I previewed a new beekeeping movie, something a little different. I have to give Bee People a mixed review. I’ll walk through some of what I liked, do my thumbs down bit, then try to wrap up with some overall impressions.
The good news. First – and this is a big positive – the photography was excellent. Lots of good close-ups of bees, occasionally interesting scenery, and smart, well-positioned camera angles. As a beekeeper, I enjoy seeing hives, seeing bees, seeing honey. But I also like watching people. Bee People lives up to its title with lots of interesting characters. Their interactions, though sometimes clumsily staged, are mostly genuine. A third aspect which makes the film appealing to me is the general lack of in-your-face the-sky-is-falling-in commentary. This is not yet another movie about colony collapse disorder, or the New World Order’s conspiracy to starve us by poisoning our bees, or an exaggerated re-take on the statement that Einstein is credited with, but never said. Instead, the very real and very difficult situation of severe losses of bees for some beekeepers is obliquely referenced. Sometimes such a subtle approach is more palatable and makes a stronger case. So instead, the movie focuses on a small group of Colorado beekeepers (with a brief scene in NYC and New Jersey, and a cameo of the film’s only real expert, Dr Larry Connor). The beekeepers shown are almost all newbies: enthusiastic, but unskilled.
I had three issues with the Bee People movie. These shouldn’t stop any lover of all things bee, but they stood out in my mind. First, I had trouble finding a theme, or raison d’etre for the film. I found myself asking, “What the heck is this about?” and “Who’s the audience going to be?” There is a long string of vignettes – some interesting, some not so much – but I couldn’t find the glue that was supposed to hold them together. That might have been my own problem. Others might see it as a look at people who care about bees, but for me, there is little incentive to watch a movie about people I can see anytime.
I hope absolutely no one takes Bee People as an educational documentary because this is my second criticism. Factually, the film is a mess. Although it does not play up sympathy for dying bees, there are the statements “Commercial beekeepers lose 60% of their hives every year.” and “Every time commercial beekeepers open their hives, they find 75% of their bees are dead.” Simply not true. Winter losses for commercial beekeepers have been rather high, averaging 31% for the past 8 years, but commercial beekeepers make up the winter losses from splits in the spring (or they buy queens and packages from beekeepers who specialize in such sales). Overall numbers of hives in the USA have not dropped in the past few years – there are actually several hundred thousand more kept colonies today than there were in 2006 when CCD was first reported. (And world-wide, the number of colonies has increased much more.)
But more egregious errors surface in the beekeeping practices that are shown. At one point someone shows us how to put an active hive back together without squashing bees. And does it wrong. And then sort of shrugs and says that you will always kill a few. In another scene, the Bee Guru performs a “bee rescue” which turns into a major farce. He and his friends spend 8 hours ripping open a barn which is home to a huge, thriving, well-established colony. From the dark combs, heavy propolis, and kilos of honey stored by the bees, this is a colony which clearly did not need humans “rescuing” it. They were doing just fine and likely were headed by a queen with superior genetics – the bees had lived without meds and chemical treatment for years in the barn. The landowner apparently wanted the bees out, but she herself was a beekeeper, so the removal wasn’t because she was afraid of bees. Maybe this was a “barn rescue” and not a bee rescue. Because they took so long removing the bees, the fiasco turned into a robbing frenzy with neighbourhood bees descending on the open combs lying about. This “rescue” was in September so the bees that were hoovered up had no chance to re-establish themselves before winter. Instead, the “rescued” bees were coated with powdered sugar and placed atop an established hive at a new location so the two colonies might fight it out, or possibly merge. No mention was made of the queen. I was actually sick to the stomach watching the brutal demise of the old colony.
In the last major scene of the movie, the Bee Guru flies to New York City to help the Bee Cop who, it seems, called the Bee Guru as a reinforcement to remove bees from a house. They get to the house, use a $7,000 heat sensor to locate a nest behind a wall, rip into it, and find abandoned combs, no bees. The combs were occupied by fat ugly wax worms. Bee Guru and Bee Cop both seemed surprised that the wax worms give off heat – which was what the sensor had detected. This made a rather surreal scene for the movie. The effect, to me, is simply a big Yuck! because of the webby wormy mess – with great photography – and the scene comes near enough to the end to make it one of my last mental images of the film.
My third problem with the movie: Some of the bee people showcased by Bee People seem less than endearing. I couldn’t like the Bee Guru, though I tried. He came across as rather self-assured and self-important. (To his credit, there is a clip of the Bee Guru telling us how brilliantly innovative beekeepers are, then telling himself to “Deflate, deflate.”) In a particularly strange scene, one of the beekeepers pushes on the tail end of a squat pig named Pickles, forcing her from his house – sorry, I could neither identify with this nor see how it added to the film. On the other hand, there was the Bee Medic who seemed like a nice guy, a new beekeeper, someone I could have a beer with. The Writer (Leslie Ellis) was the nicest of all and I’d gladly have two beers with her. She was enthusiastic and self-effacing and the sort of person one wants to see keeping bees. A briefly-spotlighted family of beekeepers also seemed like totally nice folks, as did a new kid beekeeper harvesting a great honey crop. Unfortunately, he was being coached by the Bee Guru who told onlookers that beekeepers get stung on the nose more than any other place. Totally untrue, real beekeepers mostly get stung on the hands and fingers. But then again, the Bee Guru was rarely (if ever) working bees without gloves, so maybe in his case it is true.
Here is my recommendation. If you are new at beekeeping, you might identify with some of the characters. If you have a friend getting into bees, you might watch this and learn that beekeepers are strange birds, but if you have a friend who is a beekeeper, you already know this. If you are looking for hints and tips or profound knowledge, that will only come from Larry Connor, near the end of the flick when he says he likes the new beekeepers who are getting involved, but cautions against becoming a “drive-by beekeeper” the most apt term I’d never heard before. Larry tells us to beware the beekeeper who jumps into the hobby, drives by the bee supply store, drives by the bee yard – in other words, never engages, never becomes a real beekeeper. That person’s bees will die. Instead, says the master, find a good mentor and make a real commitment to beekeeping. For a new beekeeper, that’s the best advice possible.