Last week I went to see a showing of More than Honey by the Ealing Transitions/Friends of the Earth groups at St Mary’s Church, Ealing. I hadn’t been in the church before and was surprised at how beautifully decorated it is, with rafters painted gold and intricate red and gold patterns on the arches. The church was packed, so hopefully plenty of money was raised for bee causes.
It’s a very well shot film with some ground breaking footage of a honeybee queen mating high in the air, and also unusual viewpoints such as inside a hive being trucked about, the combs swinging back and forth. The director went around the world to film it, including California, the Swiss alps and China.
We see commercial beekeeper John Miller standing by his hives in an almond tree plantation, the buzzing in the delicate white flowers filling the air. He turns to the camera and says “That’s the sound of money… fresh printed money”. As the film goes on he loses lots of hives, in response to which he treats with Fumagilin, saying “I am backed into a corner, and I fight back with what I have – chemicals.”
Some of the practices John Miller uses do not seem healthy for the bees to me, and he admits himself that his grandfather would be shocked to see how things are now done. Mechanical equipment is used to shunt the hives about, scraping and crushing bewildered bees willy nilly. When I inspect a hive I try my best not to kill a single bee, but in these large-scale operations human interaction with the colonies is lost. The pursuit of income for commercial beekeepers comes at a cost for the bees. The trucking, the spraying of pesticides that goes on in commercial plantations, forcing the bees to exist on monocrops… no wonder colonies are dying off.
In contrast I enjoyed the footage with Fred Jaggi in peaceful Switzerland. He does not own a veil and keeps black bees native to his area high up in the mountains. He claims they swarm less and are gentler, as well as better suited to the cold conditions. There is entertaining footage of both male and female beekeepers there puffing on a cigar instead of a smoker!
But even amongst the idyllic scenes of wild flowers in the alps, disease lurks and sadly Fred’s bees are diagnosed with American foulbrood (AFB). The inspector fumigates the bees with sulphur to kill them and the bees and frames are then burnt in a pit. It sounds harsh but is better than leaving the colony to infect other bees.
In China we meet Zhao Su Zhang, who sells pollen to farmers in northern China, in areas where heavy pesticide usage means bees can no longer survive. Years ago Mao decreed that sparrows should be killed as they stole grain from the people. This was done, but resulted in a plague of insects as their natural predators had been greatly diminished. The insects were fought with insecticides and the bees died. Messing with an ecosystem never produces positive results.
Each year Zhao drives south for two days, buys flowers there and hires a room for her team to harvest the pollen from the flowers, carefully packaging it into paper envelopes. She then drives back north to sell the pollen to the farmers. Up on ladders, labourers must painstakingly dab each flower with a little pollen so that the trees will fruit. Even the slowest, most lackadaisical bee in the world would surely beat a human at this job.
The film left me feeling sad and angry. We abuse the natural world in so many ways – can we really be surprised when things go wrong and bees start dying off? It’s lucky for bees that their work is so valuable to us, otherwise governments would probably do little to protect them and those of us who care would be left lamenting a missing hum.
Edit: Rusty at Honey Bee Suite has written a post pointing out some errors in More than Honey: Take the Pollinator challenge.