To keep bees or not to keep bees — that is the question facing those fighting to keep their endangered profession alive in “The Last Beekeeper.” In this bittersweet docu, director Jeremy Simmons finds three apiarists who love their honeybees as much as they love the people in their lives, leveraging their enthusiasm to help humanize the overworked critters. Simmons’ sincere approach reps a welcome change from World of Wonder’s usual semi-exploitative standard, though it’s hard to imagine the pic traveling beyond the realm of TV or DVD.
Prompted by alarming drops in the worldwide bee population, Simmons’ pic primarily addresses what this means for those who tend the hives (the field has shrunk from 500,000 pros in 1950 to fewer than 1,600 today). But lost jobs are the least of the crisis’ potentially terrifying consequences, and though Simmons never gives in to Chicken Little histrionics, the implication of a world without bees suggests yet another “inconvenient truth” to excite the doomsday crowd.
Little is understood about colony collapse disorder (CCD), an epidemic that wipes out entire hives at a time, and what scientific reasoning “The Last Beekeeper” does provide raises more questions than it answers. Still, talking-head experts offer their best layman’s take on the challenges bees have faced over the past few decades (from pesticides to stress to particularly unpleasant “vampire mites”), but nothing proves more compelling than the central beekeepers.
Despite radically different backgrounds, these three subjects cling stubbornly to their field, offering compelling human-interest stories in the relatively short time Simmons spends with them. Montana native Nicole Ulibarri inherited the family business after her father’s tragic drowning, sacrificing her chosen career to keep his legacy alive. In backwoods South Carolina, honey-loving Eric Mills tries to find a balance between tending to his “girls” (the bees) and his neglected gay partner. Already on the brink of switching careers, Washington state resident Matt Hutchens starts the season down 800 hives, resorting to a last-minute supply from Australia to meet pollination requirements.
What these apiarists have in common, apart from their passion, is a dependence on the California almond crop. According to the docu, the state accounts for 80% of the world’s almond supply, a point it makes in hammy educational-filmstrip style before going on to illustrate how such agricultural practices ripple throughout the global ecosystem. For the beekeepers, the task entails driving hundreds of hives cross-country to pollinate the trees, culminating in the drama-ready process of checking to see how many survived the trip.
The outcome proves appropriately devastating (for dramatic purposes, at least), with Simmons observing his characters’ most soul-seaching moments. His attempts to wring tears from sad-bee footage is less successful, and no amount of slow-mo can elevate the sight of a lone honeybee surveying the carcasses of its fallen mates into a Pieta.
In what could be the influence of producers Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato, this would-be tragedy is offset by a wry, humanistic sense of humor. While the subject raises near-cosmic questions, the film is fairly pedestrian in its shooting and structure.
Fates have changed since filming wrapped, with Ulibarri rebuilding her diminished brood and choosing to suffer those stings and arrows of outrageous fortune after all.