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A real bee man takes on “Bee Movie”

Nov. 23, 2007

Roger Repohl keeps bees in The Genesis Community Garden in The Bronx, NY. His bees make a mighty good honey, PLUS, he gives funny and wonderful talks about bees and beekeeping. He can now add movie reviewer to his list of talents.

SEINFELD'S WORLD OF DRONES
by Roger Repohl

Here, take this little True/False quiz on honeybees. See if you know more about them than Jerry Seinfeld does.

1. Honeybees have yellow bodies with black stripes.

2. Male bees have stingers.

3. Male bees go out to gather nectar from flowers and are the principal workforce inside the hive.

4. Worker bees select one job in the hive when they are young and do it for the rest of their lives.

5. All the bees in a colony are cousins.

6. Bees have no use for pollen themselves but suck it up and spray it over flowers because they somehow know pollination is important for the ecology.

7. If a colony of bees has enough honey to meet their needs, they will stop working.

8. Beekeepers enslave the bees for their own profit. Their slogan is, "They make the honey, and we make the money."

9. Beekeepers use smoke to suffocate the bees.

10. Many people are petrified of bees.

Here are the answers:

1. False. Honeybees have brown bodies with black stripes. The yellow-and-black insects are yellowjackets, the wasps that go after your picnic and give honeybees a bad name.

2. False. Only female bees have stingers. The male bee’s similar organ is for sex.

3. False. Male bees, appropriately named drones, do nothing at all except to fly out to look for and mate with a virgin queen (and to die in the process). The rest of the time, they lounge around inside the hive, being fed and cared for by the females, who outnumber them about 200 to 1. In the fall, the females push them all outside, where they starve to death.

4. False. Worker bees, all sterile females, perform many different tasks in the hive, depending on their age. They spend the last half of their six-week lives as foragers, gathering nectar and pollen from flowering plants.

5. False. All the bees in a colony are sisters and brothers, the offspring of the queen bee.

6. False. Bees bring back pollen to the hive and convert it into “bee bread,” their source of protein. Honey is their carbohydrate. They eat nothing else besides these two foods.

7. False. As long as there are enough flowers, enough workers, and enough room in the hive, bees will continue to make honey, even though it’s too much for them to use. This is why beekeepers can take the surplus honey without depriving the bees.

8. False. Unlike cows, bees cannot be domesticated or trained; they will do whatever they want. The best that beekeepers can do is give them a decent home and fields of flowers and hope they’ll stick around.

9. False. Smoke calms the bees and when used in moderation will not harm them.

10. True. One tiny insect, especially in a car, will turn many people frenetic.

How did you do? Better than Seinfeld, I’m sure. Each of the above questions is based on scenes from his DreamWorks animated feature, Bee Movie. Only the last one is true, and his depictions of bee paranoia are uproariously accurate.

As a beekeeper who often gives talks to both adults and children, I wonder if there’s something bad about dishing out all this misinformation. I’m mostly glad this movie’s out there, since nothing makes a person realize the truth better than unmasking the lies. And after all, it’s just a cartoon. If you can make bees speak English, why can’t you make bee colonies look like the male-dominated American society of, say, 1967?

That’s what this movie does. As you probably already know, having seen it yourself, heard the reviews, or read the McDonald’s promotional packaging, it’s a fly-weight Bildungsroman starring Seinfeld as The Graduate. Returning from Bee College on the other side of the hive and smartly dressed in black and yellow ("My sweater is Ralph Lauren, and I wear no pants") (see fallacy #1 above), Barry B. (for Benjamin?) Benson is pressured by his “parents” (fallacy #5) to get a job (fallacy #3), not in plastics but in honey, the only industry in this company town. Dreading the thought of spending the rest of his life doing a single task (fallacy #4), he sneaks out to accompany the macho Pollen Jocks air squadron (#3 again) on their flight to vacuum up nectar and spew around pollen from the flowers in Central Park (fallacy #6, except that there actually are flowers in Central Park).

Separated from his unit and after brushes with death by tennis ball and windshield wiper, he finds himself in a flower shop and is saved from the swatter by the human owner, cartoon-comely Vanessa Bloom (no relation to Molly), voiced by Renee Zellweger. He does exhibit the drone’s drive to mate, but since the PG rating would be jeopardized and he doesn’t have the right fixtures anyway (fallacy #2), they settle for a platonically passionate relationship, giving new meaning to a woman’s cry, “You insect, you!” It’s a pity there’s no Mrs. Robinson, but there is a funny remake of the swimming pool scene.

The last half of the movie turns Marxist. Beekeepers are portrayed as capitalist exploiters of the apian working class (fallacies #8 and #9). Barry courageously takes the human race to human court and wins. All commercial honey is returned to the bees, who then grow so lazy by the surfeit that they quit working (fallacy #7), creating a pollination crisis that is solved by . . . well, you gotta see the rest for yourself.

Or else just forget about it. Like Seinfeld used to say about his TV series, Bee Movie is a show about nothing. Despite all the save-the-pollinators advertising (including a pre-movie plug by a chief exploiter, bushy-bearded Burt of Burt’s Bees), it has little to do with either nature or human nature. It’s clever and often funny, though you may find yourself wishing Jerry would ditch the bee costume — his face has always been at least as entertaining as his lines.

For millennia, at least as far back as the Roman poet Virgil, humans have looked to honeybee society as a model, utopian or dystopian, for their own. More interesting than Seinfeld’s drone-world would be a feminist treatment reflecting the actual world of the hive.

My mind is reeling. Imagine the queen bee in an asbestos pants-suit.

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