Featuring: Fred Jaggi, John Miller, Heidrun Singer, Liane Singer, Randolf Menzel
Director: Markus Imhoof
Directors of Photography: Attila Boa, Jörg Jeshel
One-word summation: enthralling
More Than Honey was one of the most popular films featured at Cinema Paradiso’s recent German Film Festival, and for good reason. This is an extraordinary documentary from Oscar-nominated director Markus Imhoof that drops the viewer into the bee universe via some truly spectacular micro-photography, revealing some astonishing and sometimes profoundly disturbing details about these intriguing and vitally important insects.
- Scouting bees conduct reconnaissance missions to determine location of flower types within 5km of the hive, reporting their findings to the hive community on their return through a kinetic communication system (ie: waggling their bodies from side to side). It is not clear exactly how the communication occurs, but it does, and effectively.
- A fascinating interview with a bee brain expert (!) reveals that bees are able to make decisions – and change them if they turn out to be wrong. Further, the hive functions as a collective brain, magnifying the brain capacity of the individual bees.
- Unlike birds or any other insect, bees are loyal to specific flowers, making them by far the most effective pollinator in the natural world (and from a human perspective, the most important).
One of the most memorable passages in the film shows a hive infested with the Varroa mite, a pest as yet uncontrolled that has decimated bee populations globally. The lens zooms in at high magnification on the gruesome scene within, which is reminiscent of sci-fi horror flicks like Alien. Defenceless bees struggle about with the ghastly mite parasites attached to their bodies, sucking on their insides as if through a straw. The community literally rots from the inside out.
The phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder that has wiped out 70% of the world’s bee population has been well publicised as directly related to the Varroa mite, but the picture that emerges from Imhoof’s film is that the mite is only part of the problem.
He presents a compelling argument that the demise of the bees is largely traceable to human interference in the natural world.
A dramatic case in point is China, where farmers are shown painstakingly pollinating their crops by hand due to a complete absence of bees. Turns out good old Chairman Mao ordered the mass extermination of swallows, which he perceived were stealing too much of the people’s food. With a major predator gone, the insect population exploded, in response to which a chemical assault was mounted that wiped out the bees, as well as the ‘pests’.
In the US, too, extraordinary measures must now be taken to ensure commercial food crops are pollinated. The filmmakers follow beekeepers as they truck their hives to farms, release the bees, which dutifully return to their hives when the job is done, then move on to the next client. It’s a lucrative business, and unfortunately now an essential one.
While China’s pollinating woes might be attributed to a single stupid Mao directive, bee-depleting human factors are complex elsewhere. Bees have been bred over centuries to be non-aggressive and easily handled; in Europe wild bees are now extinct. Deprived of the evolutionary benefits of biodiversity, human-dependent domestic bees have lowered resistance to disease, and are physically weakened and relatively passive, less able to combat predators.
There’s a surprising interview with a beekeeper in the US who produces his honey from killer bees – usually viewed as an invading scourge issuing from the dark wilds of South America. This apiarist recognises that as wild insects the killer bees are far stronger than domesticated varieties, and uses this to his commercial advantage – his ferocious tree-dwelling bees are not prone to mite infestation.
However, as Imhoof’s Perth-based scientist son-in-law Boris Baer observes, “we do not want to live with wolves.” With wife Barbara, Boris is working on breeding some biodiversity back into domestic bees. The couple are conducting research at UWA which they hope will ultimately lead to a recovery in the world’s bee population. They see this region as a bee Noah’s ark, the last corner of the globe where there is still an abundance of healthy wild native bees, and a domestic bee population unaffected by the cursed Varroa mite.
I want to emphasise in concluding that More Than Honey is above all a heart-felt and enthralling filmed excursion to the core of the bee world featuring some wondrous camerawork. It is driven by the filmmaker’s great fascination with bees, not by a didactic environmentalist agenda.
That said, any documentary investigating bees and bee-keeping in a global context would be remiss to ignore the current Colony Collapse Disorder crisis. Imhoof has managed to strike a balance here, such that the viewer is treated to an incredible up-close experience of a magical alien micro-world, while being made aware of some alarming developments that may have dire implications for all of us.
If you get a chance to attend a screening of More Than Honey, do not miss it (negotiations are currently underway with Australian distributors, and the movie is due for release in the US in June). As soon as it is available for purchase on DVD/Blu-ray, I will post relevant links here.
In the meantime, if you are interested in contributing to bee welfare – and you should be – consider sourcing your honey from your local beekeeper. There’s a list of local apiarists here. Local honey is also widely available from IGA, health food shops, organic food retailers…anywhere but Coles and Woolworths (although they may stock local Wescobee honey).
You might also want to investigate keeping a backyard hive. There is a society of hobbyist beekeepers in Western Australia, known as The Western Australian Apiarists Society. WAAS assists hobbyists in setting up hives and has regular meetings for members.
If interested, contact the president Ian Beeson (I kid you not!) as follows:
email: [isbees] [@] [hotmail.com]
For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives