Saturday, October 23, 2010

Minding Their Own Beeswax

Although most people think of bees as nasty stinging machines and producers of honey, they play a critical role in helping to pollinate fruits and vegetables. Commercial honeybee operations (an industry responsible for producing apples, broccoli, watermelon, onions, cherries, almonds and a hundred other fruits and vegetables) pollinate crops that provide one out of every three bites of food on our tables. In the following video from the TED TalksDennis van Engelsdorp (the Acting State Apiarist for Pennsylvania's Department of Agriculture) describes the role that bees (and beekeepers) play in our lives.

In 2006, when beekeepers started complaining about a frightening and unexplained wave of deaths in their bee colonies, farmers became alarmed about the possibility of losing crops.By the time colony collapse disorder had been given a name, there was no mistaking the need to find its cause. Beekeepers were mystified because they were not finding any dead bees within their colonies. Although queen bees seemed to be laying eggs, adult worker bees left their homes and never returned.

Among those taking notice of  this strange and urgent phenomenon were documentary filmmakers. Thus, it's not really surprising to find at least two films about colony collapse disorder amid this year's film festival offerings. The fact that a relatively new phenomenon could be approached from such wildly different angles offers a perfect chance to examine how, where, and why a filmmaker identifies the approach he will take toward filming his subject.
  • Both documentaries interviewed many of the same witnesses (including David Hackenberg and David Mendes)
  • Both dealt with the same phenomenon.
  • Both tried to identify the cause of colony collapse disorder.

What made one documentary so much more credible than the other? A clear triumph of science over faith.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Seen earlier this year at the San Francisco International Film FestivalColony focused on how colony collapse disorder impacted a California family. Although fairly new to the business of raising honeybees, Lance and Victor Seppi had a steady group of loyal clients among the almond growers of California's Central Valley. Directed by Carter Gunn and Ross McDonnell, Colony took an approach guaranteed to develop an identifiable plot line: follow the money.

Lance and Victor Seppi

The Seppi brothers are trying to make it in an industry that many veterans have been abandoning as colony collapse disorder destroyed their ability to make a living by using honeybees to pollinate crops. Although Lance and Victor are willing to work hard to build their business, they're caught in the grip of a monstrous agricultural industry. Their clients are trying to negotiate lower prices, their bees are dying off mysteriously, and their hyper-religious mother is furious that the so-called Christians with whom they have been doing business are suddenly refusing to pay them the prices agreed to in their contracts.

The beekeepers interviewed in Colony are all searching for answers. But it soon becomes obvious that, perhaps blinded by their faith, the Seppi family is not really able to formulate the right questions that they need to ask. Despite the obvious photogenic appeal of the two Seppi brothers, the question of God's role in the business of beekeeping throws Colony way off balance.  Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * * * * 
Recently screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival and DocFest 2010Vanishing of the Bees takes a more scientific approach to finding the cause of colony collapse disorder. Directed by George Langworthy and Maryam Henein and narrated by Ellen Page, the documentary includes more footage with David Hackenberg and David Mendes as well as interviews with Michael Pollan (author of such books as Food Rules: An Eater's Manual and The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World) and Simon Buxton (author of The Shamanic Way of the Bee: Ancient Wisdom and Healing Practices of the Bee Masters).

Vanishing of the Bees also examines how French beekeepers dealt with the problem of colony collapse disorder and finds its answers in how different cultures have affected bees on both sides of the Atlantic. One of the most important discoveries is that organic beekeepers had had no problems with colony collapse disorder. It is only those beekeepers whose bees fed on crops sprayed with certain systemic pesticides that suffered losses.

One of the most important findings came from simple observation of bees as they tried to college pollen large sunflowers. On sunflowers that had not been treated with pesticides, the bees followed an extremely orderly work process. On sunflowers that had been treated with pesticides, the bees lost their orientation, could not do their work, and often fell to the ground in a daze (as if they had become paralyzed by some kind of neurotoxin).

Further probing revealed two vastly different political cultures affecting the health of the bees. In France, the government uses the "precautionary principle" with regard to the use of pesticides. In other words, a pesticide must be proven not to have harmful side effects or else its use will be prohibited.  In  the United States, where political corruption has contaminated the EPA, most of the studies are conducted by the manufacturers of the pesticides that are causing the problems.

Although the French beekeepers were able to identify a specific systemic pesticide manufactured by Bayer --  and come to the conclusion that although the product was not lethal, it did have certain sub-lethal properties which might have interacted with other chemicals -- in America, no one bothered to test for any sub-lethal findings because no one thought it was necessary. Vanishing of the Bees is an important documentary that explains what caused colony collapse disorder, how the cause was identified, and what people can do to prevent its spread. Here's the trailer:

No comments: