This is more than a film about more than honey. It considers humankind's long and complex relationship with honeybees, why they're now dying, and who or what is to blame. It also explores wider, poignant questions about our impact on the environment - on micro and macrocosmic levels - and our attitude towards the natural world. Focusing on these topics through a filter of heritage and tradition, Imhoof invites us to consider the intrinsic issues surrounding our place in the natural world. This beautiful, tender film should change the way we think about honeybees forever.
Imhoof not only follows the bees using mesmerising macro photography, he also follows the processes of pollination and honey making, and those involved in them around the world. The film begins with a tranquil and idyllic alpine scene. A wise, elderly gentleman with kind eyes, Fred Jaggi, talks us through his beekeeping practices that have been passed down through generations in his family. His affection and respect for his local bees is touching. He recalls his grandfather telling him that bees were "messengers of love" for the flowers.
The contrast between Jaggi and the subsequent scenes with Jon Miller, an almond farmer in California, is stark. As he arrives at his colossal industrial-scale orchard, Miller salivates repugnantly at the sound of honeybees pollinating his blossom. He's hearing the sound of "fresh printed money".
It's the portrayal of this dichotomy that makes the film so effective. It encapsulates the impossibility of using a natural, living being as a commodity on such a large scale. The honeybees accelerate Miller into an orbit of capitalism...they boost him into the skies of no conscience, where galaxies are made of dollar signs and the world sighs beneath them. Miller drives tanks of honeybees around America to pollinate different orchards. The bees, unsurprisingly, suffer. He confesses that if his grandfather who, like Jaggi's, taught him the ways of beekeeping, could see his peripatetic pollinating and the devastating scale of his insecticide use, his heart would be broken and his soul in tatters.
Miller does it anyway. To him, and the majority of the modern world, bees are not nature, they are business. And the more dependant we become on that business, the more its structure will crumble. We domesticated honeybees thousands of years ago. We imported them to countries where they didn't belong, we controlled them and made them do what we wanted. Imhoof makes it very clear that whether they're now dying of a virus, a mite, pesticide exposure, electromagnetic signals or loss of habitat, ultimately it's our fault.
We're reminded that a honeybee cannot survive without its colony. A hive is a superorganism - it works as one for a combined goal. So the fact that they're used for capitalist gain is depressingly ironic. Ironic and unsustainable. Because we domesticated bees and bred them so extensively, they can't survive in most countries on their own. The film likens this to domesticating dogs - from wolves to poodles. It's highly unlikely that anyone will see a poodle hunting and then devouring a carcass. Honeybees are now, in most places, not wildlife and Imhoof's footage of Heidrun and Liane Singer 'reprogramming' the bees is testament to this. Mankind is responsible for them, and for the fact that we've altered fragile ecosystems until they shatter. Disturbing footage of Chinese peasants pollenating trees by hand (Mao killed the sparrows, and then the insects) hints of an inevitable dystopian nightmare.
Throughout the film, stunning shots of glorious warm amber, coloured honey and furry bees on vividly coloured petals are juxtaposed with rancid gooey infections coursing through honeycomb, mountains of dead bees, and mites eating them alive. The glory of nature contrasts with the devastating effects we have on it.
A glimmer of hope comes from the Africanised bee. Resistant to diseases and with superior immune systems, this artificially cross-bred species is considered a 'killer bee'. These honeybees are aggressive, and most importantly, are alive and thriving. And we cannot control them. Imhoof is kind to us. He makes sure we aren't left in despair: in the film, Arizonan Fred Terry admits that he believes these 'killer bees' will be here long after humans.
This touching and humble film blames the current honeybee predicament firmly on humankind. But its pragmatic and compassionate tone prevents it from becoming alarmist or accusatory towards any specific group or individual. It's not the film that's upsetting; but what's happening 'out there' in the world that is. More Than Honey is, like the bees, beautiful. And to appreciate beauty is to understand it: this film a must see.
More Than Honey is out in cinemas on 6th September 2013