Queen of the Sun: What are the Bees Telling Us?
Queen of the Sun is a new documentary from Taggart Siegel, director of The Real Dirt on Farmer John among many others. The film is about the crisis of Colony Collapse Disorder, and how different kinds of beekeepers around the world are coping with it. I viewed the film and interviewed Siegel about it -- it was happily an easy interview, as he lives near me in Portland, Oregon. My interview follows this trailer and brief review. The film is screening in Los Angeles on June 17 and all over the place in the coming weeks and months. If you have the chance to catch this film in the theater, I urge you to do so -- it's a rare documentary in which nature, science, philosophy, and history are intertwined.
I watch a lot of documentaries. I get a lot of documentaries in the mail every week, and I don't have time to watch even a quarter of what's sent to me. But when I heard there was a new documentary on bees and Colony Collapse Disorder, I jumped at the chance to check it out. What I saw was a beautiful, intelligent, and sometimes sobering look at the landscape of bees, beekeeping, and modern farming. While the first portion of the film left me with a sense of foreboding (reviewing the long list of human behaviors that have led to CCD), I was captivated -- and then I was encouraged, as the film offered solutions to the problem, all through the words of beekeepers around the world. This is a rare documentary about a problem in which possible solutions are explicitly shown within the film; too often, we see documentaries about some horrible problem and the end is just...oh well, that was that, let's all go cry now. This is a hopeful, active, joyous film -- it will make you want to keep bees, or at least go find a friend who does.
This is not a dry documentary; it's lyrical and poetic, full of philosophy and nature. The film begins with this statement by biodynamic beekeeper Gunther Hauk, and I think it's a fair thesis statement for the whole film:
"Colony Collapse Disorder is a bill we are getting, for all we have done to the bees. It's just a name that was given to a phenomenon that... a hive is found empty, food is there, honey is there, but the bees are gone. The first thing we look for is who is the cause for that? Who is responsible? We are not going to solve the problem by us killing a virus or a bacteria or a fungi. Because the problem is an inner one. Personally, I am grateful for a crisis, the crisis will give us the possibility to learn something...if we are willing. If the heart opens up enough to tell the mind something." -Gunther Hauk
This documentary is family-friendly, and I'd recommend it for those interested in nature, bees, farming, and the relationship between the natural and manmade worlds. If you're looking for a point of comparison, think Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control but focused on bees -- and with a far more relaxed pace.
Interview (Selected Portions)
Higgins: In the film, you show different kinds of beekeepers. You've got organic beekeepers, you've got these commercial beekeepers who are pouring corn syrup into the hives and trucking them, you've got this fellow with a special kind of hive where the bees and their mites coevolve together -- and I think he says he's a biodynamic beekeeper -- so, what makes a biodynamic beekeeper?
Siegel: A biodynamic beekeeper is, first of all and utmost, a beekeeper who respects their bees. The bees are not for commodity purposes, they're not to be shipped around the country -- they're allowing the bees to be bees. And that might sound a little odd, because, for the last 120 years or so, we've developed systems so it's all about the beekeeper and not about the bees. Biodynamic beekeeping is about the bees -- what do the bees need to regain their vitality? ...
Biodynamic beekeepers only take honey in the spring. That's a very big difference -- most beekeepers take their honey in the fall when they want to sell it. They might leave a little bit for the bees, but biodynamic beekeepers would leave the honey all the way until the spring. If the bees survive the winter, then you take the excess. It's basically a gift from the bees, instead of saying, "I'm going to take everything, then I'm going to feed you corn syrup and some sugar to keep you alive." And, as Michael Pollan says in the film, there's nothing more viscerally offensive than feeding high fructose corn syrup to the creators of honey.
Higgins: You seem to find all these beekeepers who want to explain to the camera, to people, that bees are really important, bees have always been really important, they respect their bees, they care for their bees. They seem to want to explain simply the importance of bees -- which almost feels to me like a cultural problem, where we, as a culture, don't really care about bees. We care about food, we care about our fruit, but we don't care about the bees that are required to make that food happen.
