Mind Your Beeswax: Calling Attention to CCD (A Film Review)

photo by Lisa Kleger

Can you hear that? No? No wonder.  The buzz around honeybees, which began when they started disappearing in alarming numbers has been dwindling, even as the rate of their disappearance has not.

In the age of natural disasters and their pop-culture counterparts, natural disaster films, it’s often difficult to make a “deep impact” (get it?) on the public. However, in Vanishing of the Bees, filmmakers George Langworthy and Maryam Henein address a topic as fascinating as it is frightening, and get the viewer involved as both detective and victim in the who-done-it thriller.

The documentary, narrated by Ellen Page (Juno, Inception), follows the story of American beekeepers, who in 2006 began noticing that their bees were disappearing in staggering numbers. Honey bees, whose hard work holds up some $15 billion in food sales in the U.S. alone, are dying at a rate of 60 percent in some countries. Commercial beekeepers David Hackenburg and Dave Mendes provide devastating firsthand accounts of the phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). In what certainly could be the plot of a horror movie, bees seem to evaporate into thin air, leaving few if any corpses behind. Although their involvement in monoculture is (spoiler alert!) questionably the cause of CCD, it was the activism of both Hackenburg and Mendes that led to national recognition of CCD, and spurred subsequent studies that left scientists baffled. They lead the filmmakers through their farms, with row after row of empty hives, and through tears both men explain why CCD isn’t only destroying the livelihoods of hundreds of American beekeepers—but is also symptomatic of larger ecological problems.

The health of bees, Hackenburg explains, is an indicator of the health of the environment, and it’s likely that CCD has everything to do with modern farming practices. Both Hackenburg and Mendes describe how honeybees are used extensively for the pollination of monocrops, and are shipped around the country as pollinators for hire. Through the eyes of the filmmakers, we become privy to some bizarre and off-putting commercial beekeeping practices. In one scene, a scientist artificially inseminates a sedated queen. In another, we watch as a commercial beekeeper murders a queen by pinching off her head, to be replaced with someone younger and supposedly more fertile.

As you might suspect, the film does eventually come around to pin pesticide use as the most likely culprit—and the evidence is mighty convincing. In 2003 farms began using systemic pesticides, such as neonicotinoid, clothianidin and imidacloprid. Beekeepers and scientists who examined the bees contracted out to monoculture farms that use systemic pesticides noticed the bees often appeared confused and disoriented. This led them to believe that the accumulation of pesticides in the honey bees might be acting as neurotoxins, interfering with their nervous or immune systems.

Now you might be saying, “Aren’t there government agencies set up to conduct studies ensuring these chemicals are safe?” Well, this wouldn’t be a politically charged documentary if it didn’t point out some alarming holes in the regulatory process. Bayer, the company that produces the most widely used systemic pesticide Gaucho, is the company that provides the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with the studies and data considered when approving the pesticide. The EPA approved the use of Clothianidin in 2003, despite the fact that the EPA’s own report acknowledges clothianidin is highly toxic to honeybees. The absurdity doesn’t stop there—all of the studies conducted by Bayer focused on the short-term affects of the chemicals, not the long-term affects that worry beekeepers and experts alike.

Perhaps the most shocking revelation in Vanishing of the Beesis that CCD is not a previously undocumented occurrence. In 1997 when beekeepers in France began noticing a rapid decrease in their honey bee population, they took action by protesting and demanding an investigation into whether Gauchowas killing their bees. The use of Gauchowas suspended for the whole French Territory while the effects of Gauchowere tested between 1999 and 2000. In 2008, France finally completely rejected the use of clothianidin and Germany, whose agricultural groups have been protesting the use of the clothianidin since 2004, followed suit.

A 2008 presentation at the American Chemical Society’s national meeting verified that dozens of pesticides—including some neonicotinoids – are linked to CCD. In the same year, with U.S. honeybee deaths climbing to more than 36 percent nationally and up to 70 percent in Texas, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed a suit against the EPA, demanding the release of documentation the EPA used to approve Bayer’s clothianidin submission in 2003 under the Freedom of Information Act. The EPA ignored the suit entirely. The NRDC continues to believe that the EPA does have evidence linking neonicotinoid pesticides and honey bee deaths, and has failed to make that evidence public.

In 2007, Congress recognized CCD as a potential disaster and gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) an undisclosed budget to study the problem. The USDA also gets an additional $20 million a year under the 2008 Farm Bill to pursue solutions. However, the USDA has not been able to account for the funds, nor has it arrived at any consensus.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, brings us to today. Systemic pesticides are still being used in monoculture crops, and honeybee populations continue to plummet. However, some beekeepers and scientists interviewed in the documentary believe CCD may be a blessing in disguise. There is hope that more attention focused on this disaster could reveal the true nature of our farming practices, eventually leading to more meaningful regulations and support for more sustainable methods. There are signs that efforts to promote honey bee and CCD awareness have not gone unnoticed—in March of 2010 New York City’s board of health voted unanimously to lift a ban against beekeeping, legalizing the hives of hundreds of residents who have kept hives of Apis mellifera, the common, nonaggressive honeybee, in defiance of the law.

On August 20th 2010, the filmmakers of Vanishing of the Bees held a summit including concerned nonprofits, for-profits and beekeepers (including GRACE, PANNA, Beyond Pesticides, The James Beard Foundation, Burt’s Bees and the NRDC) to discuss how the film could be used to educate the public and move towards legal reform. While there is no immediate fix to this problem, one thing is for sure: you do not have to wait for the government to act to save the honey bee. Following the suggestions in the movie, you can take action NOW – find the actions on the Vanishing of the Bees websiteunder “Take Action.” Educate yourself and your friends and family by attending a screening of the film, and, as always, vote with your fork!

As a part of the film’s Bee the Change campaign, “Vanishing of the Bees” will be playing across the U.S. in theaters, libraries, schools, parks, churches and homes. You can also register on the websiteto host your own screening. Contributions to this film will help to raise awareness about the bees and their vital role in our ecology and provide solutions to the public to improve bee health and better our environment. Funds will also go towards creating an educational version of the documentary and building honeybee sanctuaries to preserve bee health.

Responses to "Mind Your Beeswax: Calling Attention to CCD (A Film Review)"

  1. Colleen

    I find this topic really frustrated. OBVIOUSLY pesticides are affecting honeybees. How could they not?

  2. Jennifer Bunin

    UPDATE: Environmentalists and beekeepers are taking a stand against pesticide company Bayer, which denies a link between CCD and pesticide

  3. Christian Skorik

    Very interesting article, Jen. Since Europe’s pesticide revolt in the late 90’s, have they had better success controlling CCD? I was under the impression that a variety of agents were responsible for CCD, not limited to just pesticides. For example, fungi

  4. Jennifer Bunin

    The virus is absolutely one probable theory, and I believe the studies found a correlation between CCD and the virus but not necessarily labeled it as the cause. It is also probable that pesticides could have lowered the immune system of the honey bee, making it more vulnerable to the virus. It makes a lot of sense that being trucked around the country and being exposed to pesticides designed to kill other insects would have an effect on the honey bee. The film make a very compelling case toward that end.

  5. michaelchasetx

    I thought it had been clearly established that the cause of the European Bee colonies was due to virus, according to APPLIED AND ENVIRONMENTAL MICROBIOLOGY, Jan. 2006, p. 606

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