-to-basics life and love for bees, PEOPLE talked to Anthony Planakis, better known as “Tony Bees.” Planakis has been the resident “bee cop” of the New York City Police Department for 20 years. Between helping the NYPD with bee business and maintaining his own hives around the bustling metropolis, it’s safe to say Planakis has bees on the brain – and he was happy to share his passion.
How did you find yourself in the unique role of “Bee Cop” for the New York City Police Department?
When you are in the police academy, they ask you what your hobbies and interests are. I listed everything on there from beekeeping, the outdoors, hunting, fishing, camping and my love for gardening and farming. Once I was assigned to a command in September, the following spring I got my first swarm job. One of the bosses walked up to me and just looked at me and said, “Bees?” And I went, “Yeah, where?” That’s the history.
How did beekeeping become a hobby for you originally?
On my card it says “Keeping a buzz since 1977.” That’s when I went hands-on. Most of my summers were spent either in Connecticut or doing work in Queens, and that work entailed my father’s new hobby of keeping bees. It wasn’t until I was 17 that I had the nerve to go into the yard and get in there hands-on, because I had a bad [past] experience getting stung. I wanted nothing to do with bees, because I really didn’t understand them. Luckily, I just pushed that fear to the side.
What made you go from being fearful of bees to calling them “your babies”?
The thing that got me was waking up at 5:30 in the morning and sitting on my lawn chair right next to the hive [in Connecticut] and watching the guard bees. As soon as the sun came up, all the bees just went to work. When I looked at that hive I saw the most perfect society. From birth they know what their job is. They know what they have to do. Only as a last resort are they going to use force or violence. There is no nepotism or jealousy, none of that. It’s all based on merit and integrity.
What is one of the biggest misconceptions you find people have about bees?
The insects that are out there right now – hornets, yellow jackets and wasps – people see that and right away put honeybees into that category. The honeybee is a pollinator, the others are carnivores.
These people will say, “I got stung by a bee at a picnic.” No, you didn’t get stung by a bee, you got stung by a yellow jacket. A honeybee has no reason to be near that picnic table. Honeybees want nothing to do with that. It’s the carnivores that are there.
What is it like to see a movie like Burt’s Buzz, where there is someone else who has dedicated his life to bees?
When I first saw it, it got to me. I was a little emotional, because I saw Burt and I saw my father. He just went back to the basics, living off the land. It’s identical to how I have my place set up in Connecticut. I have a wood stove on one side and a fireplace on the other.
What do you hope others take away from Burt’s Buzz?
I hope when they see the bees and they see Burt, they see the two as one and the same. The bees are living off the land without human interference, and Burt is doing the same thing. I really envy his lifestyle. People should see the way he is living, how that is what it’s all about. Forget about your smartphones and computers.
As a experienced beekeeper and bee advocate, what would you like people to know about bees?
I like to tell people who want to get into a hobby like beekeeping, forget about the books written today. You have to go back to the basics. People go to big home improvement stores and go to the nursery to get perennials and annuals for the bees, thinking they are doing their part to help the bees. You’re killing the bees by planting those flowers because they are so pesticide-laden. If you’re going to do anything, and want to do it the right way, do it like I do. Start the seeds in February, set up your growing light, keep it strictly organic and then plant them in the spring. Do it how it was done back in the day. The natural way.
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