MORE THAN HONEY is a beautiful, globe-spanning documentary examining bees and their complicated, inter-dependent relationship with humans. If you are expecting some run-of-the mill nature doc, think again. This is the CITIZEN KANE of bee documentaries, more akin to something like BLUE PLANET. The filmmakers flew around the world 4 times creating an epic document on the state of bees and our relationship to them. In the process they captured some stunning footage: extreme closeups of bees at work, the hatching of a queen, and fly-along footage of bees in an experiment to show how they search for food. And, in what must be some kind of world record for the lengths gone to in the name of voyeurism, they even have an in-air tracking shot of bee sex (bees mate while flying). Yes, flying bee porn. And it is glorious. To think how enamored I was of Paul Thomas Anderson just doing elaborate tracking shots and porn separately. Combining the two... while flying!!! Mind: blown.
Putting aside affairs of entomological prurience, the real focus in MORE THAN HONEY is the intertwined relationship between bees and humans. Bees are responsible for a third of our food. The film shows an almond grove in an area of California that produces 80% of the almonds sold -- it is now only profitable on this scale. But such a massive monoculture can’t be maintained without human management. Bees don’t naturally live there, because after the trees bloom, they’d die. So the bees have to be brought in. Migrant beekeepers take their bees across the country, enabling different growing seasons as they go.
And hives themselves are managed by humans, from breeding, to splitting and starting new colonies, to replacing honey with sugar water after it is harvested. Sometimes beekeepers even have to give their colonies antibiotics or other drugs to prevent their colonies’ collapse.
This approach is contrasted with that of a traditional beekeeper in Germany. There the black bee, which evolved to serve the needs of a narrow valley, is kept in a tradition stretching back to the elderly beekeeper’s great-grandfather. The process still requires human intervention -- to kill off interloper bees and to manage the queens, for example, but it is mediated much more by nature. Still, this isn’t just a black and white picture, where industrialization is the enemy and small farmers are idyllic. Our pastoral keeper gets hit with a case of foulbrood (love that word), killing many of his colonies, and ruining much of his work. His bees are also a pain in the ass -- they sting a lot, he’s constantly having to monitor the bees for genetic purity, and his methods aren’t the most efficient. And he’s old -- it seems quite probable that when he dies his tradition will go with him.
The story of bees truly is a global one. The filmmakers take us to Australia, where the kind of honeybee that is domesticated in North America is still wild, and has more genetic diversity. There researchers are cross-breeding them on a remote island. The isolation is important to prevent what has happened with the Africanized Honey Bee, aka “killer bees.” They escaped a research lab and have been spreading across North America. Is this because we bred too much docility into our domesticated bees?
The filmmakers also take us to China, where human-caused environmental devastation has left areas without bees. Astoundingly, people cut up flowers for the pollen, then dust it into other flowers by hand. I’m pretty progressive, but humans participating in flower sex is an abomination.
It would be easy to make a film like MORE THAN HONEY into a polemic. Swiss director Markus Imhoof, who normally makes fiction films, was inspired to search for the cause of colony collapse disorder, since his grandfather was a beekeeper, and his daughter and son-in-law are bee researchers. And the film makes it clear that humans are partly to blame, with our industrial-scale beekeeping practices and indiscriminate spraying of pesticides. Still, without these, could we even feed ourselves? He treats all the beekeepers in the film with dignity and respect, letting them give alternate points of view. There are no easy answers. But we’re clearly doing something wrong. The bees are dying. And our well-being is tied to theirs.
The great news for film lovers is that MORE THAN HONEY was picked up by Kino Lorber after Toronto, and should be making its way to big screens sometime this year.
Watch the trailer: