Imagine half a million adults skipping town and leaving their children behind. Picture an opened suitcase filled with bundles of cash at a bus stop and yet no robber wants to snatch it. The apiary science mystery known as 'Colony Collapse Disorder' displays these very symptoms. Not only do the bees abandon their hive, but the queen and the brood as well. Unnatural. Unheard of. Even the predators that usually raid the hive for honey stay far away. At first, this occurrence sounds like an urban legend or an exaggerated tale. Except it’s not. The situation is both dire and all too real. Bees are disappearing all over the planet and no one knows why. George Langworthy, co-director of Vanishing of the Bees, explains what's going on.
LWLies: You've done feature films, documentary, comedy, so what brings you into environmental filmmaking?
Langworthy: Well, I have previously done some environmental documentary filmmaking too. In this instance, the story of the disappearance of the honeybees was so compelling that I leapt on it as soon as I heard of it. At the beginning of it all, it's a mystery, no one knows why the bees are dying. And within that story is encapsulated all these other big issues. I've always been very concerned about the environment but I've done a lot of different things. I guess a little bit of my diverse background comes through in the film. I've tried to add some flavour to it.
LWLies And how did it all start?
Langworthy: Initially I was drawn in by the mystery, the mystery of what was happening. I set forth on the project because I own my own camera and mikes, so I started filming little bits on weekends on the side. Once I started to learn about what was behind it all, and what an immense story it was, and how immensely important it was, I left my job and devoted myself completely to the film on faith and credit cards. I just thought 'this has to be covered thoroughly by a feature film,' because it's very complex. Even 90 minutes isn't enough, we could have made 10 films with all the information we had. The people too are very interesting. The bee keepers became a big part of the draw to me. They're fascinating, every single one of them.
LWLies: They're definitely quirky characters.
Langworthy: Yes, absolutely. They do a lot of things which people see as idyllic: they're autonomous, they have their freedom, and they're out in nature. And then of course, there's kind of a mysterious aspect to it. People are afraid of bees, and here are these guys who get stung daily and don't seem to mind. They love bees, all of them. Many of them started beekeeping a little bit here and there and then completely fell in love with it.
LWLies: And what was it like working with them at a stage in their career and life which was clearly very difficult?
Langworthy: It was often quite depressing to see people who've been doing this for so long, and with such devotion, suddenly facing a problem that no one can explain, and with no solution in sight. These are people who have dealt with adversity their whole life, it's certainly not an easy job. They get up at dawn, work constantly, it's a lot of manual labour, it's just a lot of everything basically. You have to have all these different skills, from agriculture to economics. These people have really dealt with a lot of problems through their whole careers, but this is something new. And yes, a couple of them have gone out of business now, and that's pretty sad. The gentleman Rick Smith, who you see in the film burning all his hives, he's a fifth-generation beekeeper. And we're there filming him during this lengthy process of closing everything down. I think that they were glad to see us, and glad to see that this was getting covered, so we could offer them some support in that.
LWLies: The film itself is set up as a whodunnit, so how much did you know when you started about the direction of the film?
Langworthy: Very little. I in fact knew only peripheral information about bees themselves. I started to find out all these things that we have in our film. I did know it was a global issue, that was one of the things that really caught my attention and fuelled my interest. Early on, I did a quick search on Youtube and found a news clip from Taiwan. I thought. 'It's amazing that the same thing is happening there.' The news articles, too, were saying that this was happening all over the world. One of the beautiful things in the process of making this film was seeing the public concern and response, and that I certainly wouldn't have expected. The amount of concern for bees is overwhelming, and very inspiring, and there are numerous groups and organisations doing their part to make a difference and improve the situation.
LWLies: But you didn't work alone on this film?
Langworthy: No, there was a great team. It's regrettable my co-director, Maryam Henein, isn't here yet to share this interview, because without her this wouldn't have happened at all. She was very inspired by the story because the bees are a female society, and that really caught her eye. We have a great balance, and work together in a very positive way. The sum is greater than its parts. She has her own interests and opinions, we share some, and of course I have my own. And then they merge and come out beautifully. We'd been friends for about a year before we began shooting. She comes from investigative journalism, so it was a good combination. She was able to use her investigative skills to find people, connect with them, and find sources.
LWLies: The film is about more than just doom and gloom, right?
Langworthy: When I first spoke to Maryam about the film, and she looked into it, she was interested in the cultural history of bees too. They're in Egyptian and Roman culture, in the Qur'an there's this whole chapter on the honeybee, and they're in the Bible too. In the ancient day they were a big deal, there was wax for candlelight before electricity, and honey before cane sugar. So we tried to include that in the film and not just have this dry story about how awful everything is. We wanted to have something that was entertaining, and has a message which says that people can make a difference.
LWLies: Obviously you've made it compelling, but it is a shocking story. It's something which has been happening in the background for quite a long time, why do you think recently it's got a lot more attention?
Langworthy: I think there's a parabolic curve of awareness going on. Like with global warming: 10 years ago, no one really knew about it. Now, it's commonplace. People are concerned. There are massive forces in society at work, and in that same light, this issue of what's going on in agriculture with the bees is coming onto people's radar. It's growing parabolically, the more people that know about it, the more people find out. I think this issue about the problems with the use of toxic poisons on our food is going to be very prominent and a consideration for people in the next five years. I think a lot of people are worried about it, and a lot more people are going to know about it. In the same way that the idea of using petroleum in our cars is going to collapse under its own weight eventually, people are going to understand that spraying poison on our food has a limited duration in which it can work without destroying itself.
LWLies: You show in the film governments doing very little to help the situation. I wonder if governments and food manufacturers are denying the problem such that they don't have to make changes they can't deal with?
Langworthy: I think that is correct. I think governments are very aware of what the problem is, and they are very slow in responding because there are these tremendous forces at work, principally market forces profiting from these products. And the same holds true of the oil industry or the military. I think that people within the American Environmental Protection Agency, or UK minister Hilary Ben, are perfectly aware that current food production methods are unsustainable. But they're also faced with a lot of pressure from all sides, so it's up to us to increase the pressure from our side. Particularly when we think of future generations. As Jay says in our film, I think so wisely, ultimately a lot of this comes down to money, and profit driven thinking influencing policy. But at the end of the day, it doesn't matter how much money you have in the bank, if all the soil is laden with poison. You can't repair that with extra funding, it's something that has to be done now.
Prevention is the cure. There are places in China now where they have to pollinate the pear trees by hand: the soil is so toxic that they can't bring in bees because they'll just die again. So people have a bucket, and a stick with a bunch of feathers, and pollinate these pear trees by hand. Obviously we can't do that everywhere. I think ultimately the government does have to do something to make a difference, it has to be something put into policy just as they are doing things with automobiles and emissions. But that's happened because of public pressure. The unhesitating call from the citizens of the world to do something about it. The current mentality has to change if we are to survive. And human beings don't have to survive. But if we want to, we have to live in harmony with the natural world, we just can't spray poison everywhere. It just doesn't work.