Over the next few weeks I've invited my colleague David Manly to write some reviews of films he's screened as part of the 'Planet in Focus' film festival in Toronto, Ontario. Planet in Focus is Canada's largest environmentally-themed film festival, and the exceptionally successful event is currently in its twelfth season. This week David tells of his experience in screening The Ailing Queen (La Reine malade) by director Pascal Sanchez.

Honeybees are one of the most important agricultural resources human beings have at their disposal, but many are ignorant of just how vital they are.

By flying from flower to flower to gather nectar, the humble bee ends up spreading pollen and fertilizing plants. This process allows the plants to mature and bear the delicious fruit that humans love to eat. But, the buzz that once used to be so deadening, is now dying.

Over the past number of years, massive amounts of bees have been dying from parasites, viruses and a whole host of other ailments. But, the most impactful has been from an unexplained syndrome known only as colony collapse disorder (or CCD), where the bees simply disappear from their hives and never return.

So how does this impact apiculture (also known as beekeeping)?

This documentary primarily focuses on internationally regarded beekeeper Anicet Derocher, who is well known and respected for his efforts in crafting natural pest control methods to protect his bees and livelihood, located in the Hautes-Laurentides region of Quebec in Canada.

The documentary spends a lot of time at the Derocher farm, a family company with relatives and in-laws helping out in various ways to keep the business aloft. While the farm makes the standard fare of honey and mead (honeyed wine), it also does something a little different.

Derocher rears and sells queen bees to other beekeepers in order to help them revive and restore their own colonies that have suffered potentially deadly losses.

Breaking down the buzz

The film begins in the early summer, with Derocher discussing about how the beekeeping industry is in trouble from the combination of climate change, CCD, parasites and diseases. Every beekeeper is incurring some loss says Derocher, with some approaching a staggering loss of up to 60 per cent of their hives, compared to only 10 – 15 per cent in the early 2000’s.

Therefore, one of the possible solutions is to repopulate the hive with a new queen, hoping that she will slowly lay more eggs and potentially save the colony and their businesses. All of the beekeepers interviewed in this film, of which there are many, spend a lot of time discussing the different theories of CCD. They range from the development of neurotoxic pesticides that stay in the plants and harm the bees, to the varroa mite that suck the blood of honeybees, making them more susceptible to infection.

However, CCD may not be caused by one disease/pesticide, but by a conglomeration of different effects that are all connected and decimating the bee population.

One of the most striking moments in the entire film is when we are told that bees are responsible for over 65 per cent of all crop pollination on Earth, and that loosing them will cause a significant decrease in the amount of seed-bearing crops (apples, blueberries, watermelons, almonds, etc…) that would be available. However, Derocher and others have a plan to help the honeybees. As part of his environmentally friendly and natural mantra, has been working with beekeepers across the glove to breed a bee that is naturally resistant to disease and parasites.

But will it work or is it already too late?

The documentary ends with Derocher noting an overall hive loss of 25 per cent as winter approaches, which is not as harsh as some other beekeepers have experienced, but still a substantial decrease.

In the 90-minute French film with English subtitles, there are a few issues. Namely, there is no defining structure to the film. The overall narrative focuses on Derocher from early summer until late September, showcasing his battle with CCD and decreasing honey production. However, other beekeepers are showcased for only long enough to demonstrate their issues before moving on. I would have liked to have caught up with them in the early spring, as was done with Derocher, to see how their hives weathered the storm.

As well, it would have been interesting to contrast a family operation like Derocher, with a large-scale industrial business, to see how both are dealing with the decreasing bee populations.

All in all, the documentary successfully introduces the dangers facing the honeybee, and why we should all be worries about what happens to such a small, but vital, part of the ecosystem.