I’ve watched Colony several times now. The synopsis as given by the filmmakers says “Colony documents a time of unprecedented crisis in the world of the honeybee through the eyes of both veteran beekeeper, David Mendes, and Lance and Victor Seppi, two young brothers getting into beekeeping when most are getting out. As Mendes tries to save the nation’s collapsing hives, the Seppi’s try to keep their business alive amidst a collapsing economy.”
This may be the documentary they wanted to make, but it doesn’t actually seem to be the one they did make.
Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is touched on in the film, but as one person (Randy Oliver) puts it, sometimes things like this are cyclical and happen for no particular reason other than it just does. Maybe it is systemic pesticides, maybe it is disease, maybe it is the stress that bees face due to the migratory nature of commercial pollination, maybe it is some combination of these and other factors, or maybe it’s something else altogether, but the film itself takes no particular stance on it, nor does it offer any steps that any individual could take to help. Dave Mendes is featured, talking to groups about pesticides, trying to get people together to do something (in the film, what this may be isn’t entirely clear). Outside of the film, anyone interested in bees at all knows that Mendes is all over the place talking about the need for research and so forth, but this isn’t really touched on in the film. There are some shots of a congressional hearing talking about money for research, but nothing more than one might get in a summary story from CNN or the like.
The rest of the film focuses on the Seppis, a religious family running a commercial operation in California. Most of that focus is not on the effects on CCD on their operation – although there are some points where they do talk about dead hives – but on their negotiating attempts with almond farmers to get a certain price point per hive for almond season. While this holds some interest for people really interested in beekeeping, I imagine this would be fairly boring overall. Quick summary: almond farmers pay migratory beekeepers a price per hive to have bees to pollinate the short flowering season in the fields. With hundreds of thousands of acres of almonds in California, as you might guess this involves a lot of money in the end: with an estimated 1.4 million hives required to pollinate, do the math at even a hundred dollars per hive.
And this business side, I think, is where people like me begin to really think about what’s going on in this film. Before I get into that, though, I have to point out one of the most irritating moments about this film, which involves one of the Seppi sisters talking about the hive. While holding a frame covered with bees, she points out the queen, and says, “They’re somewhat of a matriarchal system.” No, they are a matriarchal system. That’s what it means when the female of the species is in charge, making the decisions, and doing the work. She mentions the queen lays all the eggs and the workers do the nursing, cleaning, and foraging, and says, “But they wouldn’t be there without the male.” After pausing, she gives a little smirk to the camera, and spouts this gem: “You have to remind feminists that.”
OK, which feminists would that be? The ones who never got out of sixth grade biology and know nothing about reproduction? Or the ones uninterested in the submissive woman line touted by certain religious sects – the women (and men!) who happen to be the ones who fight for equal rights for women, and in the past managed to get women not to be counted as chattel, to be able to go to school and receive an education, to be able to work in the same fields as men, and got the right to vote? Those feminists? None of those I know think men are unnecessary or think that complete separatist living is the way to go – those types, like the people who seem to think feminism is a dirty word or that women should just give up their own dreams to accede to what someone else thinks they should do are, fortunately, fringe and rare.
On to the business side. The son who appears to be the primary force of the beekeeping business, says they had 1200 hives (and they want to “bless” farmers with their bees). During the film, the discussions with farmers talk about pricing between $140 and $170 per hive for pollination. For convenience, let’s just say a thousand hives. That’s a lot of money either way. At one point, though, the mother says that the parents are pumping in $20,000 above what the business makes to keep it afloat. Ignoring all the other income (the dad works as a teacher, apparently, and the family may have almonds of their own), as a businessperson myself I have a hard time understanding why it isn’t possible for them to run this business and live on $150,000 a year, even after expenses knock out part of that gross income, especially when they’ve had a few years of managing the business under their belts. Now, I don’t know anything about their accounting or their books or their expenses, but if you’re in the hole that much each year, perhaps you need to take some business classes or exit the field, because something is not right.
In the end, this was a rather unsatisfying documentary, and likely to be not something terribly interesting except to those of us who keep bees (or will be keeping bees).