LOVE THE HONEY BEES
This blog is dedicated to providing information about the honey bee. We celebrate the honey bee through "An Evening in Honor of the Sacred Honey Bee" with traditional Bulgarian bee rituals, songs, music, poetry and dance.
Our second "Evening..." was held August 15, 2009 at Pt. Reyes Dance Palace, in celebration of the first National Honey Bee Awareness Day. Pictured are Gradina Balkan Music Ensemble: http://www.traditionalfun.org/gradina_about.html
Sacred Honey Bee Evening video clip, CLICK ON THE PHOTO TO VIEW
Click on this photo for a video of "Evening in Honor of the Sacred Honey Bee". Photo by Daniel Bahmani
Sunday 30 September 2012
With its populations in crisis and scientists baffled, the humble honey bee has a new, unlikely champion: Isabella Rossellini. The actor and model tells Tim Lewis why she has swapped life as the most glamorous woman in Hollywood for quirky conservation films and paper beards
Isabella Rossellini – actor, muse, style icon – sits on the ground, legs splayed. She's not in a good way: she has a pair of black eyes, her yellow and black tunic is rumpled, her antennae are bent all out of shape. Most alarmingly, her penis has snapped off and blood is seeping from her midriff.
An old man, who looks very much like Rossellini but with a lush beard made from shredded newspaper, leans forward, concerned. "What happened to you? You are severely wounded," he points out.
"I had sex," she replies matter-of-factly.
"What kind of sex?"
"Regular bee sex."
If you have been following Rossellini's career lately, this is a routine, unexceptional exchange; if you haven't, it might come as a shock. The daughter of director Roberto Rossellini and actor Ingrid Bergman, she started out as a model – most visibly as the face of Lancôme for many years. She then became an enigmatic screen beauty with a quirky edge, unforgettably in David Lynch's Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart. More recently Rossellini has made eye-catching guest-turns on Friends and as Jack Donaghy's estranged wife on 30 Rock.
Who knew, however, that the roles she was really born to play were animals and bugs: a sinister praying mantis, a voracious bed bug, a kinky dolphin? In 2008, when she was in her mid-50s, Rossellini unveiled a bizarre, provocative and often hilarious set of short films called Green Porno, made for Robert Redford's Sundance Channel. They are a scientific, X-rated look at the sexual proclivities of various creatures, told with a homespun, PG-13 aesthetic of handcrafted costumes and origami backgrounds. Rossellini wrote the scripts, performed and directed the action. She won awards, too, including a Webby – an Oscar of the online world. She followed it up with two companion series on mating rituals called Seduce Me.
Rossellini's new films focus on honey bees. Made with the cosmetics company Burt's Bees, the three two-minute vignettes detail different aspects of life in a colony. They show an imagined conversation between Burt Shavitz, veteran beekeeper and eccentric founder of Burt's Bees, played by Rossellini in drag, with the three types of bee in the hive: the queen, the workers and a drone. As with Green Porno and Seduce Me, they are crammed with odd facts and salacious details about sex (the drone suicidally leaves its penis inside the queen in a bid to guarantee paternity, the tragic injury alluded to earlier).
Accuracy has always been important to Rossellini – she took biology classes at New York University to research her films – but her latest work has a more explicit environmental message than before. Colony collapse disorder (CCD) has seen bee populations plummet by around 30% a year over the past decade, with the effects particularly heavily felt in the United States and Europe. A solution is desperately sought, and there are fearful predictions of what might happen. Not that Rossellini is getting all serious on us just yet. "I ask a lot of questions before I start, but I hope none of the depth remains in the films," she says. "I want them to be comical."
It's half an hour before the premiere of the films and we are sitting on a rooftop in downtown Manhattan, the sunset dipping behind the skyscrapers, drinking elderflower, honey and vodka cocktails (better, and stronger, than they sound). All of the drinks and canapés have been created to show off ingredients that would be in peril if bees ceased to exist. Extinction would mean no honey, obviously, but also none of the plants that worker bees are responsible for pollinating: apples, strawberries, almonds, cocoa and coffee, among something like 70 crops. That's one in every third bite – and most of the fun ones – in the developed world.
Rossellini is dressed down in a black trouser suit, but she is still a striking presence, with a natural, unfussy elegance. On the way to the event I stopped at a newsagent and noticed her smiling face on the June issue of Italian Vogue, photographed by Steven Meisel. It is her 24th Vogue cover and this time she's the face of the magazine's new global Health Initiative, encouraging a healthier approach to body image. It's a satisfying compliment for a woman who has just turned 60, but this world is not a big part of Rossellini's life now.