Siegel: When you think about an insect, we've been taught to hate insects, we've been taught to fear insects -- ooh, spiders! ooh, I've been stung by a bee! -- but it's normally a wasp, it's normally a yellowjacket, you know, we got stung by a wasp while we were having our picnic. Wasps are carnivores, bees are vegetarians, and wasps are a lot more aggressive. But my feeling is that bees kinda get the bum rap, because we're so out of sync with nature, and we have no reverence for nature. How do you have reverence for nature when we live in these urban settings? How do you reconnect with nature? I think what the beekeepers have done so beautifully is that they not only have fallen in love with their bees -- which is a weird concept, how do you fall in love with that little insect?
Higgins: Well, they clearly are, though. You show one guy who brushes the bees with his mustache and says: "They like!" He has a relationship with those bees.
Siegel: He loves his bees! He loves his bees so much that he'll do anything for them; he trusts them. That's the other thing about biodynamic beekeepers -- they don't wear these big suits to protect them. They don't say, hey, I'm gonna just replace that queen like a sparkplug and put another queen in, and tell that queen to lay a lot of eggs or she's gonna be replaced. Biodynamic beekeepers allow the queen to live out her life, fully, and let the hive figure out what the next step is. Now, you may not get as much honey, and production might not be as big, but it's respectful. And anybody can be a beekeeper, and that would provide for nature in a big way.
So let's go back to the insect -- these beekeepers love the insect. Most people don't understand the connection...until they get it. I didn't, as a filmmaker! I did The Real Dirt on Farmer John, working with Rudolf Steiner, working with biodynamic farming, not once did we mention bees in all those years. And then when I read an article, I think it was in E, and it had the quote from Einstein, which you might have seen: "If the bees die out, man has four years to live." And it was just like, oh my god, we're gonna die! But that quote has been disputed. Whether he said it or not, it still woke me up. How do we wake up? And what Gunther Hauk has said in the film and for a book we're putting together from the beekeepers' point of view, he said Colony Collapse Disorder is a way to wake up, it's the sledgehammer. We're not being like, "Hey, hello, bees are important." No -- we're being hit with a sledgehammer because bees dying out is a serious, serious threat to food security and to our ecosystems.
Higgins: I assume this is a question you get asked a lot. Did you get a lot of stings while you were making the film?
Siegel: [laughing] I got three stings and I was around millions of bees. And I only wore a suit when the beekeeper was wearing a suit. So I thought I'd better have that protection when I was around somebody who had that kind of relationship with his bees, where he thought he needed it. But most of the beekeepers that I was filming didn't wear suits. I just had to be calm. The scary thing was, we'd put the [fuzzy boom microphone] muff close in to the bees and worry they'd think it was a bear or something coming in to attack them, but I still didn't get stung. And, you know, a black camera that's kinda moving in there...I was very lucky. ...
My sound person was terrified of bees, and she got stung so many times -- you know, maybe five, six, seven times. And that didn't help her. And I had no idea when I asked her to come to Europe to work on the film, and there we were, and then she confessed that she was afraid of bees. And I don't think she ever got over it completely.
Higgins: Last question. Philip Schilds, the 16-year-old kid with his dad on the roof, where'd you find him?
Siegel: His stepdad, yeah. He was in the papers in London; it said in the papers that he was the youngest beekeeper in England, not when he was 16, but when he started at 9. So I went for that, but his stepdad was so cool and the kid was super-cool, he's nerdy and really out there. I mean, the fact that he names all his queens from the queens of England I think is our way to show some humor. I love humor, wherever you can get it. Because there's so many serious things going on in the film -- it's just so fun when the kid's talking about the queens of England.
For More Information
Check out queenofthesun.com for screenings, more information about the film, and information on how to take action in your own backyard.