“More Than Honey” may be the most visually beautiful documentary ever made. When Swiss filmmaker Markus Imhoof’s camera somehow glides through the interior of a teeming bee hive, he could be photographing a cathedral: there’s a spiritual glow to the images.
Imhoof is an Academy Award nominated film journalist whose grandfather made, and lost, a fortune in the honey trade. “The bees fed our family,” he explains in a voice-over. “Granddad owned no less than 150 colonies. He had even built a house for them,” a three-story Alpine chalet shown in a sepia-tinted photo.
His film is a cautionary tale about the crucial role bees play in our ecosystem and the worrying phenomenon of colony collapse, but it’s much more than an Earth Day thesis. Imhoof began his career as a dramatist; “More Than Honey” is his first nonfiction project. His expansive inquiry concerns the unwritten contract between bees and people. He visits apiaries, farms and research labs around the globe, telling us volumes about national character and human nature in the process.
The film swarms with “wow” moments. We see a bee brain scan, fly alongside a queen as she mates in flight, observe parasitic mites as they attack bees, and learn the secrets of the bees’ figure-8 “wiggle dance,” which shows where pollen, water and shelter can be found.
But Imhoof brings a personal approach even in his narration, as when he explains the monoculture approach to bee breeding has turned “wolves into illness-prone poodles.”
In California, we meet commercial beekeeper John Miller, who trucks hives across the country, making a fortune as his tiny workers pollinate crops for $600,000 per client. As he approaches the buzzing trees in an almond orchard, he grins, “Can you hear that? That’s the sound of money. Fresh printed money.” As single-minded and industrious as any bee, Miller admits that his arrangement is “a Faustian bargain” with the farm owners. They spray pesticides with little concern for Miller’s bees, a practice that appears linked to colony collapse. Later, examining cases of lifeless hives, the entrepreneur sighs, “I’m getting real comfortable with death on an epic scale.”
Different cultures interact with bees in ways that tell us a lot about their worldview. In northern China we see barren fields where extensive pesticide use has wiped out bees altogether. Human workers collect and sell apple-blossom pollen from the south, shipping it thousands of miles, where armies of workers apply it by hand in silent, moonscape fields.
There’s a lush Rhineland romanticism in scenes of Swiss keeper Fred Jaggi’s small-scale traditional methods, but also echoes of Aryan intolerance. A stickler for his colonies’ “racial purity,” he decapitates a queen that bred with an inferior interloper and when disease infects his pristine hives, his final solution is a bonfire and mass grave.
In Australia, history repeats itself as scientists experimenting with aggressive strains of bees isolate their subjects on a distant unpopulated island. Arizona apiarist Fred Terry remarks beside the Mexican border fence that “Americans are always afraid of being invaded,” and counsels that South America’s much-maligned “killer bees” may be the best hope for disease-resistant bee colonies in the future.
Imhoof doesn’t underline or editorialize about these ironies, he observes them and leaves the conclusions to us. There’s little polemic here, and much striking poetry.