Thursday, June 13, 2013

More Than Honey

For some reason, the Gathr series moved from Tuesday to Monday this week. I half-suspect it was meant to be Monday in the first place (I believe the Providence venue was running on Mondays from the start), but the Regent had other things booked, but I can't remember any on their website. I kind of hope it moves back to Tuesday, honestly - too many other venues nearby have programs on Mondays, and, guys, I really don't want to choose between a sneak preview and Raiders of the Lost Ark on July 1st. If that's even a concern; the website currently doesn't show anything beyond June 24th.

But enough about the preview series; let's attack this movie. There's something I mostly kept out of the review but which colored how I viewed the film which merits acknowledgment:


Now, the obvious reason for this probably comes from when I was a little kid; my grandfather kept bees for a while, and I stepped on one. I got stung, obviously, and this particular bee had evidently been infected with something, because my foot swelled up pretty good - enough more than usual to make an impression. I'm not allergic and it wasn't particularly dangerous or anything, but it was memorable.

Honestly, though, the takeaway from this story should be less "Jay is scared of bees" than "Jay's Grampa Gordon had a ton of interesting hobbies and skills". I am relatively cautious around the things, though, and I have to admit, when watching this movie, I was uncomfortable a lot. More uncomfortable than I feel during most horror movies, and I wouldn't be particularly surprised if nothing I see at Fantasia in Montreal has me on pins and needles the way this did. There was an element of "science is awesome!" to it, sure, and I wouldn't say I was scared...

Well, okay, I was pretty sure that varroa destructor would be nightmare fuel. It's bad enough that these mites are nasty little parasites who wedge themselves in between the segments of a bees body and both suck blood and spread bacteria. Then, as they're showing these things on-screen, which is creepy-looking enough, the narrator mentions that, at the human scale, these guys would be the size of rabbits. Which means, of course, that everyone in the audience is imagining rabbits biting into them and hanging on, draining their blood and making them sick.

Or maybe that was just me.

I kid, but it's hard not to watch some of this movie and not recognize that there's a little horror-movie stuff going on here. The opening "birth of the queen" scene truly does feel more alien than a lot of similar sequences from sci-fi/horror movies, and the type of work Dr. Menzel does stirs interesting reactions: On the one hand, I think we'd more readily recognize it as kind of horrific if it were done on vertebrates, but the capability to do some of it - tiny cameras, real-time brain activity monitoring - is really amazing.

Perhaps a little less tongue-in-cheek, there's plenty to be uneasy about, real-world-wise. The idea that humanity has so domesticated and twisted most bees to serve our needs that the species has become fragile - and in many cases dependent upon manufactured supplements - is deeply disturbing. If we, as a species, have so twisted the ecosystem in this way, it really does become incumbent upon us to at the very least maintain, if not repair, what we've made it. But are the biotech and agribusiness companies going to be inclined to do so, if there's not necessarily an obvious, immediate profit to be had? I'm skeptical, as it seems more likely that they would instead try to consolidate their influence, rather than treat the Africanized "killer" bees serve as evolution in action; the movie implies that's what's already happening.

As easy as it is to go to the big business guys, though, it's something the beekeepers have done steadily over decades. We think of genetic engineering as the bogeyman, but the eugenics that the beekeepers have practiced has done the same work, just as effectively. It's crudely done at times - as much as I'm squeamish with bees, I didn't much like watching keepers decapitating queens or putting down entire hives - but this is the way we've twisted the plant and animal kingdoms to our will for centuries, so it's not a new issue.

That I'm thinking about this stuff as well as the bees freaking me out thing means the movie did its job pretty well. I don't know how well it will play for folks who don't get really excited about science, but I do think that it presents that science better than a great many films of its type.

More Than Honey

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 10 June 2013 in the Regent Theatre (Gathr Preview Series, digital)

Many potential audience members will see a preview for Markus Imhoof's documentary More Than Honey and perhaps wonder if it has anything particularly new to tell them; we learn about bees and their symbiotic relationship with the local flora in elementary school science class and it's not that hard to grasp. As it turns out, the details can be surprising, and Imhoof presents them in a wonderfully vivid way.

We know the broad strokes - that, as Imhoof so quaintly puts it, the buzzing of a swarm of bees is the sound of trees having sex, with the bees carrying pollen from male plants to female ones as a by-product of gathering the trees' nectar. What the audience might not realize is quite how managed a process it is in the twenty-first century. As American migrant beekeeper John Miller tells the audience, having hives of bees in the right place to pollinate large groves of trees when they blossom can be big business, even if it does mean unnaturally transporting them around the country and giving them drugs to counteract the fungicides being sprayed as the bees try to do their work. We also meet Swiss beekeeper Fred Jaggi, whose family has also been doing this for generations and employs some crude eugenics to keep his swarm from being contaminated by the ones from the next valley; Liane & Heidrun Singer, Austrians who breed queen bees for a successful mail-order business; Zhang Zhao Su, who gathers, sells, and transports pollen in China where bees are rare; and scientists in both Europe and Australia who study the creatures.

But first, we watch a swarm of worker bees tend to a chamber containing a pupating "princess" just as it's about to hatch, and it's this sort of amazing close-up high-definition footage that may prove the most memorable for audiences. Imhoof gets us right inside the hives, giving a stunningly clear look at the insects' life cycle from egg-laying to mid-air mating, along with things like the little dance that scouts do to communicate the position of good food sources. It's all kind of beautiful, even if some it is unnerving enough to certain members of the audience that it could be dropped into a bee-related spinoff of Phase IV (go ahead, try to forget about the existence of verroa destructor, a parasitic mite that attaches itself to a bee and drains its blood). Even if seeing insects blown up to the size of a movie screen is nightmare fuel, it's undeniably fascinating and astonishing.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

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