Review: ‘The Pollinators,’ starring Jonathan Lundgren, Dave Hackenberg, Davey Hackenberg, Susan Kegley, Samuel Ramsey, Leigh-Kathryn Bonner and Dan Barber

June 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

Dave Hackenberg and Davey Hackenberg in “The Pollinators” (Photo courtesy of 1091)

“The Pollinators” 

Directed by Peter Nelson

Culture Representation: Taking place in various U.S. states (including California, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota and Pennsylvania), the documentary “The Pollinators” interviews a predominantly white male group of scientists and agriculture workers about the pollination crisis affecting the U.S. food industry.

Culture Clash: Most people in the documentary say that animal pollinators are dying at alarming rates (thereby negatively affecting the food chain), and government agencies are doing little to assist farmers and other people who are asking for help.

Culture Audience: “The Pollinators” will appeal mostly to people who have an interest in the U.S. agriculture industry and environmental issues.

Susan Kegley in “The Pollinators” (Photo courtesy of 1091)

If there’s one message that the documentary “The Pollinators” wants to make loud and clear, it could be: “Make pollinator habitats great again.” For anyone who needs a basic science lesson, pollinators are animals (usually flying insects, such as bees) that transport the pollen that fertilizes planted organisms. Pollinators, which are an essential part of the ecosystem and our food chain, are dying at crisis numbers. However, the sounding of this alarm is dragged out in this extremely boring documentary that could have and should have conveyed what people need to know in less than 60 minutes, instead of the documentary’s total running time of 92 minutes.

“The Pollinators” is the feature-film directorial debut of Peter Nelson, a longtime cinematographer, who has more than 30 years of experience as a beekeeper, according to the movie’s production notes. All of that experience serves the documentary well, since the cinematography is very good, and the filmmakers clearly tapped into a very impressive network of experts to be interviewed in this film.

The problem is that, although this documentary is very well-intentioned, “The Pollinators” comes across as an instructional film for aspiring beekeepers, farmers or other people who want to be in the U.S. agriculture industry. If we’re being honest, most people in the general public just don’t care about this pollinator problem, unless they can see examples of how it can affect their grocery expenses. “The Pollinators” could have done a better job explaining the pollinator problem from the viewpoint of how an end consumer can relate to it, since this film is being made available for sale and rental to the general public.

Since “The Pollinators” will test the patience of people with short-attention spans, here’s the pollinator problem in a nutshell: Pollinators are dying at faster rates than ever. Most pollinators cannot be moved from their natural habitat. Honey bees are exceptions, which is why farmers have to pay to bring honey bees onto their farms. However, even the populations of honeybees are being stretched to the limit, particularly with almond crops.

What’s causing the increasing death rate of many pollinators? What can be called the three “p’s”: parasites, pesticides and poor nutrition. Parasites and pesticides are usually the causes of poor nutrition. Samuel Ramsey, an entomologist at the University of Maryland at College Park, calls the Varroa destructor (a parasite about 1/15 the size of the average bee) as “public enemy number one” for the existence of honey bees.

As for pesticides, they’re almost always used by farmers because food buyers usually want their fruits and vegetables to look “perfect,” with no natural blemishes whatsoever. That perfection is more likely to be achieved by keeping non-harmful insects off of crops through pesticides. But the dichotomy is that the pesticides are also killing off the pollinators needed to fertilize these crops.

Neil Hinish—a fruit grower/owner of Hinish Orchards in Roaring Spring, Pennsylvania—says in the documentary that he would be happy to have fruit growing without chemicals because the chemical/pesticide treatment is “a major expense for me. That [chemical/pesticide treatment] and labor are my two biggest expenses. But we have to use [chemical/pesticide treatment] to get the fruit people want to buy.”

Dan Barber—chef/co-owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown, New York—has this observation about the pollinator problem: “The instability is there because of our food choices, not because there’s some evil empire trying to destabilize our red basket to the world. If anything, it’s because we’ve demanded an alarmingly small diversity of grains that feed us.”

