Sweating the sweet stuff, Markus Imhoof’s More Than Honey stirs the hornets’ nest with a look inside the hive at the threats facing the world’s bees.
The Plight Of The Bumblebee by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Fifteen years after his last feature Fire in Paradise, Swiss director Markus Imhoof returns to our screens with a very personal documentary charting his family’s apiarian antics since his grandfather’s failed fruit cannery and the redundant bees left over after its collapse and his daughter and son-in-law in Australia, the home of the globe’s last healthy bees, researching a new bee species to repopulate the Earth. His documentary More Than Honey buzzes with bee stories, from the Californian almond fields to the Swiss Alps, infused with unctuous close-ups of a bee being born inside its hive and gorgeous blossoming landscapes. It’s a dying industry, fighting not only the decimation of bee populations but also intensive farming and industrial apiculture. The microcosm exposed as Imhoof uncovers the secret life of bees.
A bee is born inside the hive. An elderly Swiss beekeeper captures a swarm of wild bees. Markus Imhoof, through the honeyed tones of John Hurt, recounts his family connection to honey – left with only the bees when his family’s fruit business went bust – as well as the biography of the bee – flower pollinator, drone, queen and dancer. Stateside, John Miller starts the honeymaking season in the Californian almond groves moving eastwards with spring’s first blossoms to reap the golden nectar from his hives, producing honey on an industrial scale. High in the Alps, native black bees, free from artificial pesticides, are under threat from their more adaptable yellow-tailed neighbours, the purity of their race at threat through cross-pollination. And while breeders make money selling queens, other bee farmers embrace the increased honey yields of killer bees. And in China, where chemicals have decimated bee populations, it’s now up to human bees to pollinate their trees.
Einstein, in a rare moment of apocalyptic naturalism, said if bees ever disappeared off the face of the earth, within four years mankind would follow. And deep within the combs of Markus Imhoof’s More Than Honey lies this question of survival which plagues bees all across the globe. In China’s Shanxi Province, there are no more bees, wiped out by insecticides designed to counteract the plagues of insects that arose after Mao ordered sparrows be killed for robbing the people of their grain. And now pollen powder commands a high price. Breeders too are cashing in, exporting colonies to the Americas, manipulating their broods into producing more queens and therefore more bees. But bees are intelligent, able to communicate better food sources to each other through dance. And have a unique survival extinct, like the alpine black bees, learning over generations to survive by hibernating for half a year. So why the bee in their bonnet?
Now dependent on antibiotics, bees are no longer able to keep up with the evolutionary leaps demanded of them to survive. Hives are decimated by brood die-off, caused by fungicides sprayed on crops. And by foulbrood, a disease brought to nests by foreign queens, only cured with sulphur fumigation and cremation. And there’s an oddly Swiss preoccupation with racial purity, as well as a matter-of-fact approach to bee husbandry, slamming a bee swarm into a box with neither nets nor smoke, just a cigar to keep the stingers at bay. Within their colony, bees also harbour a scout whose purpose it is to find a new nesting place, somewhere out of the reach of man. And it’s in Australia, a Noah’s Ark where the bees are free from the varroa mite and healthy, that scientists can seek to understand the bee’s genetic variation and create a new species of super bees.
Rather than the problem of the bees’ survival that’s left rather up in the air, one of the most interesting philosophical questions in Markus Imhoof’s More Than Honey is the superorganism of the colony; bees are unable to survive away from the hive, and 2,000 drones die each day, quickly replaced like the cells of the human body. The queen is the colony’s beating heart, the health of the colony immediately apparent to the insects’ 3D odour image. And perhaps the future of this organism community lies in the swarms of killer bees striking back against mankind, immune to pesticides, hardworking and completely wild. It’s perhaps man’s yoke that poses the greatest threat to this fragile, intelligent animal that refuses to be turned into a docile, domestic beast of burden, their honey stolen and replaced with sugar water. And so in Markus Imhoof’s More Than Honey, with its epic cinematography and its spectrum of possible cataclysms, the bees head into space. Its fate unsure, either to death or to a new colony beyond man’s reach.
More Than Honey is released on 6th September 2013 in the UK