PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

'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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.


Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.


MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.


'Avatar: The Last Airbender' Nudges Out Conscience in Our Time of Crises

Avatar shows us that to fight for only the people we know, for simply the things that affect us personally, is neither brave nor heroic, nor particularly useful.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.