However, the people on the front lines of farming say that there definitely is a government problem, specifically with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In “The Pollinators,” the outspoken father-and-son beekeeper team of Dave Hackenberg (the father) and Davey Hackenberg (the son) of Hackenberg Apiaries talk about being stonewalled by the EPA. Davey says that the EPA should be renamed the CPA for “chemical protection agency,” since the EPA seems to be serving the best interests of chemical companies, not the farmers and beekeepers. Dave says of the EPA: “No, they’re not protecting me,” and he comments that EPA officials are swayed by politics, big political donors, and fear of losing their jobs if they report serious problems.

And about that bee shortage problem: Susan E. Kegley—co-owner of the organic farm Bees N Blooms in Santa Rosa, California—comments: “I think the general public should know that our food system is being threatened by the fact that our bees are in trouble. They should care about because they eat food.”

Perhaps the people in the documentary are so used to being around bees that they’ve forgotten that many people in the world just don’t like being around bees, for fear of being stung. Just look at what most people’s reactions are if they see a bee buzzing close to them. Therefore, advocating for bees is an uphill battle, since these animals still have to overcome the image in the general public of being insect nuisances that can cause harmful stings.

Jonathan Lundgren—a scientist/farmer who is CEO of Blue Dasher Farm and director of Ecdysis Foundation in Estelline, South Dakota—says something that’s been said in many environmentalist documentaries: “There is a real sense of urgency right now. Climates are shifting because of how we’re producing our food. That also gives us a large-scale opportunity, because our system is so extensive, to solve these planetary-scale problems.

The academics and scientists interviewed in “The Pollinators” also include author/environmentalist Bill McKibbon; Penn State University retired senior extension associate Maryann Frazier; Penn State University emeritus professor of entomology James Frazier; Bee Informed Partnership Tech-Transfer Team member Ellen Topitzhofer; Penn State University’s Center for Pollinator Research director Christina M. Crozinger; and entomologist Jeff Pettis, a former research leader at USDA-ARS Beltsville Bee Lab.

On the farmer or beekeeper side, interviewees include Adee Honey Farms owner Bret Adee; Prospect Hill Orchards farmer Steve Clarke; Bob’s Bees beekeeper Bob Harvey; Browning Honey Company co-owner/beekeeper Zac Browning; Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture farm director Jack Algiere; Hackenberg Apiaries beekeeper Steve Mohr; Criswell Acres farmers Lucas and William Criswell; Ard’s Farm owner/farmer Alan Ard; and Bee Downtown founder/CEO Leigh-Kathryn Bonner.

Much of the “The Pollinators” doesn’t really present these important issues in a way that the average non-farmer can understand, as there are some technical discussions about particular insects and pesticides and how they specifically affect crops. An example of what the documentary could have mentioned to make it easier to understand for laypeople is name examples of the types of fruits and vegetables are most at risk of having shortages if this pollinator crisis continues. Another much less important problem for the documentary is that many of the talking heads in this movie aren’t exactly what can be described as “charismatic” or “compelling.”

It isn’t near the end of “The Pollinators” that some of the interviewees give some practical advice for what U.S. consumers can do to help solve the pollinator crisis. Most of the experts in the documentary agree that real change begins with the consumers, not the government. Here are some tips:

  • Be more aware of where they food comes from and where it’s been grown.
  • Try to buy directly from local farms.
  • Buy a larger diversity of food.
  • Buy more organic food.
  • Don’t be overly concerned with buying fruits and vegetables that look “perfect,” because a higher demand for “perfect” means a higher demand for pesticide use.
  • Buy honey that was made in the United States to support U.S. farmers.
  • Start more urban bee habitats (where they’re legal) to help the bee population.

Unfortunately, because these helpful tips don’t come until near the end of the documentary, this advice might not be seen by the people who will be turned off by the very dull and long-winded stretch from the previous 80 minutes of the film.

Documentaries aren’t like scientific studies, where only the facts are necessary. People who watch science-based documentaries expect more than just facts. Viewers also want to to be told a story and see appealing personalities, not just hear a series of facts repeated, over and over. And therefore, people who aren’t in the agriculture industry and people who aren’t avid environmentalists will have a hard time staying interested in watching “The Pollinators” until the very end.

1091 released “The Pollinators” on digital and VOD on June 16, 2020.