MOVIE REVIEW: The Last Beekeeper


“The Last Beekeeper”
ScriptPhD Grade: A

The Last Beekeeper, a World of Wonder production.

The Last Beekeeper, a World of Wonder production.

A compelling, socially and scientifically significant new film is buzzing its way into the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival. From director Jeremy Simmons, The Last Beekeeper is a stirring new documentary that explores the ramifications of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the mysterious HIV-like pandemic killing bees en masse, on beekeepers, the pollination industry, and our ecosystem. The filmmakers follow the lives of three beekeepers over the course of a year, as they prepare and transport their bees to California’s massive annual almond pollination, an event that requires the assembly of nearly all American bees. In depicting their struggles, triumphs, and personal pain, the film delves into the scientific mystery behind CCD, the personal relationship that bonds an apiarist to their bees, and the lengths of devotion three human beings take to save themselves and an insect in crisis.

Nicole Ulibarri might have had a very different calling in life. Described by her family as smart and ambitious, Nicole got a college education and became a Seattle career woman. But she also comes from several generations of beekeepers, and the calling, along with anguish over a painful family loss, led her heart back to Montana, where she became a beekeeper. Eric Mills is probably the most interesting Southern-to-the-core gay beekeeper you’ll ever meet. Meticulous, obsessed, at times arrogant, and profoundly gifted at his profession, Eric sums up his philosophy: “If you take care of the bees, they will take care of you.” Matt Hutchins is the archetype of many blue-collar, self-made small business owners in America. His struggling rural Washington business has been decimated by dying bees, but Matt’s perseverance, sense of obligation, and love of his craft drives his desire to keep going. In 1996, the almond industry got a huge boost when California led research efforts on the health effects of almonds, leading to a doubling of almond consumption worldwide. California is the industry leader in almond production, growing 80% of the world’s supply. The caveat is that almonds are almost completely reliant on bee populations for pollination. As such, the yearly California crop acts as a sort of beekeeper’s “Yukon gold rush”. 75% of all American beekeepers head out to California yearly to pollinate almonds, and rely on this event to earn most of their income (approximately $150 for a full hive). Among them are Nicole, Eric and Matt. Would their hives survive the stressful voyage to California? Could they beat the unbelievable odds against them to make a year’s worth of work pay off?

What is Colony Collapse Disorder? Beginning in October 2006, some beekeepers began reporting losses of 30-90 percent of their hives. In 2007, 20 billion bees disappeared. This phenomenon, for which scientists have not been able to elucidate a cause, has been termed “Colony Collapse Disorder”. The main symptom of CCD is simply no or a low number of adult honey bees present but with a live queen and no dead honey bees in the hive. In a 2007 report prepared for Congress by the National Academy of Sciences National Research Council’s (NRC) “Status of Pollinators Committee”, several factors were isolated as contributing to CCD, including invasive parasitic varroa mites, introduction of Africanized honeybees to replace dying European colonies, resistance to antibiotics treating American foulbrood, the major bacterial disease affecting honey bees, poor nutrition, the small hive beetle, the use of insecticides in crop protection and the stress inflicted on dwindling US hives in almond pollination. In response to this crisis, the Agricultural Research Service arm of the US Department of Agriculture has released an action plan to mitigate honeybee losses from CCD. Heavily featured in The Last Beekeeper, Professor Dennis vanEngelsdorp and his group at the University of Pennsylvania are attempting to figure out the exact reasons bees are dying in droves. After conducting autopsies on thousands of dead bees, the sick bees were found to be bigger, darker, with alarming multi-disease abnormalities, indicating a systemic immunity collapse akin to HIV infection. Incidentally, for one of the best explanations of CCD and celebrations of beekeepers, check out this video TED Talk entitled “Where Have All The Bees Gone?” presented by Professor vanEngelsdorp, in which he delves into the gentle, misunderstood creature’s important place in nature and the mystery behind its alarming disappearance:

Beekeeping is an essential component of modern agriculture, providing pollination services for over 90 commercial crops grown in the United States. The honey bee adds $15 billion in value to agricultural crops each year, and the demand for honey bees is growing. The California almond crop alone uses 1.3 million colonies of bees for pollination, approximately one half of all honey bees in the United States.

