Do you know about the bees? John Hurt knows about the bees.
Bees are disappearing fast, and Markus Imhoof’s idiosyncratic documentary More Than Honey doesn’t exactly know why. What it does know is that the bees are important, not to mention fascinating, and that without them, we categorically will not be okay.
More Than Honey opens with a hive of bees shot in dewy soft-lensed super macro, and ends with another hive ascending triumphantly into space, rendered surrealistically in CGI. In between, there are stupefying bees-eye-view sequences wherein the camera flies beside journeying bees, which are apparently not CG but some kind of natural magic (bee mounted nano go pros!?) and a number of moments of in-hive surveillance, wherein we are made witness to grotesquely detailed parasitic infestations and moments of bee cannibalism. Above all else then the film is a visual treat, a menagerie of bee imagery captured in interesting, delectable ways.
Beyond this though, it is a more difficult animal (insect) to pin. More Than Honey is much less of a preachy, angry polemical about what us terrible humans are doing to the angelic little bees than might be expected. Mostly, it is a slightly quirky cross section of the eccentric individuals involved with the bee society. Imhoof, whose family have a history of bee keeping, lends part explanatory, part inquisitive narration to the aforementioned John Hurt, who reads it pensively and nostalgically as the film looks at those who interact with bees, and how this might be causing their, and our, demise.
Imhoof looks at both ends of the scale of beekeeping. First, the quaintly eccentric mountain dwelling beekeeper who at one point rambles questionably about “half-caste” bees, and in another transforms into a quietly terrifying despot wherein he talks directly to a “two-timing” queen, telling her “that’s what happens when you seek pleasure elsewhere,” before crushing her with his nail. If parallels are to be drawn between bee and human societies, in this case it is best to not get involved.
From this, in a documentary unafriad to wander, Imhoof looks to another small time group, a pair who breed Queens for sale, then ship them live in wooden containers across the seas, coming off as interfering but entrepreneurial overseers. “Is this natural?” is a question Imhoof refrains from asking, but from watching the audience autonomously will ask. As contrast, More Than Money moves to the large scale equivalent, industrial scale beekeeping and honey extracting with a American beekeeper who takes a swarm around in a truck, selling their services to farmers in need of their pollenation services. Truck as vehicular brothel then.
Another parallel best left alone. There are some expected dramatics – when Hurt announces that “they are dying as a result of the success of our civilisation,” he sounds like he is doing a skewiff impression of David Attenborough, reaching heights of spiel than the great naturist would never stoop to – but mostly Imhoof’s tone is curious and concerned rather than outraged. His contributors provide the hyperbolic proclamations, which is exactly what you want as a doc-maker. “There are two motivations in the world, that’s fear and greed my friend,” evinces the American beekeeper, who knows his methods are destructive but knows just as well that the ruthlessly profit-led system in which he works requires it to be. Footage of mechanised beekeeping, the churning and crushing of motorised honey extractors, bees battered everywhere, does more to elucidate man’s systemic destruction of bee environments than words can. As does the shame on the beekeeper’s face when he unloads the hundreds of dead bees lost during transit.
The most haunting sequence is in China, where Imhoof looks at areas where the bees have been eviscerated already. There is no stronger visual argument for the preservation of beekind than the image of Chinese farmers manually pollinating wilting flowers amidst a barren grey landscape. If unclear, More than Honey is film of images more than ideas, and is best when Imhoof is able to show rather than tell. Scientists don’t know exactly why the bees are going; pesticides, parasitic infestation, genetic weaknesses, human shipping, handling and mistreatment all play a part, it is revealed, but even those bees free of malevolent human influence are suffering. What Imhoof does know is that it matters, and his documentary is most effective in showing this though his images.
More Than Honey ends up by looking at the African bee, the bigger, stronger bee that was the cause of all those absurd ‘killer bee’ headlines in America a number of years ago. He visits – in a decidedly cross-continental documentary – another bee-person, a Phoenix based beekeeper who removes African bee hives that have found their way into America. Unlike the mountainous beekeepers who handle the regular bees, this man wears a protecting suit. Imhoof’s point of hope comes from the survival story of these alpha-bees, those who escape, roam and prosper on their own. The “killer” African bee is far more immune to the various plights of the weaker regular bee, and as such it is majestically off into space he goes.