The Honeybee: Oversimplification and Unnecessary Drama

Nevada City, California

This piece wraps up my coverage of the 2012 Wild and Scenic Film Festival.

Last weekend at Wild and Scenic, a drama named BEE made its world premiere. (I don’t know why the filmmakers capitalized the title as if it were an acronym–it does not appear to be.) The film festival does not display “documentary” in its moniker, and I applaud the choice to explore different genres of film that deal with environmental issues. The issues must be dealt with responsibly, though. Unfortunately, this is not the case with BEE.

Let’s look a moment at the four main characters in BEE. We have the reluctant, unfriendly daughter, an entomologist at UC Davis, who comes to help her angry father understand why his bees died. In order to get to the truth, she lies to the next door neighbor (while she secretly sleeps with his son, the sheriff). This next door neighbor has been lying and poisoning the dad’s bees. She heroically takes the shotgun away from her dad before he kills the neighbor. Then the father steals someone else’s bees since his died. The sheriff tells his lover that her chronic lying is a problem, but she is fatalistic about her habit. Now–there is nothing wrong with a dark drama; nothing wrong with a drama full of characters who lie, cheat, and attempt to maim and kill other creatures. But how, exactly, does a film with such protaganists inspire environmental activism? BEE left me wondering.

That is the least of the film’s three offenses however. More serious is the creative license it takes with cultural integrity. In the film, the Caucasian beekeeper (the dad) steals bees from a Russian family since his Mexican next door neighbor killed the American’s bees with pesticide. The younger protagonists–the sheriff and the entomologist–discuss how this is called “musical bees”. Stealing bees when yours die, she says, is a cultural norm. When asked about this during the Q and A, filmmaker Raphael Hitzke reported that such bee-stealing was practiced and accepted in Russia and Ukraine. (I was unable to substantiate this through my research.) Hitzke went on to say that he “thought it would be fun” to have an American steal bees from a Russian because of this. Fun, perhaps, and there is nothing wrong with fun. But erroneous threads such as these, even in fiction, manipulate and mislead the audience.

When writing fiction that stems from fact, the writer owes it to both subject and  readers to put material in its proper context, both culturally and factually. Let’s look at Toni Morrison, American author and Nobel prize winner, and her crafting of Beloved. Morrison spent years turning the real-life Margaret Garner into Sethe, the story’s heroine. She pulled her out of hard, documented facts, not out of thin air or whimsy. When asked why she made Beloved a work of fiction rather than simply documenting Margaret Garner’s life, Morrison said that she believed fiction was the more powerful genre for bringing home the atrocities of slavery to her readers. “Some things,” she says, “only artists can do. Only artists can do. And it’s our job.” It is our job–and when we have a political or environmental agenda around our story, it’s also our job to maintain the cultural and factual integrity of what we are writing about.

Still, there is an even larger problem with BEE, and that is its oversimplification of the mystery that is Colony Collapse Disorder. The film was selected to screen because of this focus,and yet it dangerously encourages the emotionally based misinformation that permeates the issue. In BEE, the entomologist tells the next door neighbor that all he has to do to avoid killing her dad’s bees is to spray pesticide at night. Imagine for a moment if the solution were that simple. As I outlined in a piece from last year’s festival (“Bee Summit: Experts Discuss the Honeybee’s Dilemma”), there are four complicated factors thought to be causing CCD. Only one of them relates directly to the spraying of pesticides, and the specific pesticide, rather than the time of day it is sprayed, is the relevant issue. Since the daughter in BEE is an expert, this oversimplicity is particularly seductive. Even though it is a work of fiction, the film’s viewers see the entomologist as an expert and take her theory to heart.

Recently an article in Grist (“Honeybee problem nearing a critical point”: http://grist.org/food/2012-01-13-honey-bees-problem-nearing-a-critical-point/) claimed that there was new evidence linking the pesticide clothianidin to Colony Collapse disorder. This is old news (see “Bee Summit”) with a new twist. Clothianidin, part of a family of pesticides called neonicotinoids, is not usually directly sprayed on plants but rather used to treat their seeds before planting. “Evidence already pointed to the presence of neonic-contaminated pollen as a factor in CCD” the article states. I checked in with renowned bee scientist and local bee keeper Randy Oliver. “There is no such evidence!” He explains, “In fact, every scientific study that has looked into this has exonerated the neonics. Dr. Jim Frazier reported exactly that at the national conventions these past two weeks.” Rather than simplify the problem or demonizing agricultural practices, Oliver advocates a scientific approach to deciphering CCD. “The problem that occurs when environmentalists take extreme or unsupported positions is that it discounts their credibility to the regulators,” he says, “Better to stick to specific, documented issues.” Oliver continues to dialogue with Bayer and Monsanto about those issues, and he believes that beekeepers are making progress.

Such progress is hindered, though, when a film such as BEE dumbs down the concept of CCD to be a matter of spraying a pesticide (which pesticide?) at a certain time of day. Such oversimplifications, once a part of our belief systems, lead us to divisive conversations and polarized communities. Although any filmmaker has a right to make a film that does this, environmental film festivals have a responsibility to screen material that has accurate scientific information. People believe what they see, particularly at an environmental film festival where almost every single film is in documentary format. Films that further the festival’s mission should honor cultural and social integrity by portraying situations that inspire activism rather than cynicism, honesty rather than deceit, and critical thinking rather than reactionary response to random propaganda.

During the Q and A after the 20 minute film, an audience member asked Raphael Hitzke what he was going to direct next. A feature length thriller, he said, on the same subject. This idea is full of potential. Let’s hope Hitzke does his homework next time and portrays the subject accurately. Let’s hope also he gives us characters with integrity and intelligence. That would inspire activism, indeed.

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Filed under Farming, Polemics, Sustainability, Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival

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