Several important running themes are explored throughout this movie, with disappearing bees as the background context. Loss and devotion at all costs. Through all three stories told runs a profound sense of loss (whether Nicole’s personal tragedy or Matt’s hive devastation) and the cost of being a modern beekeeper. Matt’s decisions cause tremendous strife within his family, while Eric, whose partner quit his job to assist him with the business, sees himself as fungible compared to the bees. Bees as humanlike creatures. Through some very adroit camera work, Simmons is able to provide a rare emotional purview into the world of bees helping one another, working together, dying together. Above all else is the love of the bees. The beekeepers portrayed in this film make tremendous sacrifices, professionally and personally, but are motivated and driven because of a core love for the bees. At times gut wrenching, The Last Beekeeper effectively communicates the frustration and helplessness these caretakers feel.

If the current situation does not improve, the future for beekeepers looks pretty grim. As it stands, there are less than 1,600 beekeepers in all of the United States. (In 1950, there were 500,000.) At the rate they are dying, bees will cease to exist in North America by 2035. It is up to scientists, environmental activists, and ordinary citizens to take action, get informed, and prevent these assiduous, necessary, beautiful creatures from disappearing from our planet. At the end of the movie, sitting in his nearly devastated, ghostly apiary, beekeeper Jim Robertson sadly muses how much honeybees serve by nature. They make enough honey for themselves and everyone else, but we are constantly trying to get more out of them than they can give us. “It’s foolishness,” he remarks quietly. Foolishness, indeed.

The Last Beekeeper is a World of Wonder film, directed by Jeremy Simmons and produced by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. It premiered at the SXSW Film Festival on March 14th, 2009. It is an official selection of the 2009 Los Angeles Film Festival, and has two screenings: Saturday, June 20, at 2:30PM at the Regent Theater (already passed), and on Thursday, June 25, at 4:45PM at the Landmark 4. had the opportunity to talk with Jeremy Simmons and Fenton Bailey and get their in-depth thoughts on the film and the beekeepers. For a transcript of our interview, please click “continue reading”.

Interview transcript with Jeremy Simmons (director) and Fenton Bailey (producer) of “The Last Beekeeper”:

ScriptPhD: Listen, guys. Before I get to talking with you about the movie, I have so many questions and we’re gonna write up a beautiful review article on our blog. I enjoyed the movie immensely. It was really, really wonderful. And I just wanted to tell you on a personal level, when I saw the dossier for the LA Film Festival, and when I saw this move [listed], I kind of—my heart jumped a little. I knew I had to cover it on my website because my grandfather was actually a beekeeper.

Fenton Bailey: Oh amazing!

SPhD: Yeah, when I was a little girl, I grew up in Serbia, in Belgrade, and he was a beekeeper. He had ten of those really large, I don’t know what you call those boxes that they keep the honeycombs in. But he had ten of those in his garden, and he did all of that stuff. Like when I watched the movie, their beekeeper [suits] and the smoker, I could smell it, you know it brought back all these really incredible memories, and the honey that we used to have every summer. And I think my grandpa would have been really sad about what’s happening [to the bees]. So, I just wanted to thank you, because I watched it from an incredibly emotional place, and so it just really got to me. And I was not expecting that from a documentary. So, I guess my first question is [about] the material itself. Obviously this is an incredibly important environmental issue, and it hasn’t sadly been highlighted by the media, and it’s slipped through the radar. Where did you guys find the material, and how was it that it came across to you as “This movie has to be made. This is a documentary we must make.”?

