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Peter Nelson’s Documentary, “The Pollinators,” Shines a Light on Declining Bee Populations and a Call to Action

Beekeepers. Credit: Peter Nelson.

Some of the saddest and most alarming scenes in Peter Nelson’s documentary film “The Pollinators” involves dead bees. Lots of them. In one part of the film, a beekeeper scoops up handfuls of little carcasses from a pile of dead bees that surround a hive. In another, a bee pulls a dead fallen fellow out of the entrance of the hive.  “The Pollinators”—screened at the 2020 AAAS Annual Meeting in Seattle, Washington—tells a compelling story, one that includes mighty bee protagonists, villainous Varroa destructor mites, problematic pesticides and, importantly, a call to action.

Nelson says he’s honored and glad that his film was shown at the 2020 AAAS Annual Meeting. “There [were] incredible scientific minds that [were] there,” says Nelson, a beekeeper and a seasoned cinematographer and director who has worked for decades on a wide range of feature films, documentaries and commercials. “Science is extremely important, and is under attack,” he says. “There is so much misinformation about bees, climate change and science in general.”

Why should we care about the decline of bees? Bees are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we eat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). There are other animal pollinators, including birds, bats and butterflies, but they have dwindled in number due to factors like environmental contaminants, loss of habitat, disease and parasites.

“I think bees are incredibly fascinating and beautiful,” says Nelson. “[In “The Pollinators”] I wanted to show them in a different way, a loving way through macro and slow motion, and show their beauty and complexity. It was sort of a Zen experience for me—it happens every time I go into a beehive.”

Things like controlled farming, the use of pesticides and herbicides and fungicides, and the proliferation of crops like corn and soybeans (which have resulted in the reduction of natural grasslands and other wild areas where insects, birds, and other pollinators thrive), have all contributed to the endangering of the bees. All of these stressors that affect the bee population will likely lead to grave consequences for our food supply. “We’ve been seeing between 33 percent to half of the [bee] colonies in the U.S. dying every single year,” according to Samuel Ramsey, PhD, an entomologist at the University of Maryland in College Park who was featured in the film.

In particular, parasites like the Varroa destructor (a mite that latches onto and feeds on bees), pesticides and poor nutrition form a deadly triangle for bees, according to Ramsey and the other scientists. The mites weaken the bees and make them more susceptible to pesticides, and the pesticides further weaken the bees and reduce the number of bees that can go out and retrieve the food.

Now that native pollinators have largely disappeared and farming has become a lot bigger, honeybees have found themselves taking on the bulk of the vital pollinating work on their tiny wings. Honeybees are movable and can be shipped all over the U.S. The bees do their work during the day and come home at dusk; then the beekeepers pack them up and put them on trucks to move them at night so that they can be ready to venture out to work again at their new location the next day, says beekeeper Dave Hackenberg. Nelson calls beekeepers “ranchers, cowboys, and truckers all rolled into one.”

One of the scientists who put it best is Susan E. Kegley, PhD, an organic chemist and CEO of Pesticide Research Institute and co-owner of an organic farm, who says, “I think the general public should know that our food system is threatened by the fact that the bees are in trouble. And they should care about that because they eat food.”

Peter Nelson
Peter Nelson filming. Credit: Sally Roy.

Nelson hopes that his film will help raise awareness about the problem, and provide ways for humans to reverse the trend. Because beekeepers comprise such a small number of people, and so much of their work happens out of sight, many people don’t know what bees do and why they are so vital to our agricultural system. “It happens at night and in remote places,” says Nelson. “It’s a story most people don’t know but need to know.”

The film is currently available through Demand.Film, which allows local groups to organize screenings in their area, like a crowd-sourced distribution, says Nelson. More than 120 screenings have taken place by groups like beekeepers, farming and agricultural organizations, food groups, environmental organizations, gardening groups, and more. Nelson says he tries to go to as many as he can personally and will often enlist a beekeeper to introduce the film.

“The Pollinators” provides a beautiful and unflinching look at bees’ trouble-filled lives and tells us something we must pay attention to. However, it does so with hopefulness, expressed by the farmers and scientists who say there is a path to making bees and our land healthy again. Nelson hopes his film conveys the important message that there is something everybody can do, such as supporting a local beekeeper and every time we go to the supermarket, we can think about what we buy and who we buy it from.

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Katherine Lee