If you haven’t been hiding under a rock, you’ve probably heard about the world facing a bee problem. We need bees and they are vanishing. The problem was documented in the 2009 British movie “Vanishing of the Bees” and the problem is examined again in the 2012 “More than Honey.”
There are no striking images as in the 2010 documentary “Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us?” but director Markus Imhoof who wrote this film with Kerstin Hoppenhaus gives us a more intimate look at beekeeping as a matter of family history.
Filmed in California, Switzerland, China and Australia, the movie contrasts European traditional bee keeping with modern production and how both react to the problem of bee colony collapse disorder.
“Do you hear that? That’s the sound of money,” John Miller of Miller Honey tells us as we meet him at an almond orchard. He brings his hives to pollinate the orchards–rows and rows of white blossoming trees. “These almond trees were pollinated by bees that came from Australia, the almonds grew in the US and now they’re sent to Spain where they’ll be peeled and grilled. Then they’ll take a plane to Japan, where they’ll be used for the preparation of a traditional dessert. It will have taken four continents to make a cake. A gigantic collective performance, if you will.” According to Miller, about 80 percent of the world’s almonds in California.
His bees are doing important work that has worldwide implications and yet, he also tells us there are risks. For some reason, the owner of the orchard doesn’t coordinate with Miller and during the daytime, while the bees are busy pollinating, the orchard is sprayed with fungicide and we watch a bee steadily working until covered with pesticide it weakens and dies.
His bees are put on great semi-trucks to go from North Dakota to California and Idaho. Miller Honey Farms began in 1917 with Earl Miller and Einar Nelson. Miller and Nelson would separate with Earl establishing a branch in Idaho and his son Neil moving to Colton. In 1996, Earl retired and sold the company to his son John.
In contrast, Fred Jaggi attempts to keep his bee hive pure, using the black been breed. Yet when a queen leaves the hive, she mates with a variety of drone suitors (who die). Jaggi finds his tradition threatened by neighbors who use a yellow bee variety.
The breeding of bees can’t always be controlled, but there are some ways to fool nature. Heifrun and Liane Singer fool bees into producing a large number of queens by creating a panic in the colony. They remove the queen. The hive then grooms several larvae to be the new queen. The first queen will kill her competition but before that can happen the Singers take the queen bee and ship her to various beekeepers. “My breed of bees results from centuries of rigorous breeding: they aren’t aggressive and produce a lot of honey. Which means that my queens are much sought-after throughout the world.”
We see both Jaggi and Miller facing CCD. Jaggi is diagnosed as foulbrood, a type of spore-forming bacteria which kills the hive larvae. We don’t see the actual diagnosis for Miller’s CCD, but besides fungicide, we see several other problems beekeepers face.
Without the European honey bees what will pollinate the crops? In China, Zhao Su Zhang and her workers tediously collect pollen from blossoms and sell it. The pollen then must be brushed by hand on to individual blossoms for the tree to bear fruit. Yet this isn’t practical for the kind of farmers serviced by Miller.
CCD can be caused by not only the pesticides and foulbrood, but also varroa mites, genetics, loss of habitat and even poor tradition. An alternative for the U.S. is the dreaded killer bees who are survivors and like the European bees, immigrants to the United States. The so-called killer bees began as a Brazilian experiment, escaped and then slowly migrated to North America.
Yet the documentary doesn’t tell us who the invasion of the European honey bees have affected the native bees. Bees, we are told at the beginning, go to certain types of flowers. The almond trees aren’t native to California or Australia.