More Than Honey Dir. Markus Imhoof

[Kino Lorber; 2012]

Styles: documentary, John Hurt sounds a little bit too much like Winnie-the-Pooh
Others: Queen of the Sun, Vanishing of the Bees, Microcosmos, BBC nature docs

How do you feel about bees? They’re insects after all, a breed of creature that not even a lot of animal rights activists (even the ones with the PETA bumper stickers) will lift a finger to protect. If you’re like me, you were probably at least marginally afraid of them as a child. Getting stung was scary and a threat that would surface from time to time (mainly in the summer). Yet as an adult, the most thought I’ve given to a bee was a couple of weeks ago at a college football tailgate. A bee decided I was rather interesting, and landed on me several times. Lost in a sea of drunken sorority girls, I struggled to remain calm and appear sane as the bee buzzed in my ear, flew into my face, and periodically landed on me. But outside of this minor public disturbance, I don’t give the little buggers too much thought. Which is exactly why the Swiss documentary More Than Honey appealed to me. Bees are something I don’t know much about, so it provided an opportunity to learn and care about something new.

More Than Honey examines honey bees all around the world, from their role in almond orchards in California to the profitable business of bee farming in Switzerland and China. The film also probes the current mystery of declining bee populations, a problem with grim consequences for the world. But while several theories are explored — parasites and chemicals among them — no conclusions are reached. The film features gorgeous and impressive macro photography of the bees mating, feeding, pollinating, doing other bee things (like hatching new queens!). This provides an opportunity to see the bees on their own scale; a rare exploration into concepts (pollination, the creation of honey) everyone is familiar with yet has unlikely seen in detail.

Despite More than Honey’s attempts, it has difficulty creating an emotional resonance with something as diminutive and incapable of showing emotion or thought as bees. (There is, however, a scene detailing a German scientist’s experiments with an individual bee’s ability to choose between two feeding sites. A small step towards humanity, but a step nonetheless.) The closest the film gets to pathos is a scene in which a farmer checks in on one of his bee colonies following a long, cross-country truck transport. The colony has collapsed, leaving thousands of bees dead. “I’m getting real comfortable with death on an epic scale,” he ruminates. It’s an unnerving line, but it’s made easier to swallow by the fact that the farmer owns thousands of colonies like this one.

While I certainly know much more regarding bees and their lifestyle after viewing More Than Honey, the doc doesn’t do much in the way of making its material appeal to the casual viewer. Your enjoyment of the film will largely depend on your engagement with the subject matter. The film is destined for Netflix, where it can be adored by bee enthusiasts and largely ignored by everyone else. It’ll be there if you want to learn, though. One of the things you’ll learn: one third of the world’s food wouldn’t exist without bees, but honeybees cannot survive in America, Europe or China without the assistance of antibiotics. So what did I learn? We should care more about bees, but don’t feel too bad if you couldn’t care less about More Than Honey.

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