The following are interview responses taken with Director, Taggart Siegel by The Press daily newspaper in Christchurch, New Zealand. Feel free to re-print any and all content from this text.
1. What drew you to this as a subject matter for a feature film?
I had no idea about the importance of honeybees until I read an article in 2007 that bees were not only so crucial to our environment, but that they were dying out on a mass scale, a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder. The article had a quote attributed to Einstein which scared me enough to get me to pick up my camera and dedicate the next three years of my life to this film. The quote read, “If bees die out, man will only have four years of life left on earth.” Even though this quote has been since disputed, it had a lasting effect on me, and the truth is that bees are so vital to our planet that we can’t afford to lose them.
2. How did you find all your interview subjects around the world? In particular how did you choose your NZ subjects?
Many of my subjects were complete surprises and turned out to be very charismatic. There’s bee historian Yvon Achard who tickles his bees with his mustache and recites poetry to his bees, Sara Mapelli, who danced with 12,000 bees on her body, and Ian Davies, who likes to go up on his rooftop in Hackney, London where he keeps his beehives and spend time with “his girls”. Philip, his step son, who was once the youngest beekeeper in the U.K. names all of the queen bees after the Queens of England.
Coming off of making The Real Dirt on Farmer John, which was about an eccentric maverick farmer, I had a passion to find biodynamic, natural, organic and alternative beekeepers who were doing things differently and had unique insight into many of the possible causes for bee decline across the globe. I focused on biodynamic beekeepers because of a prediction made by Rudolf Steiner who lectured on bees and biodynamic farming. In 1923 he stated that bees would die out in 80 to 100 years due to industrialized beekeeping and over queen breeding.
For the New Zealand subjects, what inspired me was spending the last seventeen years living part-of the year in Pigeon Bay in Banks Peninsula. I wanted to capture the beauty of New Zealand and their long history of beekeeping, including Sir Edmund Hilary, who was a beekeeper. In New Zealand I focused on Warren Thompson and his wife and three daughters from the south island around Hanmer Hot Springs. Warren has a passion for the honeybee, which is so small but creates so much honey. Each member of the family is a beekeeper. The daughters roll beeswax candles to sell at the market to help pay for their ponies. I wanted to capture the close relationship this family has with nature and especially Warren’s insights into how to keep bees and nature strong without artificial influences that ultimately weaken the bees. The other great beekeeper was “Big Hands” Roy Arbon, who is an organic beekeeper on the west coast near Punakiki. Roy jokingly says he is a “honey robber” but in his honesty, he has a deep love for his bees and a firm belief that the genetically manipulation of plants and the systemic use of pesticides are really destroying bees. He is worried that many of these neonicotinoid pesticides are already in New Zealand and will cause a lot of harm in the long-term if we don’t do something to stop them.
3. What were the biggest challenges of filming around the beehives?
Believer it or not, often I didn’t wear any protective bee gear. I took my cues from the beekeepers and wore what they wore. The challenge is to be calm and peaceful while you have this big black camera with an intimidating looking microphone, that, with the muff on it, that looks like a bear coming in to steal the honey! Bees seem to sense your fear. If a bee landed on me, I would very still and give it time. Still, after being around millions of bees, I did get stung a few times, but as the beekeeper would often say, “It’s good for arthritis! Plus, remember, they gave their life to protect their hive!”
4. What do you think is the biggest challenge facing beekeepers and what can the general public do to help?
The number one problem with agriculture is monoculture, the growing of one crop over vast expanses of land. Monoculture is also the number one problem for the bees. Beekeepers used to keep their bees in one place, now in order to pollinate the food that we eat, beekeepers must load tens of thousands of hives onto semi-trucks and travel from crop-to-crop, sometimes driving thousands of miles in one season. The bees are often fed genetically modified corn syrup, and as Michael Pollan says, “Nothing is more viscerally offensive than feeding the creators of honey high-fructose corn syrup.”
We’ve created a food system that demands of the beekeeper to buy-into this migratory beekeeping because that’s where the money is, but the problems we are seeing affect the bees are largely due to this very system. This form of industrial agriculture is very destructive for the bees, who are under great stress from the transport and then are set forth to pollinate crops that have been often been sprayed by pesticides. The bees encounter foreign climates by traveling, they encounter foreign diseases from other bees transported to the same crop, the beehives and chemically treated to fight these diseases, which in turn lowers their immune system, and you are creating a domino effect of problem begetting problem.
Beekeepers are seeing high rates of losses every winter, often double the norm–with some beekeepers reporting losses of 90% of all of their hives. These beekeepers are often stretched thin to meet the demand for pollination from these mega-crops. And the European Honeybee now nearly completely relies on man to survive! There is no longer area for bees to live in the wild in many, many areas and the neonicotinoid pesticides we use on our crops are highly toxic to bees, who have a very limited immune system.
There are many ways we can all help from simply planting a diversity of flowering herbs and wildflowers in our yards and gardens, to writing petitions to congress to ban the use of neonicotinoid pesticides and stop the proliferation of genetically modified plants. Supporting chemical-free beekeeping buy purchasing local, raw, organic and chemical free honey is also a great way you can support a growing movement of beekeepers who are concerned with fighting the decline of the honeybee.
Recently, the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand introduced a special advance screening of QUEEN OF THE SUN. They have petitioned the government to suspend the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, which kill bees, until ERMA has reassessed them.
To learn more about how you can help, we’ve started a new section on our website http://www.queenofthesun.com with ten things anyone can do to help the bees.
5. How easy was it to get financing and distribution for the film? Is it becoming tougher?
We started making QUEEN OF THE SUN during the heart of the economic collapse in 2008. During the worst time you could POSSIBLY ask for money we were writing countless grants and seeking funding. It was very, very tough at points but this made it even more rewarding to see the film to completion. The film was a labor of love for both Jon and I. We believe very deeply that the public needs to know about the decline of our planet’s pollinators, who keep the earth in bloom. As the film came together, we received a great deal of support from a growing movement around the bees, including many small donations. We were also fortunate to receive a number of awards on the film festival circuit.
The distribution realm for documentaries is changing everyday. We are distributing QUEEN OF THE SUN through our own non-profit organization Collective Eye Films which we have grown into an independent distribution company with the release of QUEEN OF THE SUN. We will work strongly with the grass-roots in all of our outreach for the film, and we are ecstatic that a growing number of theaters in the U.S. , Canada, and New Zealand will be playing QUEEN OF THE SUN this spring and summer. We hope that QUEEN OF THE SUN can do what documentaries are meant to, inspire our imaginations, create real discussion and foster change even in those who may never once have thought about the bee.
6. Are you fans of honey and how do you prefer to eat/drink it?
Of course! A teaspoon a day is a wonderful way to start the morning. We love honey, especially Rata honey, Manuka honey from the tea tree in New Zealand which has a great medicinal value and healing properties. Raw honeys are like fine wines, no two are alike. If you can, try eating it straight off the comb.
7. What was the most alarming/surprising fact you uncovered while making the documentary?
Bees are so mysterious and so full of wonder. I was taken by the nuptial flight, where the Queen flies 600 feet up into the air toward the sun to mate with a whole swarm of drones. This allows her to lay 1500 eggs a day, more than her own body weight in eggs, each day! It’s also incredible to think that honey never spoils. They found honey in the tombs of Tutankhamen that is over 2000 years old and still edible.
8. What is up next for you?
Mushrooms. Mushrooms really are important! Like beekeepers, mushrooms hunters and mycologists around the world are a colorful bunch. Mushrooms are poisonous, like bees, but are very beneficial to the planet. Maybe I’m fascinated with how mushrooms can save the world in their own small way.