Let’s forget, for a moment, that Albert Einstein said that if bees were to disappear from the Earth, humankind would follow four years later. It’s bad enough seeing, as we do in Markus Imhoof’s marvelous bee-centric documentary More Than Honey, a forlorn beekeeper scraping lifeless furry bodies from the surface of a honeycomb—they drop to the ground like little raisins. Bees, either flying in swarms or flitting about solo, reassure us that everything is going apace. Even their buzzing is the sound of life. A dead bee, so small in size yet so large in nature’s grand scheme, is an ominous thing.
Luckily, More Than Honey isn’t just 91 minutes of dead bees. Who could bear that? Instead, it’s a delightful, informative, and suitably contemplative study of the bee world and the bee-population crisis, though in the end it does offer enough dewdrops of hope to fill up a bluebell or two.
Imhoof frames More Than Honey with portraits of two very different beekeepers. Fred Jaggi raises bees in Switzerland much as his father and grandfather did before him, tending his hives with a balance of matter-of-factness and sensitivity to his charges’ character quirks. His love is the tough kind, though: A queen who has mated with an invader from a neighbor’s colony is summarily beheaded on-camera—Jaggi will not allow strumpets in his midst. John Miller, a Florida-based mega-beekeeper, has less time to address the wanton ways of his lady bees: He’s too busy crisscrossing the country by truck, transporting his colonies to orchards and fields where they’re needed for pollination duty. Miller’s thriving business fills a crucial need, since farmers can no longer rely on random bees to show up and do the work they were made to do.
Miller and Jaggi’s beekeeping styles differ drastically, but the worldwide bee crisis has made the profession equally stressful for both. Imhoof makes the case that the decline in bee populations isn’t such a great mystery—a number of easily definable factors, including overuse of pesticides, are colluding to kill bees off. But as More Than Honey suggests, there are plenty of people who care enough about these creatures to try to ward off the disaster Einstein has warned us about. Imhoof visits breeders who tinker with DNA to create the perfect queen. There may also be some hope in the form of the much-maligned killer, or African, bee, much hardier than its European counterpart. And, amazingly, scientists are finding new ways to study bee behavior via brain scans.
What exactly goes on in the tiny mind of a bee? You’ll have to see More Than Honey to find out. But this is no dull data dump. Imhoof prefers to present information visually, zooming in close to show us bees at work and at rest. With their fuzzy, patent-leather-striped torsos and dainty but mighty cellophane wings, these guys are something to behold, and Imhoof does them justice. They work hard for the honey; it’s about time we treated them right.