The Bittersweet Last Beekeeper

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The Last Beekeeper (LAFF screenings tomorrow and Thursday) is a documentary tribute to an ancient profession -- one subject calls it the "second oldest" -- rapidly going extinct. Clocking in at a lean 66 minutes, Jeremy Simmons's film profiles three apiarists struggling mightily to keep their businesses afloat. In today's market, that requires loading up their bees onto 18-wheelers and making the long trek to California for the annual almond crop pollination. (There's just no more money in honey, hunny.) But the journey is a devastating one, as the mysterious colony collapse disorder or CCD -- an HIV-like bee pandemic with no known cause or cure, that's claimed 35% drops in North American honeybee populations last year alone -- has been wiping out thousands of their flock a time.

In making the film, Simmons had to overcome a fear of his winged subjects due to a childhood bee-sting allergy. (He proudly shows off his war wounds in the pictures below.) But he eventually found himself actually growing emotionally attached to the industrious insects -- and he helps the audience to, as well. Particularly when observed in close-up, their behavior seems incredibly advanced for a creature we're accustomed to just waving away. These buzzers have a soul.

I talked to Simmons about the disappearance of a profession and a species -- and the ominous things it could mean about our own futures.

I found your film very educational, but also very, very sad. Was it as sad to make it as it is to watch it?

It was devastating. You're watching people's lives crumble in front of you, and then, what does that mean for the larger picture? It was very personal.

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What brought you to the story of beekeeping?

[Producer Fenton Bailey] brought it up one day, shortly after the story broke. At that time I wasn't sure that I agreed that it was a feature-length documentary, because at that point I thought it would be short-lived, whatever was happening to the bees -- that they'd find out it was a virus a week later. But I went on an exploratory shoot anyway, just to research and meet some beekeepers. And once you start to learn the story of bees in this country, it became really clear to me that this was a feature documentary.

Did your attitudes about the bees change at all as the shoot went on?

The more you're around bees, the more interesting they become. They start to take on personality. You can start to hear when they're angry in the way they buzz, or if they're happy, or comfortable with you or not. It's really fascinating -- they're an insect, but there's so much to them.

There's a turning point in the movie where you see one beekeeper trying to save one of his bees from drowning, and the little thing was so cute. You stop thinking of them as bees and start thinking of them as ... I don't know ... God's creatures.

Part of the journey that I took was from them being insects, that are a threat -- I had a childhood allergy to bee stings -- to really be able to relate to them in a way as individual animals.

We've come no closer to understanding what's happening to these bees?

That's right. The only thing that scientists agree on at this point is that it's probably a combination of factors. And they're continuing to look for viruses, and whatever combinations might trigger it.

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How long have beekeepers been migrating with their hives?

It's changed through the years. It's only been in the last 10 years that they've been driving across the country to meet the almonds demand. Before, the crops were smaller -- there weren't as many, so it didn't require as many bees. The needs would be met by local beekeepers. But as the almond crops got larger and larger, they started pulling bees from wherever they could find them. So this kind of travel is a new phenomenon.

There was a statistic that if they kept dropping at the current rate, by 2035 there would be no more honeybees. It's mind-boggling. Is there any way out of that?

This year, there's slightly less loss than the year before. So scientists are now looking at that: If we lost 35% last year and 29% this year, we know it's a significant number, but why? Has something happened different this year? Nobody has the answer to that.

Is this, do you feel in your heart, part of a bigger trend? Or is it really just an outbreak of a pandemic of a swine-type flu for bees?

I don't know the answer to that, but what I do know is that the history of bees in this country is revealing. The number of bees in this country has been steadily dropping for the last 40 years. Whether CCD is a one-time phenomenon, there's a much larger picture going on here, which is that bees and pollinators are in crisis. ♦

· The Last Beekeeper [LAFF]



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