An amiably shaggy combination of science lesson, whimsical musing and alarm bell, More Than Honey isn't as urgent as its eco-catastrophic subject — the possible destruction of the world's critically important honeybee populations — might seem to require. But the documentary's most memorable vignette is suitably unnerving: a visit to northern China, where the threatened disappearance of bees has already come to pass, leaving workers to pollinate fruit trees ... by hand.
Even in a country whose economy is predicated on cheap labor, the scene is chilling. Bees are far better pollinators than humans, and they work — where they're still working — for free. With the globe's bee-free expanses likely to increase, pollinating could soon join picking as one of those essential tasks that fall to the poorest and most exploited agricultural workers.
There's no single reason for the decline of bees, suggests More Than Honey director Markus Imhoof, whose family has kept the honey-producing apians for generations. The filmmaker hails from the Swiss Alps, where flowers, fruit, honey and bees exist in synchrony, with only low-tech human intervention. Even there, however, diseases and parasites are devastating hives.
Things are worse in China, where Mao's war on birds shattered the natural order, and in the U.S., where industrial-scale beekeeping and the indiscriminate use of pesticides has fueled the phenomenon known as "colony collapse."
The film's first stop is California, which produces as much as 90 percent of the world's almonds. The trees require the ministrations of untold numbers of bees, whose hives are trucked to the orchards by the hundreds on huge flatbeds, by companies whose insects also pollinate other crops throughout the country. The stresses of travel kill bees, sometimes by the millions. Fungicides and varroa mites also undermine colony health.
Imhoof's visit to China is brief, probably because bad news about its food supply is not encouraged by that nation's censors. Then it's off to Australia, the only continent whose bees have not been infested by the varroa mite. There, bee researchers (including the director's daughter) are working on a disease-resistant breed. The last stop is Arizona, where one honey harvester believes that the hardier Africanized (aka "killer") bee is American agriculture's great yellow-and-black hope.
The director — best known for his Oscar-nominated 1981 Holocaust drama The Boat Is Full — takes this journey at a relaxed pace, shifting periodically between science and commerce. Adding to the lyrical tone is a violin-keyed score by Swiss composer Peter Scherer, formerly of the eclectic '80s art-punk group Ambitious Lovers.
One of the ways in which the movie is about more than honey is in its explication of bee behavior, communication and society. The individual insects may not distinguish themselves during their brief life spans, but a bee colony is a "super-organism"; Berlin neurobiologist Randolf Menzel likens a colony's processes to those of a human brain, and his comparison doesn't favor the human.
Supporting Menzel's analysis is striking macro-lens footage of bees, deftly photographed by Attica Boa. Some of the close-ups are CGI-enhanced, and they include a simulation of bees in flight through outer space. The poetic moment could be merely a playful ode to the insect, but it also might be seen as a symbolic departure. Like humans in so many dystopian sci-fi flicks, the hard-pressed bees look to be seeking a more compatible home on another planet.