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More Than Honey

Originally published 14th October 2013

@ The Filmhouse on Friday It's Friday and we're off to see 'More Than Honey' at the Filmhouse in Edinburgh. A movie we'd highly recommend you see!

We find our seats, the film starts, and we are soon plunged into another world. All around us are blossoming almond trees… and buzzing. We are immersed in the almost ferocious sound of the bees that we learn have just been trucked in to do their work – the noise vibrates overhead as they pollinate the fields. A man descends from his four-by-four and comments, 'Can you hear that? That's the sound of money, fresh printed money. Bees in trees – nice!' He chirps away happily, referring to the bees as 'ladies', his affection for the little creatures obvious. We stand with him, a modern capitalist beekeeper, in the heart of the almond orchards, which stretch as far as the eye can see. But this is far from the Garden of Eden…The film unfolds, and we learn much about the nature of the bees, exploring how they live and breed in their colonies, and also about the nature of man, with his interventions in their delicate world. Moving and fascinating, it illuminates both the obvious and the subtle ways in which the lives and needs of bees and man coincide and interweave.

A pesticide truck stops. The driver exchanges a few words with our beekeeper, and drives away. As the toxic spray is applied in the background, our man expresses his concern about this happening during the day while the bees are active. It kills his bees, and an awareness that it in turn kills, or at least harms, his ability to earn a decent living lingers. The camera turns to watch a bee tumble to its death. The film unfolds, and we learn much about the nature of the bees, exploring how they live and breed in their colonies, and also about the nature of man, with his interventions in their delicate world. Moving and fascinating, it illuminates both the obvious and the subtle ways in which the lives and needs of bees and man coincide and interweave.

Bee Farming

We learn that intensive agriculture means that European, North American and Chinese bees are trucked across vast landscapes to pollinate our food crops. The bees have no choice as to what food to select – only almonds are available for the ones we have just seen. These bees are in a weakened state from their limited diets and from their colonies being split up – the brood, the honey and the eggs all separated – and often the trauma of this kills the queens, but new ones are sent in by airmail to raise new broods. The bees are often struggling with the Varoa mite, a killer disease, and so, on arrival, tired from their travels, they are treated with a sugary water solution laced with chemicals to kill the mite. Because the bees are debilitated, they lack strong natural defences against illness, and so are dependent on such chemicals for survival.

The film states that it is not simply a case of pesticide, parasites or Varoa treatments killing the bees, but the dominance and intervention of humans in their world. The mounting death toll, graphically portrayed, is staggering.

When the lights go on, we sit quiet for a moment, moved and a bit shaken by this outstanding, beautiful, stunningly shot film.

Take One Action

At Take One Action film festival events, a panel of experts often takes to the stage after films are shown, and the films' insights or claims are hotly debated. The audience is often packed with university students, activists and lecturers. On this occasion there are beekeepers too. On the panel we have the Coop with its 'Plan B' campaign and Bug Life, an organisation working to protect all pollinating insects and a supporter of the recent EU ban on neonicotinoids. The discussion opens to the floor and many sensible and predictable questions flow in. A girl asks eloquently about responsibility: 'Where does it lie? Is there enough regulation of corporations? Should consumers always be left to carry the can?'

A merry dance unfolds, the complications are explored: the passing of responsibility between consumer and producer, the integrity of organisations who campaign for better conditions, but also continue to support unhealthy practices by selling non-organic honey, the greenwashing done by big business…. The blame game, in short: people want solutions, people want someone else to fix this mess!

Helplessness and hopelessness

My sense, as I sit in the audience, is of growing helplessness as I listen to all sides of the debate: a ping-pong of blame while there is urgent need for action. How complex this is: we are living at a time when 'the market' is under the cloud of the financial crisis, and world leaders' focus is on getting the economy 'back on track'. The environmental movement, on the other hand (and quite rightly), calls for no more depletion or violent destruction of the world's resources. How to reconcile these two powerful drivers? Can and should we 'stimulate the market'? How can we 'grow the economy'? How do we continue to produce the food we need at a price 'the market' can bear? Families in Leith, even middleclass families, will not buy organic pesticide-free food due to the immediate cost to them, even though these organic producers are part of the solution to our declining bees, and have a far lower environmental cost. We get an ever-increasing sense that nobody can step out of the cycle – or downward spiral (helix!) – as it loops on and on, trapping us in its unhealthy, unbalanced ways. An apparent dilemma of unsustainability: we are dependent on sick, heavily managed and chemical-dependent bees to provide us, 'the consumer', with honey, almonds and much more!

Inspired by nature

And the film contained a glimmer of hope. The most inspirational moment for me was when the bees swarmed and left their artificial hive. A friendly and wise beekeeper pointed out that not even a bear was getting at those bees, for they sat on the lip of a cave, high above the landscape. It was clear that if this beekeeper were to reclaim them as domestic creatures for profit he'd need to risk his life. He smiled, acknowledging that he had been outsmarted by these marvellous beasties. My overwhelming sense was that they had not only left the beekeeper, but they had left 'the market' too, they had said goodbye to the interference of man in their business: lost value to man's economy, but a gain to the natural cycle of the bee colony. They had also dropped a hint to us all: stepping out of the cycle we find ourselves in is key to restoring health and balance. We need people who can demonstrate bold and brave moves towards stepping out of the vicious circle of dependency. We need to see this boldness from everyone, from consumers, from producers and from the regulators: a mass exodus from unhealthy cycles at all levels, a collective working movement lead by a variety of people who refuse to sit back and watch and blame.

Happily, this is increasingly happening! Roll on the small-scale local food producers in Scotland, like Jo Hunt's Knockfarrel croft, roll on permaculture farms like Monica Brooks with her Bute-iful An Tearman project. Roll on organisations like The Fife Diet, Edible Edinburgh and Nourish Scotland, who are leading the way to a more sustainable Scotland. Roll on campaigners such as journalist Lesley Riddoch, with her many projects, from Nordic Horizons to her new book - Blossom - What Scotland needs to flourish! Roll on the individuals who decide to plant a garden once more, to give nature a home instead of a grey dull patio or decked yard. All these people being brave enough to step outside the unhealthy cycle and give birth to a new (old!), healthier way of being, giving at least our Scottish bees and other pollinating insects a chance to thrive, all while doing vital climate CO2-reduction work! Scotland is buzzing.

I'm reminded once more that 'small is beautiful' and policies in other places might be too complicated or the people too afraid – or with too much invested in the unhealthy – to step out of the cycle. A beautiful small country like Scotland, with all these inspirational people leading the way, we can be a leading light on these matters: from policy to consumption, from government to individuals. We, the people of Scotland, can all play an important part.

Peas Love and Bumble Bees


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