Once upon a time, we revered bees. The world's religions celebrated the little winged insects that alchemized sunlight into honey and worked in concert to create geometric patterns in wax secreted from their own bellies. And for 150 million years bees flourished in the meadows and forests of the world, pollinating a staggering four out of every 10 foods we eat. (We know this is true because Michael Pollan tells us so.)
These days, we stick hibernating honey bees in boxes swaddled in Saran Wrap and load them onto semitrailers bound cross-country. We pour high fructose corn syrup into their hives to hype them up and whore them out to vast monoculture farms to pollinate more corn and almond crops unable to sustain their own bees, stressing the hives and making them sick with viruses from foreign bees. We spray the bees' own wild turf with pesticides that act as neurotoxins; decimating their sense of direction, making it impossible for them to find their way home. In 2006, half of America's bees abandoned their hives. The technical term is "colony collapse disorder," but it's pretty much bee genocide. And when we kill bees, we sting ourselves in the process.
Queen of the Sun, the vivid new documentary from Portlanders Taggart Siegel and Jon Betz (the same team behind The Real Dirt on Farmer John) packs a wealth of disturbing and delightful info nuggets about these buzzing harbingers of doom in less than 90 minutes. It flits from country to country, capturing mystical human-to-bee connections from a woo-y molecular biologist who lives in his own giant beehive house in Switzerland to signs of hope in Gunther Hauk's bloom-filled Illinois bee sanctuary. There is a 70-year-old French bee historian who likes to tickle his bees with his bushy, blond Gene Shalit mustache ("See? Zey like it!"). We meet the U.K.'s youngest beekeeper, who started a colony on his grimy London rooftop when he was 9, and a backyard keeper in New York, fighting to overturn the city's ban against bees. (Don't ask me who the topless, dancing hippie woman covered with a writhing shirt of bees is; the movie never tells us.)
It's all a little overwhelming, but, then again, so is the level of destruction that industrialized agriculture has wrought on these insects in the past few decades. If anything, Queen of the Sun forces us to stop and question the swarm around us—both human and insect—before it's too late.
opens Friday at the Hollywood Theatre. The film kicks off the first-ever City of Portland Honeybee Week, which includes a Tour de Hives of local backyard beehives Saturday, Sept. 25.