Yes, humans are destroying the planet and everyone with a healthy revulsion for Fox News knows it. The problems are so enormous, so seemingly irreversible, that they can numb the resolve of even the most vigorous environmental crusader. Atop the list of looming crises is Colony Collapse Disorder, which has man’s real best friend, the humble honeybee, disappearing by the millions.
As you may remember from elementary school, the bee is the lynchpin of the global agricultural system, the indispensable (and literal) wingman to plants all over the world who need help spreading their seed. If the bees aren’t around to carry pollen from anther to pistil, plants can’t reproduce and humans can’t eat. So Colony Collapse Disorder, whose rise in the Western Hemisphere since 2006 continues to stump scientists, isn’t just the pests’ problem. In the end, it’s Man who gets stung.
Queen of the Sun, an 82-minute Collective Eye Films documentary that opens at O, Cinema Friday night, explores the ominous phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder with a sense of urgency that we have become used to — and maybe even sick of — in a genre you might call “Apocalypse Right Now”. But what sets it apart from other ARN films is that it doesn’t just fear-monger (even though the threat posed by CCD is fearsome and worth mongering), nor does it drag the viewer mercilessly through the sludge of a dark modern wasteland.
In fact, the colors of Queen of the Sun are vivid, its moment is morning, and its ringing notes are reverence and hope. “It was very important to us that we balance the light and the dark,” director Taggart Siegel said when we talked by phone earlier this week. Finding that balance in a film that delves into imminent catastrophe couldn’t have been easy, but Siegel pulls it off by focusing on a cast of quirky characters who rage against destructive industrialization in the most gentle way imaginable: beekeeping.
“The film is about an insect, but it’s also about people,” producer Jon Betz told me.
Among the people is French historian — bee historian — Yvon Achard, who walks around his Grenoble home shirtless and massages his beloved bees with his mustache. Another is Gunther Hauk, a beekeeper who manages a biodynamic farm hemmed in on all sides by the pesticide-drenched fields of agri-titan Monsanto.
While the star of Queen of the Sun is indubitably the bee, it is the beekeepers who make the film compelling. Still, if you have an aversion to tree huggery, this may not be the film for you. (Siegel openly admits he wants you to take up beekeeping after watching the doc.) But if you desire a closer look at Earth’s two most consequential creatures — bees and humans — then get out of your hive and buzz on over to O Cinema this weekend.
Here is an excerpt of my interview with Siegel and Betz.
What spurred you to make Queen of the Sun?
Taggart Siegel: It was a pretty instantaneous decision to make this film when I heard about the bee collapse. There was a quote from Einstein that’s been disputed, but it’s basically that when bees die off from the face of the earth, then man has four years to live. That quote really woke me up.
Jon Betz: We made Queen of the Sun not only to communicate the danger of colony collapse, but because we really feel that there’s a huge disconnect between the planet and the way we live our lives today. To connect with a single insect for us was worth an entire film to get people to fall in love with the planet and the honeybee. A big goal for us was to communicate the wonder we felt when we were around bees and how incredible the act of pollination is.
What is Colony Collapse Disorder?
One way to look at Colony Collapse Disorder is that it’s a phenomenon where the bees have disappeared. The queen and the honey might still be there, but the bees have disappeared. And that’s the mystery around it. Where did they go?
There are a lot of theories. We dump billions of gallons of pesticides into nature … and [they] are neurotoxic to the brain of the bees, and so they have a hard time navigating back to the beehive. And the problem is systemic. When a bee goes to some corn that has a pesticide on it to gather pollen, that pesticide goes into their gut organisms when they make honey. So I look at it as a big toxic cocktail that we’ve created.
JB: The reason we use pesticides is that we now farm on this industrial, grand scale. In order to maintain these crops, such as the almond fields in California that stretch for 740,000 acres — literally the size of Rhode Island — you have to truck bees in to pollinate them. But there’s only a flower blooming on the almond trees for two weeks. The rest of the year, there’s no blooms, no nectar, no pollen in that crop the size of Rhode Island, so of course there’s going to be no bees living there.
Most beekeepers now make their living as commercial, migratory beekeepers. They bring these beehives in via semi-trucks, sometimes all the way from the East Coast to the West Coast, to get enough bees to pollinate that crop. And farmers pay an incredible price for this. And that act of trucking them in is extremely stressful for the beehive. They also feed the bees high-fructose corn syrup to keep them going because there’s no natural nectar for them. So you’ve got a malnourished bee pollinating these crops, and they’re coming from all over the United States, sometimes even internationally. As Michael Pollan says in the movie, it’s like a giant bee bordello. Disease spreads from one species to another. You see things like Varroa Mite, which has become a huge problem, popping up in New Zealand and all over the place because of the way we transport bees.
Colony Collapse Disorder is a crisis, but your film is not a downer. In fact, the key note of the film is reverence. Can you talk about that approach?
TS: Yeah, we’re not only trying to bring an awe-inspiring, uplifting experience to the audience, but something where they could fall in love with the bee, or at least get over their fear, to see how the bee has been in service to mankind for millions and millions of years. You know, the Greeks built gods around the bees. Even their coins had a bee on it thousands of years ago. The Egyptians had vast areas that were called “bee zones”, and they knew the bees provided fertility and were at the core of the life. They would bury honey in their tombs, which is an indication that they really revered the bee as a sacred creature. We also saw that the Mayans … worshipped this insect as the source of the life.
What impact do you want your film to have on its audience?
TS: As Rudolph Steiner [early 20th Century philosopher-scientist who predicted industrialization and mechanization would initiate bee collapse] said, I think all of us need to be interested in bees and possibly become a beekeeper because it is so important to the health of the planet.
After seeing the film, I want people to be inspired by and least appreciate bees when they see them on the flower the next time. And in that way, I think people can suddenly connect with nature. I have personally connected with nature since I made this film. Now I’m always looking for the pollinator when I’m out walking.
If we can bring that sense of reverence, or at least a sense of appreciation for nature, then I think we can open the heart of the audience so they will feel like, “Yes, we need to get out of this mess together. We created it, therefore we can get out of it together.”