In 1984, New Zealand band This Kind of Punishment released an album entitled A Beard of Bees. Being a fan of most things Kiwi, I acquired a copy which remains in my possession today and even gets played occasionally (in fact, I’m listening to it as I write this). It’s a wonderful example of New Zealand indie music, but until seeing the new documentary Queen of the Sun (opening this Friday at the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood), I hadn’t given the phrase ‘a beard of bees’ much thought, never mind pondered its etymology and meaning.
Queen of the Sun’s arresting first image — that of a young woman covered with hundreds, if not thousands, of honey bees — provided a clue. A quick rifle through the tubes of the internets revealed more: placing a queen bee in a cage and hanging it around your neck will attract her friends and family, who will land on your face and upper torso, thus creating a beard effect. This, it seems, has been going on for both fun and profit since the 1700s.
The film is, however, concerned with something a little more serious than this somewhat outré hobby: the causes of Colony Collapse Disorder, the still not fully understood phenomenon that has decimated bee populations throughout North America and Europe over the past few years. Bees pollinate approximately 40% of the food we eat; without them, mass starvation is all but guaranteed (unless, of course, Soylent Green finally becomes a viable source of nutrients).
The film examines a number of possible causes. Is pesticide usage weakening and killing bees? Is it modern agriculture’s reliance on monoculture, which denies bees the ability to pollinate more than one variety of plant? Or is it simply stress, caused by bees being transported across the country? (Before seeing this film I had no idea California’s almond crop was pollinated by bees imported from both out of state and abroad.)
A wide range of experts expound on the problem, including local lads Raj Patel, currently a visiting scholar at Cal’s Center for African Studies, and Berkeleyan and J-School Professor Michael Pollan. Both subscribe to the mono-crop theory, with Pollan also pointing the finger at those germy foreign bees.
Completed last year, Queen of the Sun does not make reference to the October 2010 report issued by an independent group of scientists which posited that a deadly new virus, IIV6, and the fungus Nosema ceranae were responsible for Colony Collapse Disorder. It does suggest, however, that answers may be found in Western Australia, where chemical usage is banned for the treatment of hive diseases and parasites — and Colony Collapse Disorder is unknown.
Queen of the Sun is a beautifully shot introduction to a subject of critical importance to our future. It’s also a great way to introduce older children to documentary film — the subject matter is simple to grasp, there are some delightful animated sequences, and kids love insects — though even the biggest bug fan among the under-12 set might blanch at the idea of wearing a beard of them!