The day I went butt-naked and covered myself in honeybees.

In 2010, when I learned that Colony Collapse Disorder, or the the disease that was inflicting a massive honeybee die off, was only worsening, I spoke to Nicolas Rachline, the publisher of ABOVE Magazine, to potentially run a photo series and article to raise awareness about the situation. He loved the idea and thus began the brainstorming...

Initially we wanted to do a beauty series. I would be nude (I was, he said, "crazy enough to do it"), but the camera would focus from the chest up, and there would be 4-6 almost identical frames, one right after the other. The first frame I would be covered in bees, the second frame—half the bees would be gone, and by the time we reached the last frame, there would be only one bee remaining. The photo series would represent a stark visual, journaling the surprising progression of the massive die off that was underfoot, or shall I say, underwing. 

Nicolas asked me where we'd do the shoot. "Somewhere nearby," he suggested, likely thinking of keeping the costs within reason. 

I could think of only one place. Many years before I had spent time studying in the Dominican Republic, looking at how forests would regrow after intensive decades of agriculture. Years later, I returned to the country, and met Jake Kheel, the Ecological Director of Puntacana and Rubio, the charismatic and highly knowledgeable apiculturist. I was astonished by how effortlessly cool and collected Rubio was with the bees.

"There's only one place and one person," I said confidently. "Rubio. The bee keeper in the Dominican Republic." We acted swiftly. I called up my friend, filmmaker, Clayton Haskell to figure out his whereabouts. He happened to be filming in the Caribbean when I called. "Do you think you can make it to the DR tomorrow?" I asked him. "Yes," he said. "I have all my equipment with me and I finished up shooting today." Perfect timing. Within 48 hours the whole crew was in the Dominican Republic and this is what ensued...


The following article and video was originally done for Above Magazine, whom has generously allowed us to feature it here. 

I headed off to Puntacana Ecological Reserve with ABOVE Magazine to explore human's interconnectedness to the honey bee and raise awareness of Colony Collapse Disorder.

An outtake from the video, End of Bees, which we shot for ABOVE Magazine to raise awareness of Colony Collapse Disorder, and the incredible work that is being done at Puntacana Resort in the Dominican Republic. Photo: Clayton Haskell

An outtake from the video, End of Bees, which we shot for ABOVE Magazine to raise awareness of Colony Collapse Disorder, and the incredible work that is being done at Puntacana Resort in the Dominican Republic. Photo: Clayton Haskell

The building reeks of honey, smoke and sweat. A metal fan does its best to cough a mucilaginous breeze in our direction, as if it wants to churn the humid air into cake batter. My hair hangs in dull-brown, dreaded clumps and my tank top clings like a second skin. The pounding of the rain on the tin roof is loud but not nearly as persistent as the bzzzzzzzzzzz. It's a sound I can't ignore. A Lilliputian legion of glimmer-winged honey bees swarms inside a Perspex case. Their tiny insect bodies lump, bump and waggle in an all-out mob dance against their honeycombed chambers.

I peer at the bees over the broad shoulder of Pedro Julio de Castillo, a Dominican with a bushy black moustache and a wild-eyed grin, known by everyone here as El Rubio. Three years ago El Rubio started the beekeeping program at the Puntacana Ecological Foundation, which is run by a friend of mine named Jake Kheel. Jake had shown me pictures of El Rubio ("el maestro de las abejas") collecting bees with his bare hands. El Rubio was a landscape gardener when Jake met him in 2007. "You are doing this all wrong," he had said when he got a look at the Foundation's original colony. "The bees are unhealthy."

That original colony contained a few thousand members. The Puntacana Ecological Foundation's current bee population boasts more than 140 colonies across five sites with numbers ranging anywhere from 2.8 to 5.6 million bees. To put it in perspective, if the Dominican Republic's 10 million human inhabitants metamorphosed into diminutive bee form, they would fit into 250 to 500 bee boxes, producing around 4,000 liters of honey per year.

Rubio shows a handful of bees to the camera. Acts like this inspired confidence in myself to wear the bees. Photo: Jake Kheel

Rubio shows a handful of bees to the camera. Acts like this inspired confidence in myself to wear the bees. Photo: Jake Kheel

Rubio masterfully removes honeycomb from the bees that inadvertently invade some homes in Puntacana Resort in the Dominican Republic. Photo: Jake Kheel.