"I'd like this to become my principal activity: to make films about animals," she says. "Of course it's always interesting to model, but it depends who you are working with. I will continue to make acting, too, but I'm old – I'm getting tired of it. And at 60 you don't get many big roles – you have supporting roles most of the time – so there is time to evolve and do other things. That's how my films came about. I had more time, so I thought: 'OK, I'll go back to school; I'll study what I'm interested in.' So I'd like to follow what has been my hobby."
Rossellini points out that hers is hardly a high-fashion existence any more. She lives on a farm in Long Island, an hour or so outside New York, where she is surrounded by a menagerie of creatures. She keeps chickens and has a couple of pigs, and trains labradors and golden retrievers from birth for the Guide Dog Foundation. She is also a member of the local farming co-operative and is responsible for tending the beehives.
"I grew up in Italy and our country is a country of great agriculture and food produce," she explains. "It wasn't like I was urban and only knew about high-heeled shoes and purses and never knew where my eggs came from. When I grew up we always had our chickens and we ate our eggs and we ate our chickens. The family always had a pig and we would kill it at Christmas and eat it for three or four months afterwards. The only part I've lost is eating the one I know. That is New York. Many years in New York has made me urban, and I won't eat my chicken because I met him personally!"
Bees, in this sense, are perfect. "They have been domesticated to produce more honey, but still they are wild," she says. "So we can use them without killing them."
At the premiere, the shorts are well-received by the bee campaigners and aficionados, as are the chocolate-dipped strawberries that follow them. "The films anthropomorphise the situation a bit, they exaggerate a little, they use some artistic license but what they do is they get you curious," says Laurie Adams, executive director of the Pollinator Partnership, an influential bug-friendly charity. "And it allows people to see that they can play a role in helping to protect them."
"Isabella's really accurate with what goes on with bees," agrees Dr Christina Grozinger, an associate professor of entomology at Penn State University and one of America's foremost bee experts. "The films actually touch on a lot of points that scientists have been confused about for years. Like the fact that the queen mates up to 16 times; we are probably all surprised by how promiscuous she is. But recently it's become clear that colonies that are more genetically diverse are more resistant to diseases and they are also more productive."
No one, though, is becoming too carried away and the fact that bees keep disappearing – often overnight, without trace, like an alien abduction – creates a sombre undercurrent to the evening. Colony Collapse Disorder has been linked to parasites, pathogens and pesticides; one recent study was particularly suspicious of a pesticide called neonicotinoids, or neonics, which are widely used to grow genetically engineered corn and seem to make bees become disorientated. Grozinger and others, meanwhile, believe the strongest link is with habitat loss. The situation is further confused by the fact that the cases of CCD significantly decreased last winter, and yet still the overall numbers of bees lost remained around 30%. "We can say that bees that are in environments that have lots of plants seem to be doing better," says Grozinger. "Everyone hopes there's a silver bullet, but essentially it's like cancer, there's multiple causes. Each individual colony that dies may be dying from something entirely different. So at this point it's thought that it's multiple factors probably acting in synergy."
The situation in the UK is worryingly similar. There are around 30,000 beekeepers here and the honey bee is particularly valuable as a pollinator because it is smaller than our bumble bees, so can access more plants, and also travels more widely, up to three miles from the hive. Honey bees also put in a longer shift than other pollinators, starting in February and only clocking off in November. It's estimated that one colony, which will typically contain around 30,000 bees, can pollinate up to 300 million flowers in one day. As numbers dwindle, their absence is sure to have an impact on the environment around us.
"Within the next 20 years we will either see beekeeping surviving as an activity or we won't and the numbers will drop to 10,000 beekeepers in favoured parts of the country," says Robin Dartington, who runs the bee sanctuary Buzz Works in Hitchin, Hertfordshire. "We will certainly notice the effect environmentally. There are a number of trees that flower early and go on to produce berries that feed birds. Trees that require early pollination will fade and the countryside will shift to favouring plants that flower later, when there are other pollinators around. It's not to be taken for granted."
We can't necessarily rely on scientists to bail us out, either. Dartington has noticed a drop-off in research in recent years and now much of the funding is being left to interested parties, such as the almond and blueberry industries in the States and Burt's Bees, which uses bee and plant extracts in almost all of their products.
Rossellini hopes her films will help bring the subject to a wider audience and, once they have stopped tittering, they will do something to help the bees in the their area, starting with buying honey from local beekeepers. She has tried to do her bit, too: for her 60th birthday in June, she asked all the guests at her party to buy her bulbs, which she will plant in her garden next year for her bees to forage. "It will be great, because in spring I will see all my friends coming up," she says.
Momentarily she turns serious. "If you learn about nature you become fascinated by it and it's natural you want to protect it. If you know they do suffer, they do disappear, they do get killed, you start to take a responsibility. But I'm optimistic for the bees: I think people want to care for bees because of the honey. People like dessert."
To see the films, visit burtsbees.co.uk