“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
— Aldo Leopold in the foreword of “A Sand County Almanac”
Honeybees are a beautiful example of unity. They are united in their colonies, and they unite us all in their contribution to supporting life on earth. However, honeybees are in danger. They are dying at alarming rates and their natural ways of life are under constant threat. Current beekeeping practices leave bees susceptible to harm from things such as parasites, pesticides and poor nutrition.
Cameron Nielsen’s new documentary, “Rewilding Honeybees,” illustrates the power of the humble honeybee, and it investigates efforts being done toward their conservation. I had the opportunity to chat with Nielsen, a first-year student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, about his film, what rewilding honeybees entails and how to be a steward of nature.
Nielsen started beekeeping at the age of 17. Under the tutelage of Michael Thiele, the champion of an approach to bee conservation called “rewilding,” Nielsen’s passion for honeybees blossomed.
“I was enamored with the bees. The beauty of the comb, the way they sound and smell and how they all work together as one unit,” he says, sitting in his backyard. A log hive, where his rewilded bees live, hovers in the tree just behind him.
Nielsen set up his first hive in the summer of 2013, only to see that all of the bees had died by fall. “When I went out one day and the box was empty, I was really frightened.”
He had no idea why they had died. “So, I started doing some research,” he says, “and the bees are dying at an alarming rate; it wasn’t just me. There’s this whole global phenomenon that, at the time, they were calling Colony Collapse Disorder.”
Colony Collapse Disorder, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, is a phenomenon characterized by a majority of worker bees leaving or disappearing from their colony. Usually the queen is left behind along with some food and a few nurse bees.
There are several theories behind Colony Collapse Disorder, but researchers now focus on some of the following factors: the invasive varroa mite, a honeybee pest; pesticide poisoning; the stress experienced from standard beekeeping practices and transportation; habitat loss or change; inadequate nutrition; and immune-suppressing stress caused by one or more of these factors.
As an environmental storyteller, Nielsen helps audiences find unity and reconnect with honeybees.
Nielsen was very affected by what he learned and thought that other people needed to be aware of the devastation sweeping bee colonies. He decided he might be up for the job of telling that story.
After high school, he attended Quest University Canada in Squamish, British Columbia, where he designed his own undergraduate degree program: “I really wanted to study how to communicate environmental issues, specifically honeybees.” His major revolved around the question of how to best engage people in the importance of honeybees.
During this time, Nielsen came across an initiative to save the bees started by the muralist Matthew Willey called The Good of the Hive. Willey is painting 50,000 bees — the number present in a healthy colony — around the world to spread awareness about honeybees.
In connecting with Willey, Nielsen was given the opportunity to contribute to the effort by making a film about The Good of the Hive initiative. Without much experience, he picked up a camera and began filming.
It wasn’t until he came back to California that Nielsen realized Thiele’s approach to beekeeping with log hives was revolutionary. “With the contemporary boxed-hive system in commercial beekeeping, we’re losing 40-50% of our honeybees every year,” he explains. “In the wild, this does not happen.”
It wasn’t until he came back to California that Nielsen realized Thiele’s approach to beekeeping with log hives was revolutionary.
“Rewilding Honeybees” takes a closer look at Thiele’s method of rewilding using log hives and investigates our relationship with the environment, or rather, lack thereof. “Rewilding,” Thiele says in the documentary, “means to reconnect to the instinctual preferences of honeybees.”
Here’s how it works:
Thiele takes a log and hollows it out to create a small cavity inside. Then, he creates a roof from plexiglass for rain protection, a removable door to see inside, as well as entrances into the hive at various points for the bees. With a pulley system, the log hive is dragged into a tree at least 15 feet off the ground because that is what bees prefer.
Straps secure the hive to the tree, and then it’s just a matter of getting the bees to swarm into the log hive.
Bees create a substance called propolis. “It’s a tree resin that honeybees take from trees to seal cavities within the hive,” Nielsen explains. “Often what we’re trying to do is take a little bit of that substance, diffuse it with high-grade alcohol and spray on the entrances and inside of the hive.”
When it’s time for the bees to swarm (their natural way of reproducing), they come and find the log hive. In spring, beehives become extremely overpopulated. This is another reason log hives are functional for communities, because when the hives get too big, the bees create a new queen, Nielsen explains.
The new queen stays with the original hive, while the old queen goes off to find a new one. Half or more of the colony will follow the old queen, and as the log hives are constructed in such a way that they smell like home, the bees naturally choose to move in.
Having multiple log hives in a community will strengthen the bee population, benefiting the local agriculture and ecosystems and building resilience for the honeybees.
“So what we’re trying to do is, is create local honeybee systems, where the bees are able to naturally move into their own hives and control the spaces and distances that they are from each other. They create locally adapted genetics, so they can survive better in whatever climate they’re living in.”
Nielsen believes that letting people see bees — really see them — is another necessary step in their conservation. He aims to make bee conservation an accessible issue and allows his audiences to experience the life of the bees in his film.
“The amazing thing is that there is oneness in multitude, and we have to look through the multitude to fully see the oneness,” Thiele says in the film as he peeks through the door of his log hive, exposing the community of honeybees and the network of honeycombs.
Nielsen believes that letting people see bees — really see them — is another necessary step in their conservation.
“Honeybees are just beautiful. The way they live, the flight, you know, you can capture it on camera in such a stunning way,” Nielsen says. “Without showing those visuals, it is much harder to connect with and relate to them.”
One of the messages Nielsen’s film gets across very clearly is how deeply everything is connected, and that we as humans have a responsibility to care for the land and respect the fragility of the ecosystems. More specifically, bees and humans are intimately connected through food.
In the documentary, we hear from Cornell University professor Thomas Seeley, who explains that honeybees provide 50% of crop pollination services. “If humans want to have agriculture and food,” he says, “our fate is tied in with that one species.”
Nielsen’s and Thiele’s mission is very similar to that of Aldo Leopold and his land ethic. Ethics are the moral principles that direct members of a society or community to treat one another with mutually beneficial respect. Leopold’s land ethic expands this definition. Earth’s community, to Leopold, includes humans, of course, but it also includes plants, animals, soils and waters — what he calls “the land.”
Like Thiele, Leopold envisioned a new relationship between people and the land that is deeply interconnected and believed that contact with the natural world is crucial to our understanding of it and connection to it. In his essay, “The Land Ethic,” he famously wrote, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Nielsen’s experience with honeybees has taught him the value of individual action and being a steward of nature. As an environmental storyteller, Nielsen helps audiences find unity and reconnect with honeybees. As a beekeeper, he plays a part in helping save the bees in his community.
An important aspect of nature stewardship to Nielsen is the acknowledgment that everything is connected: “You might not think that putting pesticides on your farms would throw the whole ecosystem out of balance, but when you use pesticides it throws the honeybees off, and then the crops can’t be pollinated.”
Through his own experience working with Thiele and as a beekeeper, Nielsen’s worldview grew. “I think of things in a more holistic way, and realize that the whole cycle of life is very fragile,” Nielsen says. “The whole ecosystem is very fragile, and we have to think carefully about what we’re putting into the environment and how we’re manipulating nature.”
To Nielsen, stories are one of the best ways to affect change. As a filmmaker, he aims to bring the viewer into the story to help them relate to and empathize with the honeybees in new ways. “I really hope that I can continue to bring stories into the world that help inspire people to realize that it’s essential to change the way that we interact with our natural world,” he says.
“Rewilding Honeybees” is currently in the film festival circuit. The film is also available on Vimeo for purchase at this time.