Rubio masterfully removes honeycomb from the bees that inadvertently invade some homes in Puntacana Resort in the Dominican Republic. Photo: Jake Kheel.

Last year the Foundation collected more than 1,400 liters of forest honey and sold every last container to sweet-toothed tourists. They generally harvest from December to July, though all that depends on how strong the colonies are during a particular year. Unlike their North American counterparts, the Foundation's honey bees are polyfloral (they have a varied floral diet), are not trekked long distances for feeding, and are worked 7-8 months a year as opposed to 10-12, which inevitably makes them healthier and less susceptible to disease.

As a bonus the Foundation boasts some A-list bee colonies. Two of the hives were removed from (the late) Oscar de la Renta's house (one had found its way into the de la Renta bathroom air conditioning unit) and another was retrieved from Julio Iglesias's hacienda. The resulting honey is not technically any sweeter than that from a hive found up in a coconut tree, but far be it from us to shatter the fantasies of Julio Iglesias's fans.

Back in the beekeeping room, El Rubio's apprentice sends puffs of calming smoke over the bees, using a device that looks like a coffee pot with a bellows attached. When the bees are calm enough El Rubio carefully slides out each of the nine wooden frames that hold the waxed honeycombs. He inspects the residents of the colony, murmuring like a hypnotist to his swarming subjects. His dexterous fingers pass over the hexagonal cells that house brood and food.

As long as the bees are happy to keep crawling all over him, El Rubio is happy to keep going about his business.

I get the impression El Rubio loves the bees as much as the bees love him. He saunters around with hundreds of female worker bees scaling his limbs and clustering in the nape of his neck. He seems to be in perfect sync wit the mood of the hive. If the bees send out a signal that says, "Buzz off!" he will quickly but calmly replace them on their frames. But as long as the little beasts are happy to keep crawling all over him, El Rubio is happy to keep going about his business.

Reading El Rubio takes as much skill as reading the bees. At one point he asked me if I would like to eat the developing queen (insert Sex Pistols song here). I figured he wasn't serious and chuckled. Little did I know I had missed my chance to feast on what Andrew Zimmern and other connoisseurs of the wild and weird regard as a prime delicacy—an embryonic burst of royal jelly, which is hugely popular in dietary supplements and luxury cosmetics.

El Rubio pinches the slightly oversized brood chamber of a larval queen. As the golden goo oozes between his thumb and forefinger, he pops the unsuspecting larvae into his mouth. "Muy bueno, hace potente," he says, shaking a fist in the air.

I don't want to spoil the party. I dip a finger into the wax on one of the wooden frames and enjoy the smooth, candied taste of the royal jelly. Tomorrow I'll have a better chance to impress El Rubio. 

I have bees to wear. 🌿

On the second day of shooting, the bees were more attracted to my hair than my body, so I ended up wearing a "bee bonnet". I had washed my hair the night before with an unscented shampoo, but perhaps it was enough scent for the bees to be attracted to the smell! Photo: Clayton Haskell 

On the second day of shooting, the bees were more attracted to my hair than my body, so I ended up wearing a "bee bonnet". I had washed my hair the night before with an unscented shampoo, but perhaps it was enough scent for the bees to be attracted to the smell! Photo: Clayton Haskell 

Summer-Rayne-Oakes-wearing-bees.jpg
The bellows is used to calm the bees. The smoke, in a way, sedates them so they can be picked up and applied on the body. Photo: Clayton Haskell 

The bellows is used to calm the bees. The smoke, in a way, sedates them so they can be picked up and applied on the body. Photo: Clayton Haskell 


Puntacana Resort and Club spans more than 6,000 hectares, with two golf courses, a full-service marina and accommodation ranging from Oscar de la Renta-designed villas to suites at the exclusive Puntacana Hotel. The fragile ecosystem that houses all this luxury is well cared for by the Puntacana Ecological Foundation. Ten percent of the land is reserved for ecological preservation and contains 15 natural spring water lagoons, birds, lizards and iguanas. The Foundation is also actively regenerating species. One project involves growing endangered Elkhorn and Staghorn corals and replanting them on the reef. puntacana.com