Title: Vanishing of the Bees
Directors: George Langworthy and Maryam Henein
Narrated by: Ellen Page
One needn’t have necessarily grown up with a dog who becomes uneasy prior to the arrival of a big thunderstorm to know that environmental occurrences and problems are often foretold by subtle shifts in behavior in the animal kingdom. Such is the working hypothesis in this investigative nonfiction mystery, which examines the baffling and sudden disappearance of honeybees from their hives, a disturbingly increasing phenomenon. The first of two new documentaries on the subject, the forthrightly titled “Vanishing of the Bees”, narrated by Oscar nominee Ellen Page, shines a light on a fascinating and important subject, but in the end analysis suffers a bit from some comparatively lax filmmaking, failing to provide the sort of detail which would more robustly engage the typical layperson viewer.
Co-directed by George Langworthy and Maryam Henein, the movie explores the phenomenon of so-called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), mainly through the experiences and eyes of two longtime commercial beekeepers — David Mendes, of Florida, and the man widely credited with first sounding the alarm on this problem, David Hackenberg, of Pennsylvania. In hives stricken with CCD, the worker and guard bees simply abandon the queen and babies. They do not die in inordinately large numbers. They simply leave, whereabouts unknown. (A bee can typically survive no more than a day or two once separated from a hive.)
Where “Vanishing of the Bees” is most successful is in first laying out the importance of bees and pollination in the growing of a vast assortment of fruits and vegetables all over the United States — they’re shipped back and forth year-round — and then actually getting to the likely root cause of CCD, believe it or not. Given that similar problems occurred in Europe roughly a decade ago, and were basically solved via the implementation of a ban on systemic pesticides, “Vanishing of the Bees” has the seeming benefit of a narrative resolution. Still, there are hiccups in the way that the movie is put together, and how it integrates this information.
Systemic pesticides are low-level insect killers often introduced to crops in their seed form, we learn, but the sub-lethal doses stick to bees that pollinate said plants, and are believed to eventually accumulate in hives, creating not-yet-fully-understood problems in the developmental bee populations. Viewing the problem with a different standard of proof in mind, various European bureaucracies embraced a “precautionary principle,” and eradicated such pesticides. In a number of years, CCD was on the wane, and all but eliminated.
After a generally involving introduction to this very particular milieu (after all, who spends much time pondering beekeeping as an occupation?), and then spending a bit of time discounting more outlandish or conspiracy-laden CCD theories involving cell phone towers or Russian spy satellites, Langworthy and Henein get into some of the practices of commercial beekeeping (using a sugar substitute for feeding, and queens being killed and replaced after a couple months despite a five-year life span) that, others argue, quite frankly might not be the best methods of supervision and control. Instead of really digging into “why” these are commonly accepted industry practices, however, the filmmakers then spin off into the European backstory of CCD. In essence, they solve this wider mystery too early, and then segue into American political lobbying, leaving unexplored other various crucial questions — like where the bees might go all of a sudden, and whether they might have some sort of diminished output and receptivity due to said above treatments. Given that we see footage of a beekeeper claiming to have 40,000 hives abandoned in just a matter of hours (causing a colleague to awkwardly invoke the Holocaust), these are more natural questions for a most viewers, and they remain frustratingly unaddressed.
That said, “Vanishing of the Bees” is still fairly interesting for casual foodies and the environmentally conscious alike, including as it does compelling subjects and thoughtful chats with “Food, Inc.”‘s Michael Pollan and “Beyond Pesticides” director Jay Feldman, among other interviewees. Like the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs”, it provides a remarkable glimpse at an uncommon profession, as well as sounding another cautionary note about the delicate relationship between humankind and Mother Earth.
Written by: Brent Simon