'Vanishing of the Bees' Could Do with More Honey, Less Vinegar

Vanishing of the Bees flits about from topic to topic -- and loses its way.

Vanishing of the Bees

Director: George Langworthy and Maryam Henein
Cast: Ellen Page (narrator), David Hackenberg, Dave Mendes, Dennis van Engelsdorp, Michael Pollan
Length: 87 minutes
Year: 2009
Distributor: True Mind / Entertainment One
MPAA Rating: Unrated
UK Release date: 2010-02-01
US Release date: 2011-06-14

In the early minutes of Vanishing of the Bees, Pennsylvania beekeeper David Hackenberg stands amidst beehives and their buzzing inhabitants. “A lot of people out there don’t realize that one out of every three bites of food they stick in their mouths, these honeybees put on their dinner table,” he asserts. “And if they’re not here?”

It’s a serious and important question; throughout 2010, recurring news stories reported drastic and unexplained decreases in bee populations, a phenomenon knows as colony collapse disorder. Those stories continue in 2011, and even though the headlines may not be getting the attention they did last year, the diminishing bee population is still a matter worth exploring in depth.

Vanishing of the Bees, a documentary by George Langworthy and Maryam Henien, and narrated by actress Ellen Page (Juno, Inception) attempts to do that. According to the press notes, Vanishing of the Bees explores the mysterious and massive disappearance of honeybees across the world, follows the lives of beekeepers, and looks at possible causes and solutions to the matter. If only the film had stuck to that promise; in supporting its thesis, Vanishing of the Bees deeply explores numerous other related issues. The result is a meandering and long-winded essay film that loses its focus amid countless details.

It's important to acknowledge what Vanishing of the Bees does well. First, the aforementioned Hackenberg and another beekeeper, Dave Mendes of Florida, are the primary interviewees in the film. By exploring the livelihoods and the hardships of these men, the filmmakers quickly bring the audience close to the subject matter. An interesting revelation is the obvious love Hackenberg and Mendes have for their bees, an affection that transmits well on screen.

As the film progresses, the eagerness and perseverance of Hackenberg and Mendes becomes more evident as the two men struggle to understand what is destroying their livestock. A particularly captivating sequence follows them to an international beekeeping conference in Paris. In trading stories with French beekeepers, Hackenberg and Mendes leave the conference invigorated and inspired. (And it turns out that France is the birthplace of modern beekeeping methods, which is succinctly detailed in a nicely produced DVD extra.)

Securing Ellen Page as the narrator of Vanishing of the Bees was a coup for the filmmakers; Page’s conversational tone definitely makes the subject approachable, and the use of a female voiceover artist aligns well with the fact that beehives are matriarchies.

Another strength of the film is it incorporates the voices of key experts, most notably the folksy-yet-academic Dennis van Engelsdorp, a member of Penn State University’s Department of Entymology and Pennsylvania’s acting state apiarist and acclaimed author and food activist, Michael Pollan. Van Engelsdorp lends broader scientific context to the central topic while Pollan defines honeybees’ importance to human nutrition.

Slow-motion, macro focus shots beautifully display the wonder of bees in flight. Elegant animations, thoughtfully executed with illustrations and introductory quotes, signal the beginning of each chapter -- each new topic -- in the film.

But here’s the thing: The film has 17 chapters. While care is certainly given to the bee crisis and to the experiences of Hackenberg and Mendes, the film wanders in multiple directions. Just some of the other topics that are explored include: commercial beekeeping versus organic beekeeping; the history and application of pesticides; traditional farming methods versus modern-day “monoculture” crop cultivation; and the differences in the regulatory practices between the European Union and the United States.

While each of these topics plays a vital supporting role in Vanishing of the Bees, each item gets too much screen time. When everything is treated with utmost importance, the unfortunate outcome is that nothing seems very important.

Throughout the film, viewers are subjected to quite a few bad puns: urban beekeeping “creates a buzz”; beekeepers are “equally stung” by their love of bees; Dee Lusby is described as the “queen bee” of the organic beekeeping movement.

Most unforgivable, however, is that the script by Langworthy, Henein and James Erskine forces Page to break the fourth wall in the film’s final chapter with a direct call to action. “There are practical solutions you and I can do every day to save bees,” Page reads. The solutions posed are not without merit, e.g., shopping at a farmers’ market is described as providing “both a fun outing and delicious, healthy food," but suddenly the film has stopped telling a story and starts to feel like advertising. Putting a marketing-style call to action in the voice of an ostensibly impartial narrator breaks a vital rule and risks undermining trust in the filmmaker.

That’s not to say a filmmaker can’t inspire an audience to do something about an issue; it’s just there are subtler, classier ways to do it. Canadian director Gregory Greene -- in his post-petroleum documentary, The End of Suburbia -- assembles an outtro sequence where his interviewees describe the actions they’re taking. And although Robert Kenner’s Food Inc ends with calls to action, they appear as non-voiced-over titles after the fade-out from the film’s main content. In each case, the filmmaker has taken himself out of the way.

Ultimately, Vanishing of the Bees is simply too long, too verbose, too haphazard and contains too many voices. A weakness of any essay film is that it often speaks to an audience already attuned to its position. Presenting a long, multifaceted, bludgeoning work is not a very effective way to reach those who may not be aware of the topic but could become interested.

To put it another way: You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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