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Pollinators, The
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by Jay Seaver

"The business of beekeeping."
3 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2019: Mention bees and farming to most people, and certain images leap to mind, along with the specific ways that human beings have messed up the natural order of things. These ideas are not necessarily wrong, but they are incomplete, sometimes in surprising ways. "The Pollinators" comes from deep enough inside this industry that one must sometimes account for a skewed perspective, but it presents a picture of modern agriculture from a point of view few think about, and does so in a way that is properly alarming but not necessarily alarmist.

Director Peter Nelson, a beekeeper himself, spends most of the film with others doing the same work, starting with old hand David Hackenberg of Hackenberg Apiaries. His company's business is not primarily honey or mead or wax candles, but the bees themselves: Though it is common knowledge that bees are vital for pollination, there simply aren't enough wild bees to go around; colony collapse disorder is not the issue that it was from 2005 to 2008, but between pesticide use and the way American industrial agriculture often tends to vast fields of one type of crop, native pollinators are stretched thin and in some cases threatened. The solution is folks like Hackenberg putting hives on pallets, and pallets onto trucks, and going where they're needed. It's possible because pollination seasons for different crops are staggered, but supply isn't far from demand and California's almond crop requires almost every bee-for-hire in America

One wonders, watching this, just how many systems like mobile apiaries their food supply relies on, and just what sort of state they're in. That these businesses are already stretched thin enough that things like a breed of mite which attacks queen bees or the adoption of new pesticides can create a genuine crisis gives the film a bit of urgency and something like a story, but in a lot of ways it serves to illustrate the way that this business seems genuinely odd to outsiders, with these living, autonomous things treated as equipment. It's an odd feeling to go from close-up photography of bees seemingly behaving like they're in the wild to a clearing full of dead ones because a neighboring farmer sprayed their crops without warning. Queens are replaced and rotated like engine parts.

The object of this is not necessarily to make viewers uneasy with the entire state of agriculture, but to examine this specific aspect of it and ponder how it works and what this combination of biological and industrial techniques means. The first half is full of fascinating information about a part of the industry that is invisible and unknown to the general public, and Nelson presents it clearly, although the scale of it can be a challenge: Nelson goes from California's almond groves to Maine's blueberry fields with several stops in between, which often means following different sets of people who know each other professionally and come at it from the same perspective, enough for them to kind of blur together.

The second delves into general agriculture and the issues with it, and while that's just as important, it's not as immediately fascinating; most people seeing this movie have probably heard of regenerative farming or any of the broader issues and proposed solutions brought up. It's useful to see this thing that often seems too big to grapple with tied to something specific, and a useful reminder that this is one big set of issues of which the bees are just one part.

The border between documentaries built around education and advocacy can be thin, and "The Pollinators" crediting Burt's Bees as a "premiere sponsor" is the sort of thing that may have viewers looking at it a bit askance. As with most documentaries, one is probably wise to use it as a starting point to learn more, grateful that it showed where a gap in one's knowledge can be found.

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originally posted: 08/25/19 11:24:36
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2019 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2019 series, click here.

User Comments

1/30/20 Kenneth Jackson As a farmer and beekeeper I tuned into the regen message acutely. The film is powerful. 5 stars
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