A male honey bee is essentially a winged penis doomed to die immediately after losing his virginity. On summer afternoons, male bees—known as drones—emerge from many different hives and gather in a small swarm. No one is sure exactly how drones pick their “congregation areas” or why they are often in exactly the same place year after year, but the answer likely has something to do with fragrant chemical messages known as pheromones. The drones wait for a virgin queen from a nearby colony to make an appearance and compete for the chance to mate with her mid-flight, crashing into one another as they race after her alluring perfume. If a drone is successful, the act of copulation rips his penis and entrails from his abdomen, so he falls to the ground and dies. The queen mates with as many as 20 drones in a single flight and stores millions of their sperm in an internal pouch called a spermatheca—sufficient supplies for a lifetime of egg-laying.
Imagining what a mating flight might look like is all well and good; watching it happen as though you were a drone flying alongside the queen is so much better. The fascinating and gorgeous new documentary “More Than Honey” offers just such a bee’s-eye view.
To capture the 36 breathtaking seconds of high-definition macro footage, director Markus Imhoof, cinematographers Jörg Jeshel and Attila Boa and their teammates visited a drone congregation site in Austria near hives owned by Heidruin Singer and her daughter Liane, who breed queens and sell them to beekeepers. Every afternoon for more than a week, Imhoof’s team perched in a 10-meter tall scaffolding tower that they erected across from the drone congregation area. By scenting weather balloons with queen bee pheromones, Imhoof’s team lured drones from 30 meters in the air down to 10 meters in order to capture their behavior with a camera that shoots 300 frames per second. Then it was a matter of patience, skill and luck: waiting for queens to appear and hoping to get the right shot. “That was one of most challenging macro-shooting scenes,” Imhoof says.
But it was by no means the only one. “More Than Honey” features plenty of eye-widening and awe-inspiring close-ups of bees that would make David Attenborough and the BBC buzz with jealousy. In one scene, we fly in tandem with a honey bee saddled with a GPS tracker that is comically large in comparison to its unlikely porter—like a tall Dr. Seuss hat. In a later section of the film, we follow individual killer bees searching for a new home. For some of these shots, Imhoof attached cameras to tiny remote control helicopters and hired pilots to maneuver the copters alongside bees in flight. It's hard not to empathize with the insects when you spend so much time right next to them as they work tirelessly to help the hive thrive; when you can see individual golden hairs on their bodies; when watching a queen emerge from her wax cell tongue-first—her sisters already attending to her every need—is more enthralling than any royal coronation, and the painfully granular image of a dying bee, its legs twitching for the last time, is truly pitiful. "More Than Honey" almost merges the audience with the hive mind.
Imhoof doesn’t want to reveal all of the cinematic tricks he and his team used to get up close and personal with the bees—at least not yet. But he emphasizes that all of the bees in the film are real living insects, not animated or computer graphic critters. I suspect that some scenes involve photo-shopping of some kind, perhaps to superimpose footage of flying bees onto different backgrounds—but I do not know for sure. Upcoming bonus material will explain how Imhoof and his crew managed to film bees inside their hives without riling them up too much. Bees like to keep their hives dark and warm—but not too warm—and do not take kindly to filmmakers with intrusive cameras and bright hot lights. Beekeepers have long used smoke to calm down bees, as it interferes with alarm pheromones and preoccupies the insects with slurping up honey rather than stinging, in case a fire is about to destroy their home. Smoke was not a viable option for Imhoof, however: billowing grey plumes would have concealed the bees from the camera. So he and his team tried a combination of elaborate in-studio setups—with turntables, mirrors and uniquely designed hives—as well as some as-of-yet undisclosed strategies to film inside living crawling colonies.
Of course, the film crew couldn’t keep the bees perfectly happy for the entire six years the project took to complete. "How many times were you stung on average?" I asked Imhoof. “We stopped counting,” he says. His film has already won several awards in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Ain’t It Cool News even called the film the “Citizen Kane of bee documentaries.”
As its name implies, Imhoof’s documentary—and bees themselves—are about so much more than honey. One in three crops we eat—including apples, almonds, squashes, blueberries, cranberries, some citrus fruits and broccoli—depend on honey bee pollination. Around 1,600 migratory beekeepers truck millions of colonies around the U.S. every year, traveling from one blooming crop to another and renting their hives to farmers to pollinate their fields and orchards. Approximately 1.5 million colonies converge in Central Valley, California every February to pollinate nearly 800,000 acres of almond trees. When so many honey bees gather in the same place at the same time, they easily spread diseases and parasites to each other. And that's just contagion within a single country. We send bees all over the place: we stuff them in boxes and ship them like parcels; we take them on boats and planes; we smuggle them through airports and across country borders. In the wild, any one colony would not likely have the opportunity to mingle with members of more than a dozen or so nearby hives. We have flung together different species of bees from different continents with entirely different diseases. Wherever we go, we bring the bees. Sickness eagerly follows.
Bees have always battled numerous pathogens, but never before have they had to combat so many unremitting threats all at once. There are familiar enemies like mice, birds and ants. There’s foulbrood—a bacteria that rots bee larvae—and wax moth, the larvae of which feeds on beeswax and honey. Perhaps the worst of all pathogens is Varroa destructor—a nasty ruddy tick-like creature that lodges itself between bees’ abdominal plates, sucks out their vital fluids and transmits wing-deforming viruses. In the past, miticides killed varroa rather effectively, but the tenacious creatures evolved resistance. To the already daunting list of living enemies, add external forces over which the bees have no control and no evolved defenses: the use of highly toxic insecticides like neonicotinoids that plants absorb in all their tissues, including pollen and nectar; the stress of being trapped inside their hives while zipping down the highway at 65 miles per hour, on the way to another bloom; and the fact that our monoculture-based agricultural system has replaced the wildflowers that once offered bees a diverse diet with vast swaths of a single crop. When a bloom is over, bees often have little to eat; beekeepers supplement their diets with protein patties and high-fructose corn syrup, which are certainly better than nothing but nowhere near as nourishing as real pollen and nectar.
No wonder, Imhoof says, that bees are dying all over the world. When winter comes, bees stay in their hives and live off of their honey stores. It’s always been a time of hardship and beekeepers through the ages have expected to lose a small percentage of their colonies over winter. For the past five years, however, beekeepers have lost 20, 30, 50, even 90 percent of their colonies each and every winter. Sometimes they open the hives in the spring only to discover that the colony has vanished. A queen and a few stragglers may remain; there’s plenty of honey and larvae; but everyone else is gone without a trace. The term Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) originally referred to such vanishings. Other times beekeepers discover piles of dead bees at the bottom of a hive. Newspaper headlines over the years have blamed many different potential culprits for these mysterious deaths and disappearances—mites, fungi, pesticides. But it’s not any one malady, Imhoof says, it’s the overwhelming combination of so many different kinds of stress and illness.
Perhaps the most fundamental problem is our attitude toward the bees. We want our bees to be vigorous, resilient and productive, but we breed them for complacence. We design an agricultural system that is both dependent on honey bees and killing them at the same time. We know that letting sick and healthy bees routinely rub bristles only makes things worse, but we keep doing it anyways. As a people, we ask so much of the bees and give them so little respect. The bees' caretakers and the scientists who study the insects are among the few that truly see the honey bee crisis for what it is. Hopefully Imhoof's film will help spread the word, like a chemical alarm rippling through a hive. “Everyone spoke about the crisis as though it was a mystery,” Imhoof says, “but it didn’t seem like such a mystery to me.”
"More Than Honey" is currently playing in New York City's Film Forum. You can view the complete schedule here.