Albert Einstein once said, “If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live”. More Than Honey director Markus Imhoof looks to explore the validity of this theory, creating a film that not only questions why the bees are dying out, but whether it would be such an agricultural disaster if they did.
Described in Britain as the ‘Mary Celeste Phenomenon’ (named after the ship whose crew vanished in 1872) and more succinctly by scientists as ‘colony collapse disorder’ it is believed that between 50 to 90% of all the world’s bees have disappeared. It’s a startling statistic, especially considering that 80% of all plants require the assistance of bees to pollinate. Imhoof presents us with an all-encompassing perspective on this disquieting epidemic, exploring everything from the mating rituals of bees to the true extent of the damaged caused by the human manipulation of these colonies. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship where nature and industry should be able to coexist and thrive, yet due to humanity’s sordid love affair with capitalism the bees have been left considerably worse of – a theory epitomised in one scene where the use of sugar water to fool the bees into relinquishing their honey is fittingly compared to the exchanging of beads for gold, between American settlers and the native Indians.
Imhoof takes his time getting to know and understand each of his protagonists. The film’s primary focus is on two very different beekeepers – the first is Fred Jaggi, an old-fashioned Swiss beekeeper who continues to use the same traditional apicultural methods his grandfather did. The second is John Miller, a Californian businessman who transports his bees around the fertile fields of America like machinery, seeing them as little more than an economic commodity to be exploited. Both men are erudite professionals whom Imhoof carefully observes under the same unforgiving lens. However, despite their vastly differing methods, they are both left facing the same mysterious predicament. Imhoof later allows us to witness two potential outcomes that could befall us if the bees did disappear. First, he presents us with a possible dystopian outcome via a tragicomic scene in China where farmers are now forced to manually pollination fields after Chairman Mao’s ‘great push’ led to a propaganda powered cull of sparrows – causing a ripple effect that ultimately resulted in the near extinction of China’s entire bee population. Yet we glimpse a faint flicker of hope during a brief trip to Australia where safe breeding experiments look to hopefully preserve the existence of this incredibly important pollinator.
What exactly is killing off these colonies remains a mystery, though Imhoof believes it’s a combination of various factors; from agricultural pesticides, industrial shipping methods and the curious eugenics of apiculture resulting in a lack of genetic diversity – ultimately impending the species’ natural evolution. Regardless of who or what is to blame there’s no denying that witnessing a hive devoid of inhabitants or full to the brim with hundreds of dead drones is a disheartening spectacle.
John Hurt lends his gravely tones to narrate proceedings, adding an addition dimension of resentment and sadness to the dispiriting images witnessed on screen. Imhoof also utilises state-of-the-art cameras and extreme close up techniques to portray the perilous lives the bees encounter on a daily basis within their colonies – where the invasive presence of man is exacerbated by parasitic mites and pesticides. It’s this strikingly visual aesthetic that elegantly transforms More Than Honey from merely becoming a dumping ground of complex data and alarming statistics – giving it a life of its own and allowing it to sinuously soar through the intricacies of this mysterious phenomenon.
More Then Honey presents us not with answers, but rather philosophical questions about the ways bees and humans interact with one another, questioning whether it’s possible for us to coexist or if our inherent greed has forever ruled out the possibility of a sustainable relationship. This is a beautiful, fascinating and truly disheartening documentary that should be a rousing call to arms, yet sadly feels more like a somber sigh of defeat.