FB: I’m gonna rush in an answer that question. Your response and what you just said was so moving and apropos, because, we made this film purely as an emotional film. We didn’t set out to try and scientifically investigate the cause of Colony Collapse [Disorder], We were trying to engage people’s emotions to this terrible thing that is happening. And that in a way is, to answer your question, because when the stories first started surfacing about bees disappearing, I was reading this book called “Six Degrees.” And Six Degrees is a book that documents what will happen on Earth with each degree of global warming. And it’s a horrifying book to read, and one of the scary things in is what they call the “Great Age of Silence,” which is where we wake up and because of these changes in climate and pollution and all the rest of it, the only [creatures] alive are us. There’s no birds, there’s no insects, very few other kinds of animals you know, it’s just us. And it’s this silence. And that just sort of struck this poetic feeling. And Jeremy [Simmons], who we’ve worked with many times over the years, is a poets’ director. He just directs emotionally. And it was about a story that we thought we wanted to tell, because I think it’s hard for people whose relatives aren’t beekeepers to have an emotional connection with bees. Bees are things that sting, and they’re little insect-y things. They’re bugs.

SPhD: Sure, absolutely. It’s interesting that you bring up the beekeepers and their emotional attachment to bees, because the beekeepers’ character really came through in this documentary. And I have to tell you, very surprising. Because when I read the synopsis, and I saw, “OK, we’ve got a beekeeper from Montana, a beekeeper from South Carolina, and a beekeeper from Washington” I kind of thought I knew what you were going to present. And when I watched the movie, I thought “Holy crap, these people are nothing like what I thought I was going to get.” You’ve got your gay beekeeper from South Carolina, you’ve got the career woman from Seattle who ended up nursing bees in Montana and you’ve got this incredibly emotional guy up in Washington, very sensitive. Was that a surprise for you guys as well, their characters? They defy stereotypes, very much so.

Jeremy Simmons: Well I think what they all have in common, though, is that the bees are incredibly important to all of them. They’re very, very passionate about their bees for one reason or another. And the more I got into meeting beekeepers and researching the documentary, the more I knew that the central figures had to be very, very passionate, had to care about the bees in a really special way. So that’s one of the foundations of the whole documentary.

SPhD: It really came across well, I have to tell you. That was the sort of intertwining theme that ran through all of them. And not only their devotion to the bees, if I may extrapolate one step further, but the impact that it had on them personally, especially with their families.

JS: That’s exactly right.

SPhD: Because all three ultimately, I think Matt and his wife, there was this real strain between them because of this, and Eric, there was this one moment in the movie, if I can use the word cold and chilling, when he says “Well, you know I can always find another partner, but the bees can’t be replaced.” And you’re just sitting there going “Oh my god.” The impact on them, in their personal life, I think is what really shocked me on an emotional level.

FB: I’m so glad that you say that, because I think again it’s like, people, they know the bees go, we’ll make do, we’ll find some other way to make it up and sort it out, And just by simple virtue seeing a simple connection between the bees and their caretakers and how economically or emotionally it’s devastating, we don’t really have to do anything more than that, because it’s like a ripple effect. You know, the bees matter. It’s all about the bees.

SPhD: Well, I think watching my grandfather take care of the bees, I came from a place of real understanding. I remember watching him, I was old enough to know, and there was this real tenderness in watching a beekeeper with their bees. They’re isolated, the relationship, the bond, it’s very personal. And I think when I saw these three people, who were so different from each other, it’s amazing how they all had in common, and that tenderness was what resurfaced in watching them take care of their bees, talk to them, the sadness of the deaths. Unbelievably emotional stuff. How did you settle on the three final beekeepers? I’m very curious what the process was in choosing these people.

JS: I think it evolved from what I was talking about earlier. I was looking for people who were so emotionally connected to the bees for one reason or another. They just saw it immediately and that’s really how I found it. I knew right away was when I found the beekeepers that I wanted to focus on, I knew. I need to follow these three beekeepers. There’s no question in my mind.

SPhD: So you did interview and talk to a number of beekeepers in the process?

JS: I met almost every beekeeper in this country. I mean, there’s probably less than 1,000 beekeeper, so you go to conventions, you hit the road and you meet a lot of them.

SPhD: Wow. And what was their reaction to participating in the documentary?

