Albert Einstein said, “If bees were to disappear from the globe, mankind would only have four years left to live.” He seemed to have understood then what experts now know is the fundamental and imperative role that something as tiny as a bee—which we typically value solely for its honey—plays in the delicate balance of the earth’s ecosystems. In More than Honey, a compelling new documentary about the vanishing of bees, Swiss director Markus Imhoof tells the story of these complex and powerful workers, their current crisis, and why we need them to survive.
Over the past several years, we’ve heard about the “mysterious” mass dying-off of bees around the world, and the crisis of colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon in apiculture in which most or all honeybees abruptly disappear from colonies. What More than Honey explains, however, is that this catastrophe isn’t a mystery at all, but is in fact directly related to the ways in which humans manipulate natural environments, pollute ecosystems, and fail to recognize the importance of maintaining biodiversity in farming practices.
The filmmaking displays dazzling cinematography that brings viewers intimate glimpses into beehives and colonies and provides impossibly clear shots of bees dancing in slow motion mere inches from the audience’s nose. In these almost hypnotic sequences, we’re seduced by the beauty, complexity, and astounding intelligence of bees, understanding them as the vital and fascinating creatures that they are. The film’s dynamic visuals—combined with classical music in harmony with the buzzing of bees and sounds of nature—make for a rich and dizzying sensory feast. With a compelling cast of human characters, including a proud capitalist from California who keeps his bees for their cash value, an old-world Swiss beekeeper, and a rough-and-tumble American specializing in the apiculture of the feared “killer bees,” More than Honey often feels like an engaging fictional drama. As a work of art, it spans genres and pushes cinematic boundaries, leaving us feeling as if we’ve experienced something for the first time. And as a piece of documentary filmmaking, Imhoof’s clear passion for educating the world about this issue resonates in each mesmerizing moment.
Ultimately, More than Honey explains why bees, which Imhoof charmingly calls “messengers of love,” are so vital to the planet, and why their threatened survival threatens us all. In delivering this sobering message, however, Imhoof manages to delight and entertain, and even make bees seem cute. Yet, in taking an intimate look at the dangerous practices of modern agribusiness, while asking larger questions about how we can survive in this world without destroying it in the process, More than Honey is also about more than bees. It’s about the relationship between humans and nature, and our place in the balance of what we must learn to recognize is a deeply and inextricably connected natural world.
I attended a screening of More than Honey at the Traverse City Film Festival, an annual event founded by Oscar-award winning filmmaker Michael Moore. Director Markus Imhoof was in attendance, and I had the pleasure of talking with him after the film about bees, the need for local and organic farming, and how we can learn to live in harmony with nature.
Ariana Hendrix: For those who haven’t seen the film, can you briefly describe the crisis of the vanishing bees and some of the factors causing it?
Markus Imhoof: Normally people say the reason for the death of the bees is a mystery, and so I traveled around the world to four continents—Europe, America, China, and Australia—to try to find out what’s really going on with the bees. And the conclusion is that it’s not one smoking gun, but it’s a combination of causes. The main causes are pesticides and diseases, inbreeding, and also stress and also lack of food, but this is all together linked to monocultures. Monocultures are kind of a totalitarian view of life. Any totalitarian system needs a very harsh police—that is the pesticides. So if we had less monocultures, we would have to use much less pesticides and the bees would be healthier and they would find other things to eat. Ironically, honeybees are happier in towns than in the countryside, because in the parks and cemeteries there is always something in bloom, [whereas] in monocultures [flowers] are often only four weeks in bloom, apple blossoms only ten days, and a lot of time they spray herbicides beneath the trees so that no other flowers are available for the bees; they don’t want the bees to pollinate the flowers [the farming companies] are not paid for. The agriculture industry says we need to farm like this to feed the world, but there are analysts who say that it won’t be possible this way, that we need to produce food more locally and in smaller structures. And, of course, maybe it’s not necessary, [for instance], to eat strawberries all year. Maybe strawberries would taste better if you just ate them in June, and not December. And people don’t realize it, but we wouldn’t have year-round strawberries without the help of bees; there are bees working inside the greenhouses for strawberries. And they are working in times when they would normally hibernate. It’s a weird way of dealing with nature, hoping to have everything under control. Nature is not an industry, and that’s the main thing to think about. It’s also about deciding, what is the definition of happiness? Having strawberries all year? Or having good strawberries? Bigger, more, and more quickly does not equal more happiness.
AH: So you think that this crisis of bees is reflective of a larger picture of the relationship between humans and nature?
MI: If we would consider humans as a part of nature, we would have a lot more answers to these problems. But we were raised thinking that nature is something that we should have control of, so we think we should be the dictator of nature; it’s not fun being a dictator. My vision would be for humans to be more a part of nature. It’s like being an instrument in an orchestra; you have to listen carefully to the other instruments to make the music and harmony and melody, and, to me, this is happiness.
AH: It was clear in the theater today that everyone was very moved and compelled by your film’s message. What do you think is the potential for documentary films to effect real change?
MI: I think it’s important that the documentary is not boring. I tried making it emotional, and making you have the point of view of the bees and have an emotional reaction to the story and feel for the bees if they are treated badly. It gives you the power to want to fight back. I tried to build the story as if it was a fiction film in the way of storytelling, so that’s not just teaching. I hope that the public is finding solutions himself but I have to offer him the cards that he can play and this was the main difficulty, how to explain the value of the cards while we are playing them.
More than Honey may be seen at special screenings around the country. If there isn’t one near you, host your own and spread the message about the crisis of vanishing honeybees and how we can make a difference. Visit the film’s website at morethanhoneyfilm.com; to learn about the Traverse City Film Festival, visit traversecityfilmfest.org.