Arts & Events

Film Review: Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us?

Reviewed by Gar Smith
Tuesday March 29, 2011 - 06:05:00 PM
Queen of the Son
Queen of the Son
Yvon Achard
Yvon Achard

Queen of the Sun is hardly the first documentary about the world’s vanishing honeybees but it may well be the best. We’ve already seen The Vanishing of the Bees (narrated by Ellen Page) and Kevin Hansen’s Nicotine Bees, but Taggart Siegel’s Queen is the first Bee-Movie that has the potential to reach a mainstream audience with an essential “tipping-point” message.

Let’s hope there is still enough time left to make a difference. 

The visually gorgeous and well-scoredQueen has at least two things the other B-movies lacked: (1) an opening sequence that features a young, half-naked woman dancing outdoors, covered in bees. (2) French beekeeper Yvon Achard, who professes his “love for the queen” as he lovingly brushes his bushy moustache over a frame covered with bees and proclaims, “They love it!” 

Bees have been in decline for generations but the underlying problem has been disguised — year after year — by a number of unsustainable, short-term techno-fixes — such as flying cargo planes filled with “healthy” bees halfway around the world from Australia to pollinate crops in the US. (This practice of “migratory bee-shipping” also spreads exotic diseases that wind up killing bees when they mix in the fields.) 

Back in 1923, scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner observed what was happening in fields of his Austrian homeland and correctly predicted the honeybee’s global tailspin in 80 years. It was in 2005-2006 that “colony collapse disorder” (CCD) swept through a dozen countries around the world, leaving hives mysteriously empty. 

Without pollinators, of course, Earth’s flowers, fruits, and vegetables will not bear the harvests that help protect humanity from starvation. (And the planet’s birds would die off, too.) In the US alone, we have lost an estimated 50 million colonies. As one of the film’s beekeepers notes, without bees “all we’d have to eat would be bread and oatmeal… and a couple of nuts.” Or, as the filmmakers put it: “Bees are the engines that keep the Earth in bloom.” 

Queen of the Sun enumerates all the problems that have been identified as contributing to the vanishing of the bees — climate change, pesticides, habitat loss, and industrial agriculture’s dependence on chemical-intensive mono-cropping — but goes beyond the complaints to spotlight the alternatives that are already proving effective in the all-important here-and-now. 

It’s a familiar diagnosis and it has a familiar cure. CCD is just another symptom of the industrialized world’s unsustainable, high-tech, short-term, oil-dependent, profit-directed approach to life and the solution is: “Back to the future.” 

Three of the film’s main voices belong to Berkeley’s Michael Pollan (author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma), India’s Vandana Shiva (author of Stolen Harvest) and Virginia’s Gunter Hauk (author of The Honeybee Crisis). 

Pollan describes the horrors of modern agriculture through the lens of California’s Central Valley almond orchards, where bees are enslaved by commercial interests that force-feed them on corn-fructose, ship their hives (wrapped tight in weatherproof plastic) thousands of miles by truck, and release them to labor in fields permeated with pesticides. Shiva paints a worrisome picture of chemical agriculture, which compels bees to negotiate vast rows of identical, genetically modified plants shrouded in envelopes of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides. In one stunning stat, the filmmakers note that (unless you’re wearing organic fibers) it took a third of a pound of pesticides to produce the cotton T-shirt you’re wearing. 

Hauk, who runs a biodynamic farm with his wife, Vivian, is a hands-on practitioner of the ancient beekeeper’s craft. Humans have been successful beekeepers for more than 10,000 years but it is only with the dawn of the Age of Oil and the invention of “modern” agriculture, that the survival of bees (and polar bears, and tigers, and ancient forests, and fresh water, and clean air, and tolerable climates, and so much more) has been put at risk. 

The Hauks have created a 610-acre “honeybee sanctuary” that demonstrates how you can save bees by first saving the land. Rejecting Monsanto’s approach of “solving the hunger crisis” by increasing the use of chemicals and genetically engineered “frankenfoods,” the Hauks are following a different course — healing the land using nature’s slower, but proven, methods (think diversity, organic compost, and natural inputs of seed, sun and water). 

While mainstream scientists keep looking for a technological “silver bullet” to “overcome” the problem of collapse (both at the level of the bee and on the scale of an entire planet), the beekeepers, environmentalists and deep-thinkers interviewed in this film have all come to the same conclusion: the solution lies in accepting that we need to abandon our current way of doing things and return to a simpler, more practical, ways of living. 

If the world is going to survive, we need to relearn how to (as the cliché has it) “live in balance with nature.” Globally, we need to halt the use of dangerous pesticides (like the neonicotinoidsthat attack a bee’s nervous system). Carlo Petrini, president of Slow Food International, minces no words on this issue: “Bayer [which has a production facility right here in Berkeley — GS] is responsible for the use and production of pesticides that kill bees.” In the US, part of the work of restoration should include a campaign to create “bee sanctuaries” in every state. What “the wisdom of the hive” teaches us is that collaboration is natural and powerful. If we hope to save ourselves and our planet, we first need to be prepared to save the bees. 

“Queen of the Sun” opens at the Elmwood Theater in Berkeley on April 1 

Bee-friendly Resources: 

Information on bees and pesticides. Contact the SF-based Pesticide Action Network: 

Backyard Beekeeping Class, April 17. Berkeley Ecology Center: 

Bay Area Beekeeping Clubs: