More Than Honey, a delectable nature documentary of the secret life of bees, is also a philosophical rumination on the past, present, and future of those who raise them, and the threat to the 80 percent of plant species that need these insects for pollination—which means about a third of what we eat.
Swiss director Markus Imhoof narrates and illustrates with a montage of photographs of his family’s long connections to beekeeping, from his grandfather’s orchards to his biologist daughter and son-in-law studying bees in Australia, and follows bees and apiarists on four continents. Elderly Fred Jaggi operates an alpine heritage like the Imhoof family, and is proud of his traditional techniques and pure-bred black bees, but even up in these mountains promiscuous yellow queens from the next valley threaten his stock. Austrian mother/daughter team Heidrun and Liane Singer manipulate the insects’ life cycle and instincts to specialize in breeding queens (the busiest workers in agriculture) that they mail out to clients in more than 50 countries.
Footage is filmed so up close that it looks like Imhoof has practically placed high-speed cameras with endoscopic lenses right on the bees. The cameras could click 70 frames per second as the bees travel to sweet sources (whether flower nectar or sugar water) and return to the colony to communicate, feed each other, lay eggs, and build the honeycombs. Up close, they look like hairy, bulbous monsters from a science fiction movie. Using mini-helicopters, Imhoof also catches on screen a queen bee’s wedding flight, with a mid-air mating at 300 frames per second. To explain what the bees do (though I can’t say I completely followed the details while bug-eyed at the visuals), the production team was guided by a renowned “bee whisperer,” German neurobiologist Randolf Menzel.
How little bees are essential to Big Agriculture is usefully demonstrated by following affable John Miller’s big trucks of bee boxes. He hits the road for his annual circular route from California’s Central Valley fruit basket, to the Washington apple orchards, to the summer fields of North Dakota, and back for the winter to process his honey harvest. Acres of almond groves are the case study for what Miller ruefully calls “our Faustian deal” with growers—extensive acres of uniformly planted monoculture is easy prey for parasites and bacteria, which farmers then attack with fungicides. Watching bees slowly die after spraying visually supports the recent two-year ban by the European Commission of a class of pesticides.
That sequence introduces the mysterious crisis of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which, since 2006, has decimated bees around the world—the many possible causes and its repercussions have been better covered in Doug Shultz’s Silence of the Bees (2007) and Carter Gunn and Ross McDonnell’s Colony (2009). While a U.S. government study released earlier this month found no conclusive evidence of one villain, Imhoof uniquely looks to other solutions for the future business of beekeeping. In China, manual labor is being applied to agriculture—swarms of people try to replace bees by brushing branch-by-branch fruit trees with pollen (giving yet another meaning to the birds and the bees). On a smaller scale, individual entrepreneurs dry and sell pollen in small packets to retailers.
Learning from killer bees is also presented as a creative solution. I had thought virulent escapees from a research lab in Brazil were an urban legend, but they really are spreading north and seem to be as immune to CCD as much as they are resistant to domesticity. In Arizona, burly, long-haired Fred Terry tracks killer bees and tries to figure out how to get their honey, sort of like a hippie Winnie the Pooh with a bandanna. Meanwhile, Imhoof’s relatives attempt to more scientifically figure out if there are secrets in the feral bees’ immune systems that can benefit these insects, beekeepers, and all us eaters. They also introduce Imhoof’s grandchildren to the family’s heritage, giving new cinematic meaning to the spirit of the beehive.