Friday, August 16, 2013

‘More Than Honey (2012) directed by Markus Imhoof

“I’m getting real uncomfortable with death on an epic scale.”
So says depressed beekeeper John Miller in More Than Honey, a documentary about the alarming fact that all around the world colonies of bees are collapsing and nobody really knows why. Throughout the film we see these numerous tiny apocalypses, thousands upon thousands of tiny bee carcasses spilling out of dead hives.  Humanity is in a bit of a bind on this one, our rapacious appetite for honey has led to us to keeping bees on ever bigger and more industrial scales.  We need to; it takes more than 10,000 worker bees to gather a single pound of honey - these bees have to fly the equivalent of twice around the world.  As they gather nectar they pollinate the flowers, thus ensuring the health and reproduction of plants. 

So, no bees equals no pollinated plants.  One third of the human food supply depends on insect pollination - most of it accomplished by bees.  Einstein once said, “If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.”  No bees equals no humans.  Kind of scary, right? You’d expect a film dealing with the very possible end of human life to be bombastic - quite deservedly balls out terrifying.  More Than Honey takes the opposite tack, this is the end of the world as gentle, lulling inevitability narrated by the ultra-soothing tones of John Hurt.  The beekeepers, those who know most about the situation, treat the collapse of yet another beehive with a practised and constant pragmatism.  They don’t have time to get miserable about it, not that that would do anything anyway.  

Beekeepers are like an odd bunch, constantly puffing on cigars to keep bees away from their faces, always exhibiting a weird intimacy with the hive, the bees either somehow recognising that they’re not a threat, or the beekeeper far too used to the bee's sting.  More Than Honey  show us two very different kinds of beekeepers.  In the incredibly scenic Swiss Alps lives Fred Jaggi.  His grandparents were beekeepers.  His parents were beekeepers.  He is a beekeeper.  His chosen bees are Black Bees, and he’s in a constant battle to maintain the purity of their breeding stock from the regular European honeybees on the other side of the mountain.  His job is an arduous one, working alone in isolated conditions with only the constant hum of the hive for company.  This is small-scale ‘organic’ beekeeping, working with age-old traditional methods.  Yet still the blight comes.

On the other end of the scale is John Miller, owner of Miller Honey Farms and half a billion bees.  His is an industrial operation, innumerable hives containing innumerable bees being transported around the US on flatbed lorries, travelling to orchards and farms in need of pollination.  He is his own Queen Bee, tending to an army of workers (tending to their own armies of bee workers).  He has every resource a beekeeper could ask for, gallons of antibiotics, sugar water, bee-husbandry experts - the best bee-tech money can buy.  Yet still the blight comes.

When we’re not following their stories, we take side jaunts off into the wider world of bee-keeping, meeting, among others, scientists researching the causes colony collapse disorder and the fascinating Fred Terry, who works with ‘Killer’ Africanised bees and believes that they represent the future of beekeeping.  We’re also taken inside the hive, with microcameras filming the bees endless toil, their busy and short lives beset by danger, pain and disease.

We quickly realise just how much the lives of bees are being perverted to maximise honey production, these bees are utterly dependant on huge doses of antibiotics and regular dunkings in sugar water.  Delicately and subtly More Than Honey begins to draw a parallel is drawn between the bees and ourselves.  The shots of the inner workings of the beehive are contrasted with footage of traffic swirling around a spaghetti junction.  The implication is clear: we are the bees.  We finally learn that colony collapse disorder doesn’t have a single cause; it’s a mixture of over-reliance on antibiotics, undiscriminating pesticides, invasive, vicious mites and many more we don’t know about.  The bee colonies are teetering on the edge of collapse, as is human civilisation; the planet acting as our hive.

A Chinese 'human bee'
In scenes that verge on the post-apocalyptic we see exactly what happens when the bees are gone.  China has chemically sterilised large portions of it's agricultures, killing off pesky mites and bee alike.  Here, humans have actually had to become bees - and it’s busy work!  Armies of migrant workers travel from flower to flower, pollinating each one with a tiny paintbrush. It looks tiring and miserable, a human can pollinate maybe 1000 flowers a day, a single bee can pollinate 5000 flowers.  It’s a miserable, barren future - imagine being told as a child that you're going to spend your working life as a bee. 

More Than Honey is a fascinating, contemplative and intelligent documentary.  It’s beautifully shot and presents gentle, yet incredibly persuasive arguments that outline the importance of bees.  There’s a dignity to beekeeping, a responsibility for each and every bee in your care - something effortlessly conveyed in John Hurt’s grandfatherly, authoritative narration.  I particularly enjoyed the more philosophical side to the argument too, the delicate way in which Imhoof explores the influence we have over the lives of the animals we keep, and their influence on us.  We’re in a long-term relationship with the bee.  We need them, and right now, they need us.  A fascinating bit of cinema, and easy to recommend.


More Than Honey is released on DVD and Blu ray on Monday 21st October

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