BeePeoplecoverGrade: B (what else?)
Entire family: Yes
2014, 102 min., Color
True Mind
Not rated (would be G)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: English Dolby Digital 5.1
Bonus features: B-

I don’t know of too many families that say they sit down and watch documentaries together, but I do know plenty that watch reality shows on TV, and this title is for them.

Bee People looked like a film that was going to tell me more about something that I already know: that honeybees are in steep decline, and that anyone who appreciates the little things in life (like flowers, fruits, vegetables . . . trees) ought to be worried. In other words, I expected a documentary with the usual blend of voiceover narration, “bee-roll,” and talking heads.

We get some of the information, but really, Bee People comes closer to a reality show like Treehouse Masters, where you follow an amiable and fun-loving expert (or two) as they go about their business—in this case, answering calls to remove beehives from unwanted locations, relocating “swarms,” establishing new hives for people willing to host them, visiting schools and conventions, mentoring new beekeepers, and shadowing other bee people to see how they do it.

Bee People does have a thesis: if these creatures who’ve survived millions of years without much evolution are going to continue to survive and provide the help with pollination that’s essential to life, it’s going to take more beekeepers. And rather than a small number of beekeepers with huge numbers of hives it’s going to take a village of beekeepers, one every two square miles.  

I’d do my part, but our backyard is way too small, we have a tiny dog who’d vote “no” if he could speak, and I’m not real crazy about the first rule of beekeeping: “If you’re gonna be a beekeeper, you’re gonna get stung.”

The proof? We do watch a young boyfriend and girlfriend who are introduced as “aspiring beekeepers” and are suited up to be on hand when the expert bee people guide an 11-year-old beekeeper through his first honey harvest. And yes, the boy gets stung.

BeePeoplescreenThat’s okay. Beekeepers, you begin to realize, are a socially and environmentally conscious bunch who love to laugh and who wear those bee stings like badges of honor. In fact, we meet one woman who’s one of the rare people to have been stung by a queen bee—ones with stingers that go deeper into the flesh because there’s no barb to stop them. We also meet a family in which a boy who got the most stings competes with the boy that got the most severe sting.

Like Pete Nelson, the Treehouse Master, these experts are passionate, enthusiastic, casual, and ready to laugh or joke whenever the opportunity presents itself . . . and that would be just about all the time.

We get to watch a number of bee people in action, but the ones that we mostly follow are Gregg McMahan, better known as The Bee Guru; “Mr. Bill” Schlenker; and The Bee Medic, Mike Gallagher. Sometimes they road-trip with a female beekeeper named Leslie Ellis, or travel across country to visit The Bee Cop, “Tony Bees” Planakis. Sometimes they suit up, and sometimes they don’t. But they’re always cracking jokes and they seem to be having more fun than most people—maybe because what they’re doing attracts a certain type of person.

“You become an instant badass,” laughs female beekeeper Leslie Ellis. And it’s the badass side of beekeeping that’s subtly celebrated in this film, which really does seem similar in structure and treatment to those Treehouse Masters episodes. So if you like reality shows, you’ll appreciate a film where you hear words like “colony collapse,” “festooning,” or “washboarding,” but don’t hear a voiceover explaining the science behind it. It’s as if the filmmakers deliberately didn’t want to turn this into a dry documentary about bees and instead wanted to stick with a reality-show style film that follows beekeepers as they do their thing, in the hopes that more people might see their brand of crazy fun and think, Hey, I’d like to do that.

Even the big expert, an author of three beekeeping books (Dr. Larry Connor) keeps it short and simple, advising that interested people should 1) Get a mentor and 2) Commit to at least five years and do the research, because there’s a darned good chance that, given the rash of colony collapses brought about by a multitude of factors, you might lose your first hive of 20,000 or 40,000 bees.

So this isn’t an informational film to the degree that we get a lot of detailed explanations. Any information is snuck in, almost secondary to the film’s focus on the personalities of the people who are keeping bees and advocating for honeybees. Interspersed are segments in which the bee experts quiz people on the streets about their knowledge of bees, and there you’ll learn that the hive consists of some 95 percent “girls,” that the average worker bees live 30 days in summer or 4-5 months in winter, and that 60 percent of hives have been lost every year since 2006. No one is completely sure why, but the filmmakers’ theory is that if there were a tighter network of hives with each one no more than two miles apart from another, it might make a difference.

Note the word “might.” None of these people is a scientific expert, but when we watch how much they know about bees and follow them, fascinated, as they go about their business, it’s not much of a stretch to believe them. Obviously, older children who are fascinated by science and nature will respond better to this than very young ones, but who knows? These people’s enthusiasm is contagious.