In the documentary More Than Honey, Swiss director Markus Imhoof offers an extreme close-up of the life of bees. He films bees at a stunning micro level as they mate mid-air, emerge from cocoons and inject honey into honeycomb cells. He also visits beekeepers around the world and dispenses poetic perspectives on the nature of bees. It’s all part of a greater inquiry into the decline of the bee population, and his research and fascinating footage illuminate just how key bees are to the global ecosystem. Imhoof spoke to Outside at the Toronto Film Festival, where his film recently played.
What inspired you to do this documentary?
Normally I’m a fiction filmmaker, but the situation of the bees became more and more urgent. And my grandfather was a beekeeper and my daughter and son-in-law were bee scientists, so I was very well-informed all the time. So I put another fiction project away and started this. It took me five years. I didn’t think it would take so long.
What are your earliest memories of being among bees?
I remember my grandfather as an old man, us children barefoot in the garden. It was always a little bit scary to approach, but he was just standing there in the middle of all the bees without a veil and it looked like they would know him.
When did you first hear about the plight of the bees?
It was in 2007 or 2008. It started very heavily in the United States, but the dangerous fact is that it’s all over the world. In ancient times in the mines, they had little cages with canary birds. They put them on the floor and if they fell down then they knew there was gas coming. It’s a little bit like this situation. Something is happening and the bees are just warning us, but people are not aware. On a hamburger, there would be no salad, no onion, no ketchup, no mustard.
For someone who’s not aware, how would you explain why bees are so essential?
People don’t know about sex of plants—I thought everybody learned it in the first year of school. The plants can’t move, so they need somebody who is bringing the sperm from one flower to the other flower. The bees are the best at doing this because butterflies, for example, they fly from a blue flower to a red flower to a yellow flower. That’s like if you would match a dog with a cow. But the bees, if they have started with one kind of flower, they go on until all these flowers are worked out. So they are guaranteed pollination.
It’s a very simple symbiosis between plants and insects. It took millions of years to create, so the question is what is the part of human beings in all of this? Do we learn that nature is made for us and we should be the manager of nature? In the worst case, we are the parasite of nature and only the silliest parasite kills his host because if the host is dead, the parasite has nothing to eat anymore. So the parasite should think a little bit about how to treat the host, or to find a way of cooperation like the flowers and the insects: The flowers are gaining and the bees are gaining. Nobody loses. Maybe it would be a good example for human beings, as well.
One beekeeper uses pesticides in the film. They seem necessary but are also ultimately harmful.
Pesticides are made against insects and bees are insects. The agrichemical industry, they test for bee deaths, or if bees can survive the pesticide. They don’t die, but it works on the brain of the bees—they can’t find a way home anymore and they don’t have any pleasure working. The research is not done on little doses of pesticides. They just test whether the bees die or not, but even if they are not dead it’s very dangerous.
What do you think would be a good first step to preserving the bee population?
There are people asking me am I allowed to eat honey or not? I think you should eat honey, but you should look where it comes from. For example, South American honey is mostly killer bee honey, so there are no antibiotics in it because they don’t need it. But of course you don’t know where they’ve been flying. There are also farmer's markets where you can meet a beekeeper and try to find out how he treats his bees. But just to go in a supermarket and take the cheapest one [is not ideal]. If you treat your bees nicely, it’s more costly.
You have some amazing close-up shots of the bees. How did you film those?
We had two teams, one team for the human side and one team for the bee side. A lot of things we shot in a bee studio we had built in Vienna, in an old factory with a lot of surrounding areas with wilderness. We had our own “acting bees,” 15 hives with different races. We had a kind of bee whisperer—we prepared in the studio what we wanted to film, and he would look in the hives to see where it was going on. We had cameras that are able to shoot 70 frames a second. They could even shoot 2,000, but that’s too much.
What was the toughest bee scene to shoot?
The mating scene was one of the most complicated things. We knew where the drones were, the congregation area of the drones in the mountains. Every day in the afternoon they come between 2 and 4 p.m. The drones are waiting for the queens, and it happens 30 meters up. We could build a tower, but only 10 meters. It was already scary to be up there. So we put the smell of queens onto a balloon and we let the balloon 30 meters up. Then we took the drones to our level so we could film them. The shots are maybe 30 seconds in the film and it took two weeks to do it.
What was the bee whisperer’s role?
He’s a crazy guy. He’s writing a thesis in philosophy and he’s a beekeeper, as well. So, for example, if we wanted to film the waggle dance, he knew we can’t do it early in the morning because the bees have to fly out and find something and come back and tell others what they have found. So after 10 a.m. maybe we could do it. He was observing where bees were coming back, flying back in the hive, and then he opened the hive and tried to find out where this bee is going to dance. Then he brought us and we had a chance for 20 seconds of filming.
So he knew what would happen and when.
Yeah, but it’s very tricky. We worked with lenses you use for operating in the human body. And if you have this lens, it takes quite a while to find [the shot], so you lose a lot of time. You have to start the camera before you are there, otherwise you’re a little bit late. So we had 105 hours of micro shooting for 25 minutes in the film.
You track some of the bees up close as they fly through the air.
We worked with a small helicopter with a camera on it. It was complicated. With a monitor, you can see what the camera sees and you can direct it.
So none of this was computer-generated?
No, no. These are all live bees, and I think you can feel it. Otherwise it would look like plastic. Normally people like bees, but on the other end they are insects and people are a little bit scared. So we wanted the public to really watch what they are doing. To create an emotional background for the story it was important that people like the bees. They are cute, they have hairy bodies, they are a little bit like pets.
Did your crew wear veils and protective gear?
Especially with the killer bees in Arizona, it was not possible to work without it. But it was also hot and you have this mask. In the macro studio, we were bored to wear it and decided we’d rather accept some stings.
How many stings did you have by the end?
We counted in the beginning—we had a list, a competition. And the winner in the beginning was always the cameraman. He had the veil, and with the camera on the eye the veil was on his nose. So the bees were stinging him on the nose. He looked like elephant man, it was terrible. We felt sad but we laughed so much because he looked so funny. Then we stopped counting. In the end I guess I would have won the competition. I was used to it and maybe the blood of my grandfather helped me.