Movie Review: Vanishing of the Bees

Only when the last tree has died,
And the last river has been poisoned,
And the last fish has been caught
Will we realize we can’t eat money

Cree Indian Proverb

Movie Review
By Bernie Jablonski

A recent screening of George Langworthy and Maryam Henein’s 2009 documentary THE VANISHING OF THE BEES at the Unitarian Universalist Community Church in Park Forest created quite a stir (no, no cute nature puns here). Dealing with a curious mystery and a looming threat to humanity’s very sustenance, the movie, using a strong logical lure rather than a facile emotional one, presents a dire situation that many of us probably still don’t know about.

What do you remember about pollination? For me, apparently not enough, other than the cartoon image of a bee flying to a flower, breathing in the scent of it and having its face (more and more resembling that of Antonio Banderas) engulfed by the petals. The movie does have a few old educational movies explaining the process at the beginning, and Ellen Page, in a more youthful voice than I’ve ever heard from her, fills in the blanks. Bees, of course, transfer genetic material from one plant to another to be fertilized. In this way, the plant will ultimately bear fruit.

And here’s where it gets mind-boggling. (All the facts and statistics that I will use from here on in this review are from the movie.) Because of their participation in the pollination process, bees are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we put in our mouths. In economic terms, that’s $15 billion dollars worth of food in the U.S. annually. Accepting these statements, it should disturb you to no small end when you learn that a newspaper headline within the past few years implored, “A World Without Fruits and Vegetables?”

Why? The bees are disappearing. Not dying. Vanishing.

THE VANISHING OF THE BEES follows the plight of David Hackenberg, a Pennsylvania beekeeper, and Dave Mendez, a man of the same profession in Florida. My answer to the question “Why do beekeepers raise bees?” has always satisfied me: “ To raise honey.” Yes, there is that great blessing, a blessing known by the ancient Greeks and Romans as well as modern society, but honey is only part of a much wider canvas. Hackenberg and Mendez load their trucks with hives filled with bees (sometimes counting up to nearly a thousand) and drive cross-country maybe that many miles to pollinate the fields of farmers growing almonds, blueberries, cranberries, and other fruits and vegetables. Shortly after they return to their respective homes, they load up and take the bees to another part of the country.

In 2007 Hackenberg discovers one day, that there are no bees in his boxes. There are no dead bees around, no mites, no pathogens…only young bees and the queen. He speaks out at conventions on the problem until he is heard by the government, who then try to isolate the cause of what is dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Theories run from official (fungi and parasites) to “out there” (cell phones, Russian satellites, and The Rapture.)

Hackenberg ultimately teams up with Mendez, and the film focuses on the journey of these two highly invested but very different souls. The movie unfolds like a mystery (more like a thriller, really) and as with any great mystery movie, you might want to wait until you watch the movie before reading any more here.

Currently the United States imports 30%-40% of its fruits and vegetables, and at the time of the VANISHING’s release, we were importing bees from Australia, as CCD has become an international problem, a “bee holocaust.” The film postulates, of course, that it’s only a matter of time until we’re importing all American fruits and vegetables. Langworthy and Henein show several disturbing agricultural practices going on now, such as killing the queen bee (who is the power behind the colony) after a few months and replacing her with a surrogate, artificially inseminating the queen (we see a young woman who must not have known she was being filmed for a documentary, who gleefully shows for us the process), and taking honey away from the hive and replacing it with a sugar syrup.

Scenes of disrespect to humans are shown, too. Extremely cheap “honey blends” made up of ingredients such as beet sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and lactose are manufactured and sold to the public, undercutting the beekeepers’ efforts and the consumers’ taste. In an ironically amusing scene, Hackenberg and Mendez drive, with the filmmakers, past barrels and barrels of “honey blend,” with Hackenberg spitting nails about the low price the stuff is being sold for, and that honey blends are not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

The subject of pesticides comes up, and it provides insight. Did you know that the earliest pesticides were developed from the poison gases used in combat by Germany in World War I? Remember those kids in the trailer for THE TREE OF LIFE? When insecticides were sprayed in vast clouds in idyllic suburban 1950s neighborhoods, the kids were trying to absorb all the gas because doctors believed it to be a preventative measure against polio. We learn that we have advanced from this form of biological warfare, only to be in an era of a type of poison that gets into the plant and stays with it for life. And don’t get me started on the Environmental Protection Agency and their research techniques…

Both Mendez and Hackenberg are great talkers, and aren’t afraid to let their passion and concern come out. Mendez is the ruggedly handsome family man, while Hackenberg is the crochety old farmer who just feels that when the environment itself is going haywire, it needs to be respected and listened to. One of the best segments of the film is when the two men are in France, where CCD had been discovered a decade before, and they find a common ground with people whose language they can’t even understand. The focus is on their efforts there, not some corny fish-out-of-water subplot.

If you find important or enjoy documentaries that awaken your consciousness (like, perhaps, AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH), then you will find this a riveting movie. The mystery of the vanishing itself will captivate you, the truth will shock you, and the recommendations that we as private citizens can follow will give you some hope. And a desire to throw out (uh, properly dispose of) the Raid. It’s on DVD.

Bernie Jablonski teaches Mass Media and Film Study in the Fine Arts Department at Marian Catholic High School.