JS: Well, most of them really wanted to be a part of it, and I think it’s because of the angle that we were taking on this documentary. It wasn’t that the beekeepers themselves were bad, and were ruining the environment. I think with some other pieces that had been the case. I don’t believe that. I think that these are people that love their profession, love the bees, and most of them are—they love the environment. They wouldn’t call themselves that, but they are. And the focus of this documentary was not that they’re the problem, the problem is much larger. And they’re victims as we all are, of something much bigger.

SPhD: Definitely. In fact I thought it was really cool that you pointed out the Catch-22 of the almond pollination. On the one hand, the stress on the bees is tremendous, because when they should be resting they’re on the road, they’re in these crates, and then on the other hand, without this pollination, they don’t survive, they need to do it. So that was a really interesting angle. Any surprises for you guys during the making of the movie?

JS: Well I think early on when I was researching it and I was talking to dozens of beekeepers, the one thread that all their stories had in common was this almond pollination. Nobody spelled it out for me. But as I started to meet every beekeeper, you realize that there’s the central focus of their entire year’s work. For almost every beekeeper in this country. I mean, it’s amazing. You hear that a third of our food is dependent on bees and all that is true, but a lot of these crops, bees help with the crop. So, they make the berries bigger and juicier, and more of them. Almonds? There’s absolutely no almonds without bees.

SPhD: And I didn’t know that before I watched your movie. I was really surprised about that, I had no clue about it.

FB: And there you see it’s kind of an irony, because the almond has been championed as this “Health Nut”. And so, ironically, it’s the pursuit of health, but they’re ostensibly this green thing that’s kind of causing the problem.

SPhD: Oh definitely! That’s why I pointed out the Catch-22. I mean it really was kind of a bitter irony throughout the movie, that the thing that’s keeping the beekeepers in business and the thing that is helping the bees to stay alive is also the thing that’s killing them. And it’s such an interesting conflict right now, that we have to decide what we’re going to do in this regard. Jeremy, if I can pay you a compliment on a directorial level. I thought that some of your camera work choices in this movie were amazing in terms of the storytelling. And it’s really interesting that Fenton mentioned that you were an “emotional director”. Two spots where I thought your camera choices really helped the movie. Number one: you do some close-ups on the bees at a couple of instances that I think anthropomorphizes them. And we don’t often do that with insects or these little creatures. It made them look like people. The first instance was where the one bee had the varroa mite on it, and then the other bee was climbing on it with its little—I don’t know what you call their hands, their little—

FB: Yeah, their little paws!

SPhD: I’m just curious, you used a macro lens for these closeups?

JS: Yes, a super macro lens.

SPhD: The other instance was—and I think the far more emotionally impactful one—was where the one bee who was still alive was circling the dead bee. And at first, it kind of was trying to help it, turn it over, trying to figure out what was going on with its mate, then there’s the realization that this bee is dead and it just walks away. And it’s like this silent scene, like you’re watching the Discovery Channel, but it made me so sad. You made them into human-like characters.

JS: You know the more I got involved in this project, and we started shooting the bees with these macro lenses and following them individually, you start to realize that there’s so much that we don’t know about insects. So I would ask some of these scientists, you know I’m watching the bee help this other bee out by getting rid of the varroa mite, and interestingly, they don’t know—there’s research going on right now to figure out why some bees will help out a bee in crisis, and other bees won’t. Some bees make that choice, and other bees will not. And they don’t know what the reason for that is. And it’s really interesting when you watch how they behave with each other, it’s hard not to anthropomorphize them.

SPhD: I thought it was spectacular because they became kind of like a character within the film, too. And by being able to empathize with them on that level, of anthropomorphizing them, which we don’t often do, it fed in to you being able to connect to this film on a deeper level and to absorb the material. The other area where I thought your camera work was amazing was when Matt got the results of his audit. And you just focused on him, and nobody said anything, there was just this close-up on him and it was silence and you knew. And I thought that was incredibly powerful. He just climbed back into his truck, and you kind of as a moviewatcher went through this process of “Oh I hope it’s good news!” to “What is the news?” to you just know. So I just want to congratulate you, because I thought those choices were really incredible.

