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The bee vanishes

Queen of the Sun

Philip Strange 16 December 2012

Beekeeper: photo by the author

Some have suggested that the decline of the bees is a modern “canary in the coal mine” for the health of the planet

We don’t use the phrase “hive of activity” lightly; a beehive is a very busy place. Bees come and go continually but with a seemingly uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time. It was a big surprise therefore, in 2006 when beekeepers in the US began to find large numbers of their hives where the bees had disappeared. The bees were dying and in the next few years the pattern was repeated with up to a third of colonies being lost each season.

This phenomenon, termed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), could eventually wipe out US honeybees. Although the cause of CCD has still not been properly established, it may result from the way bees are treated by humans. The connection between humans and nature is being lost and this is the central theme of the recent documentary film, Queen of the Sun: what are the bees telling us?, directed by Taggart Siegel.

The connection between bees and humans emerges in the opening shots. A restless buzzing sound captures our attention. It is the sound of a pulsating mass of many thousands of honeybees. A young woman dances slowly, sensuously and we see that she is “clothed” by these bees. Her bees fly to and from brightly coloured flowers, linking her to the natural world. The film continues in this “alternative” vein, introducing beekeepers from around the world to tell the story of the bees and the problems they face.

First we travel to California’s Central Valley. 80% of the world’s almonds are grown here and we see row upon row of almond trees stretching as far as the eye can see. Beautiful they may look when decorated with their pink and white blossoms, but this is monoculture on a gross scale and ensures that bees cannot live here. For most of the year this is a bee desert devoid of the pollen and nectar required by these creatures. Nevertheless, each spring the almond growers need bees to pollinate their flowers. To supply this pollination, honeybees are trucked thousand of miles from all over the US. More than half of all US honeybees are swept up in this migration and when they reach California they are released to do their job.

This entirely unnatural movement of bees from one side of the country to the other is dictated by a profit-driven monoculture. It takes very little intelligence to realise that migratory beekeeping must be very stressful for these sophisticated creatures. Worse still, we see high fructose corn syrup being poured in to a hive in California to keep the bees from starvation when subjected to this alien lifestyle. An agricultural system that requires the creators of honey to be fed sugar syrup is beyond cynicism, and the title of Barbara Kingsolver’s essay on GM crops and monoculture, “A fist in the eye of God”, resonates.

Next we are in Virginia where we see a small plane circling over green fields to release insecticide spray, and we witness the despair of biodynamic beekeeper Gunther Hauk at the potential effects on his bees. Systemic neonicotinoid insecticides are used alongside monoculture in the US and Europe to kill unwanted insect pests. There may, however, be unintended effects, lethal or sub-lethal, of these insecticides on beneficial insects like bees. There are well-documented instances of the killing of thousands of bees by these insecticides applied in error, but it may be the more insidious sub-lethal effects that are undermining bee health.

We then meet the Varroa mite, a honeybee pathogen, now installed in most honeybee colonies. The Varroa mite weakens the bees but also acts as a carrier for harmful viruses. Various chemicals are used to reduce the Varroa load in hives. For beekeepers with only a few hives, this seems fairly successful, although it requires continual vigilance to keep the colonies healthy. For the migratory beekeepers in the US with their thousands of hives, control of Varroa must be much more difficult.

Alongside this sad story of honeybee abuse and ill health is a second very positive tale of life inside the beehive. We enter this secret world and learn about the remarkable organisation of a honeybee colony, which normally contains as many as 50,000 bees. Individual bees play important roles, for example as nurses or foragers, but there is no sentimentality in the hive; it is the survival of the colony that matters, not the individuals. Bees die once their function is complete but replacement is guaranteed by the ability of the queen to lay eggs at a prodigious rate. Bee society also depends on well-organised chemical and behavioural communication. Honeybees are sophisticated social insects and to treat them as disposable automata, as the migratory beekeepers do, may be undermining their health. Honeybees face a perfect storm of threats, pathogens (Varroa and viruses), insecticide, migration and poor nutrition and the outcome may be CCD.

So, what the bees are telling us in this film is very clear. We are forgetting our connection to nature; profit seems to be more important. The decline of bees in the US is one very obvious manifestation of this lost connection. In the past, coal miners carried a canary in a cage to warn against dangerous gas; if the canary stopped singing it was time to get out. Some have suggested that the decline of the bees is a modern “canary in the coal mine” for the health of the planet.

What can we do to solve this problem? We need to step back and consider the importance of nature to our lives. In the case of bees this could not be clearer financially. In the UK for example it has been estimated that to pollinate crops without bees would cost £1.8 billion a year. Agriculture without bees is now a reality in China’s southern Sichuan province. Bees were wiped out here by excessive pesticide usage in the 1980s and pear blossom now has to be pollinated by hand, a massively expensive and labour-intensive process. A very simple solution for the California almond growers is suggested in the film by one of the beekeepers. The growers should set aside some of their acreage to provide oases of bee-friendly forage among the almond groves. This would allow the honeybees to live in the Central Valley and pollinate the almond flowers; migratory beekeeping would become a historical aberration.

Queen of the Sun is a very beautiful film with many striking images of bees and countryside in different locations around the world. It also provides a good starting point for anyone wishing to learn about the problems bees are facing. The film has obviously been made with great care but I wonder if it will have the impact it deserves. Its “alternative” feel and its cast of caring but eccentric beekeepers may make it rather too easy to dismiss. For the most part it also lacks humour to leaven some of the bleak messages. When I saw the film, there was unintended laughter when one of the more eccentric beekeepers, Yvon Achard, caressed his bees by brushing with his luxurious moustache while enthusing: “They like. They like”. Ian Davies, a British beekeeper, insisted on referring to his bees as “his girlies”; this caused some groans.

The film concludes by visiting urban beekeepers in New York. There is a lovely image of a swarm of bees and a New Yorker shouting “only in the Bronx!” At the time the film was shot, beekeeping was still illegal in New York City and we see a demo in support of urban beekeeping. This campaign was successful and beekeeping is now prospering in the Big Apple. Throughout this time, urban beekeeping has burgeoned in the UK and this highlights another issue about the film – it views the problems of bees through American eyes. There undoubtedly are major problems for bees in the US but the story may not be the same elsewhere. In the UK, for example, CCD has not been recognised. Honeybees in the UK do face serious threats but the situation is not as dire as in the US. If the film is viewed with this in mind, and its eccentricities are enjoyed or ignored, it should act as a wake-up call to the problems arising when beekeeping becomes too mechanised and agriculture becomes too intensive.