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New film seeks answer to mystery of vanishing bees

By Mike Collett-White

LONDON (Reuters) - A new documentary seeks to unravel the mystery of why billions of honey bees have been disappearing from hives across the United States, and concludes that the chief suspect is pesticides.

"Vanishing of the Bees," which has a limited theatrical release in Britain from next week, follows the fate of a group of U.S. beekeepers hit by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which first struck in 2004 and made U.S. headlines three years later.

Countless bees would suddenly vanish, leaving an empty hive but few bodies, and the phenomenon has variously been linked to mites, disease, genetically modified crops, mobile phones and, in the words of one beekeeper, "PPB," or "piss-poor beekeeping."

While the cause has yet to be established, the film suggests there is a link to pesticides, and particularly those applied to seeds as opposed to sprayed on existing plants.

Other factors could also contribute, it added, including the fact that bees are being transported long distances to pollinate single crops, or monocultures, rather than producing honey.

The dominance of monocultures in U.S. agriculture means crops flower only once a year, and so cannot support indigenous insects. So devastating were the effects of CCD that beekeepers started shipping bees from Australia to meet U.S. demand.

U.S.-based directors George Langworthy and Maryam Henein argue that the problem goes beyond the disappearance of the insects. One third of everything we eat is pollinated by bees and without them farming could be thrown into chaos.

"They are one of our most ancient allies," Henein said in an interview in London. "We actually depend on honey bees to eat. May be out of selfishness it raises a red flag."

Langworthy added: "It's a broader issue about the system of agriculture. People are going to have to rethink it and maybe they don't want to. It really will have to be driven by the general public's call for change."

"FAITH AND CREDIT CARDS"

The film makers said they paid for the 90-minute documentary with a combination of their own money and outside funding.

"We started shooting here and there on the weekends, but once we started to learn about the story we realized it was of vital importance," Langworthy said of the $500,000 picture.

"We just went off on faith and credit cards. We felt this was hugely important and quit our jobs and put our all into it."

Vanishing of the Bees, which celebrates the honeybee and its contribution to our food supply, travels to France, where in 2004 the government restricted the use of Bayer CropScience's Gaucho insecticide on the grounds that it may harm bees.

A spokesman for the company, which features prominently in the movie, contested some of its findings.

"Where these products have been restricted (as in France) they have seen zero improvement," said Julian Little, spokesman for Bayer CropScience, a unit of German drugs and chemicals group Bayer AG.

"It is also true that the healthiest bees are in Australia, where they don't have the varroa mite but they do use a lot of neonicotinoid seed treatments. Neonicotinoids are safe when used properly. Let's not pretend this is an objective documentary."

Langworthy said changes to the way people farm in the United States would have to come from the public.

"I'm very optimistic, because when you look at the situation you could parallel it with global warming, which no one had ever heard of 10 years ago. We're on the cusp of this becoming a mirror of that progress in the system of agriculture."

Vanishing of the Bees opens in selected British theatres on October 9. Henein said she hoped for a U.S. release next spring.

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