Movie Review: Vanishing of the Bees

In case you haven’t heard, Whole Foods™ is running a film festival that they’re distributing throughout the country by partnering up with local cinemas and some of the films actually look interesting including the one I’m reviewing here which I saw two nights ago at Real Art Ways. Some of the films are pure propaganda which I may or may not get into in a separate review later.


“Vanishing of the Bees” is essentially an attempt to explain the how and why of colony collapse disorder (CCD) in the United States. The main culprit according to the film is the use of systemic pesticides though there are also some analyses done of the differences between holistic, organic beekeeping and conventional beekeeping. By way of France, they attempt to demonstrate that CCD is preventable and reversible when systemic pesticides become illegal.


The film essentially follows a bunch of beekeepers through their journey learning about CCD, trying to figure out its cause, and then their attempts to reverse it. Along this path, you have the usual suspects: interviews with pathos and caring for their bees and interviews of concern and despair of the government’s indifference to their plight. There is also an explanation of the importance of bees to the food supply and the dangers of monocultures for them. All this is mixed together and unified into a narrative logic that goes from describing a mysterious problem, figuring it out, and then trying to solve it with the work left undone and for you to finish at the end. This is moved forward through the voice of Ellen Page and the film is segmented according to a corny storybook device. That is, each segment begins with a shot of a CG storybook and a quote and continues into the segment as the page of that storybook turns.


So was this a good film? It was certainly interesting and I did learn a few things from it but the storybook device and some of the graphics used in it served to undermine the importance of the issue at hand by relating it with elements that I associate with fantasy, childhood, and superfluity. In this sense, the filmmakers appear to perform the same action that they are critiquing in the film, that is, the marginalization of the importance of bees through these devices meant perhaps to lighten the mood or to produce a sensation that this is a story that will end tidily with a resolution authored by the viewer as in storybooks.

The way the film is structured, it ends with prescriptions at the end for how you, the individual, can help fix this problem. In this case, it seems to be that buying organic honey, increasing the habitat area for bees by planting flowers, not using pesticides in your own garden, and becoming amateur beekeepers are what you should be doing. This focus on individual guilt and change as individual action, especially consumer action, I find to be the film’s greatest fault and a great fault for many films of this same mold.

The individual has not caused this problem, voting with your money is incredibly self-limiting and classist in the possibilities it provides. Solving a problem requires solving it. This means that if your car’s motor is broken you should fix the broken motor and not paint the car, fill up the gas tank, and improve air pressure to the tires with the hopes that all this will somehow make it easier for the motor to spontaneously fix itself. You actually need to fix the motor or that car is not going to run. So after showing quite clearly that the biggest threat to bee colonies is the use of systemic pesticides produced by corporations like Bayer in huge monoculture operations, we are told that all we can do is plant a few flowers and buy organic. Of course, what we should be doing is getting GM out of our food supply, forcing the government to outlaw systemic pesticides, and eliminating the huge monocultures of wheat, corn, and soy (the big three) that dominate this nation’s food supply and are subsidized by government policy. The problem is a problem caused by corporations and governments being in bed with one another and not by the naughty consumer. Once again, the myth of the bad individual is used to deflect blame off of the corporation who makes money by selling GM crops that destroy habitats, increase pollution, destroy small producers, and cause colony collapse disorder in bees all at great cost to the American taxpayer. Considering that the film holds up the example of France where direct action lead to the banning of systemic pesticides produced by Bayer and has lead to the bouncing back of bee colonies, you would have thought that the film would have ended with a call to direct action but instead it ends in a tepid call to consumerist guilt. Near the end of the film, one of the beekeepers describes how now when he trucks his bees across the country for pollination purposes, he ensures that he does not get anywhere near monoculture operations for fear of contamination of his colonies. This is not the situation we want to be in and buying organic is not going to change it. However, trying to figure out how to cripple some corporations and force legislation to pass in the government is a bit harder to describe and put into soundbites not to mention it’s  a lot more complicated and requires much more work than is possible for most people who also have jobs and families to attend to.

The prescriptions at the end of this film thus are able to act as an empowering form of non-action that allows individuals to feel less guilt in their lives all while not having to change anything substantial about the way they live their lives. This is good for Whole Foods since it’s a prescription that implies buying things at Whole Foods especially since Whole Foods has gotten so big that in most areas there are no longer any other local natural foods stores that provide the same variety that Whole Foods does.

“Vanishing of the Bees” is an interesting movie worth watching but weak on solutions. (official site)