Sunday, 24 March 2013

Of Bees and Man

Learned a lot about honeybees in the documentary More Than Honey
The 37th Hong Kong International Film Festival is on and some people on Facebook are giving status updates of how many films they've seen so far (it started March 17). One guy I know has clocked in 15 so far and I bumped into him as I was on my way to the theatre watch my first film. He said he was coming back to watch his fourth film of the day...

I only picked two films to watch, partly because some films were screened really late or during office hours which didn't help much. And then the tickets I ordered in advance were lost in the mail. I had to fill out a police report online, fax my Hong Kong ID card and my credit card to Cityline before they believed me...

Nevertheless, I just saw More Than Honey, a documentary about honeybees.

Bees are not my favourite insect and I haven't been stung by one... yet... but they are the most industrious creatures on the planet.

However in the last few years, billions of bees have died off and no one knows why. This is a frightening sign, as Albert Einstein once said, "If bees ever die out, mankind will only have four years left to live". That's because more than one-third of our food production depends on bees helping pollinate our crops.

Swiss filmmaker Marcus Imhoof sets off to try to find out why there are fewer bees around the world and he does it exquisitely, with the latest camera technology to capture bees up close on film. And he also keeps his documentary fluid, seamlessly combining fascinating facts about bees with the knowledge of beekeepers and scientists to create a bigger picture of what is happening in this microcosm.

Imhoof visits a beekeeper up in the Swiss alps, the grandson of a famous beekeeper. He tells us all about his childhood, learning how the flowers have sex thanks to the bees, and later about the native bees in the area, how they are acclimatized to the high altitudes.

We also meet some scientists who have discovered bees don't just take orders -- they also figure out different ways to do things and have a special way of communicating with each other about a better area to gather nectar for the colony.

And we find out about breeding techniques to create several queen bees that will sold and shipped off to places around the world that need new leaders for their colonies.

Then we go to the United States where we meet another grandson of a beekeeper, but his business has expanded exponentially. He is a roving beekeeper, who literally transports his hundreds of thousands of bees on flatbed trucks from California to Washington State and then North Dakota and then back west to help pollinate fields. However, it can be difficult transporting the bees 48 hours because as one truck driver says, they have to hold their pee stuck in their boxes and it can get stressful for them...

And the next day when they take out the boxes they find an entire colony dead. "I'm getting real comfortable with death on an epic scale," he says with a disappointed tone. We find out later the vast majority of bees now cannot survive without human intervention, such as feeding them sugar water and antibiotics.

But meanwhile out in Australia, there's research being made of bees that are placed on a deserted island to see if they can survive, and this may be a good or bad thing, but we don't know the outcome yet.

Imhoof also makes a trip to China, where there hardly seems to be any bees around, so what's the next best way to pollinate crops? With migrant labour.

The pollen dust is carefully collected and placed in envelopes and then sold to farmers who then get migrant workers to climb up on trees and dab the flowers with pollen in the hopes they will bear fruit.

Even Imhoof admits the Chinese weren't sure if they should allow him to film what they're doing. Statistically of course men cannot do the same amount of work as bees, but 1.3 billion people have to eat, right?

Throughout the documentary we get up close with the bees, see their fuzzy bodies and large eyes, making them less threatening. We learn how they sense things in three dimensions and are hyper sensitive about everything that's going on in the colony. Their lifespan is short, but they all work together for the good of the colony.

However, some colonies are completely wiped out and it's a combination of disease, parasites, the environment and poor breeding. But overall, Imhoof warns, it is us, man, that has made it harder for the bees to procreate and sustain themselves.

Hopefully with More Than Honey, more people will have a greater appreciation for bees and their importance in our survival. We need them to exist and thrive, otherwise mankind will be in deep trouble.

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