"Honey is a diamond you can eat"

A beekeeper checks his honeycombs, using cigar smoke to calm the bees Tomas Wüthrich

In his documentary More Than Honey, Swiss filmmaker Markus Imhoof examines the collapse of bee colonies. Life on earth without bees, responsible for the pollination of one third of what we eat, is an alarming prospect.

This content was published on October 3, 2012 - 11:00 With More Than Honey you have made a film critical of the bee business. Do you still eat honey?

Markus Imhoof: Yes, almost every day. The bees aren’t responsible for the situation. What does honey represent for you?

M.I.: It incorporates the best of nature. Like a diamond you can eat. You have a special connection to bees. Your grandfather kept colonies to help provide the fruit needed by his jam factory, you keep bees yourself, and your daughter and son-in-law research the immune system of bees. Aren’t you a little biased?

M.I.: I’m still an outsider. Naturally I have an emotional connection to bees. That is important for me and I try to show this to the film’s viewers.

But because I travel and try to understand the position of all stakeholders, it remains a discussion and dialogue. What were the most important findings to come out of five years of research and filming?

M.I.: It shows our relationship with nature. The question at the heart of all this is who is the film’s protagonist. The bees or the people? In other words, who should be placed at the centre of all this? Is it mankind or is it also just part of nature? Or are humans just parasites, just seeking their own advantage?

The most stupid parasite is the one who kills his host. If people were also part of nature, life would be more interesting. The human race should not dictate from above, but also keep its eyes and ears open, recognize the needs of others, and not direct everything to our own advantage. You also show amazing things about bees’ intelligence…

M.I.: We spoke to a bee brain expert. People are taken aback to think that there is such a thing. It is fascinating to see what learning and decision-making skills bees have.

They can make a choice and when they realise it was wrong, they can even revise their decision. That is absolutely fascinating. And 50,000 bees together make a large brain that has even more capacities. Why are the bees so important? Aren’t there other pollinators that can maintain the food chain?

M.I.: Yes, there are, but they are not loyal to specific flowers. They go from the cherry tree to the dandelion and nothing is pollinated. The wind also plays a role but only with plants such as corn and rice.

Everything that makes eating particularly enjoyable is pollinated by bees. In a hamburger there would be no lettuce, no mustard, no ketchup, no onions – only dry bread with beef from cows that have not eaten any clover.

Our lives would be pretty boring if there were no more bees. I hope this ‘Aha’ moment has some impact on people when they see the film. Every third bite that we eat would not exist without bees. Albert Einstein is supposed to have said that if the bees died out, four years later mankind would follow. Was he right?

M.I.: I don’t know if we would die out if we only ate bread, without fruit and vegetables. But it is a case of the canary in the coal mine. The bees are a kind of warning signal for us. Why has colony collapse spread so far and wide?

M.I.: This year in Switzerland, up to 70 per cent of colonies have collapsed. There is a whole range of reasons for this that are beginning to have a cumulative effect.

On the one hand  there are insecticides, diseases, the Varroa mite in particular, but also – and much less attention is paid to this – the inbreeding of bees. They have been bred as unthreatening animals so that they don’t sting, but this has also taken a toll on their resistance. There are no more honey bees in the wild. Without human intervention and chemicals it is no longer possible to keep bees in Europe, North America or China. The main message of your film is that bees are not dying because of a parasite, but because of people. What do you mean by this?

M.I.: The central theme is the conflict between evolution and civilisation. Every intervention by civilisation is an interference in nature. That bees have been domesticated, that they have been taken from the tree and locked in a doll’s house, it’s a huge interference.

Despite that, bees have remained wild animals. We tried to counteract that by breeding them to be meek and industrious. That for me is one of the greatest conflicts. As wide a gene pool as possible is needed to make them stronger again. But not so they can resist pesticides better, but so they can fight disease better.

The question is also whether we have to plant the same thing every year in the same field. If crop rotation was implemented, the European corn borer, a pest that is fought with neurotoxic substances, would not survive at all. Totalitarian agriculture is disastrous. The United Nations food report says that only small-scale agriculture can guarantee world nutrition. But it’s the opposite that’s being done. How are you dealing with your own bees?

M.I.: All the bees belonging to my neighbours, with whom I keep a joint hive, died. Now we are trying to start a new colony. And we have launched an experiment to fight the Varroa parasite.

We’re relying on chemicals, but in smaller quantities. We isolate the queen for 25 days so that she doesn’t lay eggs. So there is no Varroa in the brood comb, just on the bees themselves, which we attack with acid. A glimmer of hope in your film is the research with Australian bees. These uncontaminated bees, which your daughter and son-in-law work with, are healthier than European bees. Could this be a solution?

M.I.: My daughter and son-in-law are trying with wild honey bees, which can still be found in Australia, to expand the gene pool of farmed bees and make them more resistant to disease. The concept is to provide opportunities for evolution through bee breeding. This way we can move away from pure breeding practices and allow the creatures to evolve more naturally. That could be a basis for saving the bees.

More Than Honey

The documentary had its world premiere at the Locarno Film Festival on August 11, 2012.

The film shows stakeholders and researchers who are connected to bees – and how they are affected by colony collapse.

The film is notable for its macro shots, with around 105 hours filming spent on close-ups. Among those shots, bees were filmed in flight with mini drones.  

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