FB: You are such an attentive watcher, it’s such a joy to hear you say that. That’s brilliant.

SPhD: I just wonder what your takes are on the three beekeepers. If you guys could sum up in a couple of sentences what your takes of them were. Because the movie very much gave them an angle that I think was true to them, and I was curious if you could sum up what your thoughts were on Nicole, Eric and Matt.

FB: Well you know, my thought is that, to me, they’re all very different characters, yes. And they have these moments where they seem unsympathetic. There is Matt being almost selfish in his pursuit of sticking with it against economic adversity. Or Eric, equivocating about whether he needs his partner, his partner being kind of disposable. Or even Nicole, in a way, doing this thing out of this sense that she feels guilty for her father’s death. And yet, to me, they all have incredible grace. And I think that’s what makes them so compelling. They’re all just showing grace under pressure.

SPhD: And since the movie has been finished, how are they doing? Have you guys followed up with them?

JS: Yeah, there’s been some interesting developments. So they’re all three doing OK. Matt did stick with it for another year.

SPhD: And how did it go?

JS: That was a very difficult year. Of course I wasn’t there for it, but I did call him every couple of months. But he decided to stick with it, and this year his bees did much better. So that’s good. Eric didn’t grow his business because his bees did start to decline, so he decided to spend all of his time and money refocusing on his existing hives and keeping them strong. And he has maintained those hives.

SPhD: Oh good! And he and his partner are still together?

JS: Yes they are, last I heard, they are.

SPhD: And Nicole?

JS: Well, it’s been a kind of interesting development since we finished shooting the film. She sold off a lot of the business, but she—and what that means is that she sold off a lot of her land where she kept her bees. And had a difficult time selling the pieces themselves, because it’s not a private industry. And sometimes it can bee hard to sell the actual bees. So she actually is still running a very reduced number of bees and she has them to this day, and she relocated to a small place in Ojai, [California], and last I talked to her, she had a change of thinking about it. She was happy with running a small number of bees. So that’s a big change.

SPhD: Well, that’s good to hear, because she was kind of devastated at the end of the movie. There was a deep sadness and I’m really glad to hear that she’s on the up and up. Last question, to sort of end things on a future note. After I watched the movie I sort of felt like even though you didn’t start out to make a scientific film, per se, I still feel like this is more than just a documentary. You could easily use this as a didactic tool for educating people about [CCD] and for enacting change on a legislative or a scientific level. Is there any plan to use it in this capacity in the future?

FB: I think that would be great. I mean, because I think the key for any kind of education process is to engage people’s interest. And I think what Jeremy has made is a film that’s so emotionally powerful, it’s very hard not to get engaged, interested and want to learn more. I know that there’s a great documentary about bees out there, it won a Peabody I think. The PBS one. [SPhD note: PBS’s Nature program called The Silence of the Bees.] And it goes into the science of it. But to me, even though it’s got more facts in it, it doesn’t teach you nearly as much as Jeremy’s film. And I think this could be a fantastic educational tool. I would love to—there’s a whole different distribution for educational DVDs, and I would love to get into that circuit.

SPhD: Or even just spreading word and getting this into the right hands. Well I just wanted to let you gusy know that I have my ticket, I plan on seeing it again on Saturday on the big screen, and of course voting, that’s the important thing, and I want to wish you the best of luck in the LA Film Fest competition. It’s been a real pleasure, thank you so much!

FB: You should come say hi to us at the screening, we’ll be there!

SPhD: I will do, I wish you guys all the best. Thank you for joining us, on behalf of

This post is dedicated to the memory of my late grandfather, a proud beekeeper.

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  1. Jenny
    7:33 pm on June 23rd, 2009

    Pretty nice post. I just found your site and wanted to say
    that I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts. Anyway
    I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

  2. admin
    9:20 pm on June 23rd, 2009

    Thanks Jenny! Always appreciate new fans! We will have lots of fun coverage this summer of good movies and tv, along with pop culture pieces.

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