Silence of the Bees
Interview: Filmmaker Doug Shultz

NATURE goes behind the scenes of Silence of the Bees with an interview with producer Doug Shultz.

What is the story you tell in Silence of the Bees?

The film actually encompasses three parallel stories. The first is the overall mystery of why the bees are disappearing, and the scientific investigations that are under way to try to understand this. The second is the surprising reliance that we have on this completely unnatural system of trucking bees around the country to pollinate our crops. This is something that I think has taken everyone by surprise. Third, maybe most fascinating of all, is the story of the honeybee itself. To understand the magnitude of the problem and what we’re losing, it’s important to appreciate how extraordinary these animals are, and the value of what they contribute to the planet. And to our plates!

Theories about the cause of CCD changed and expanded while you were in production and they continue to evolve now. How did that create challenges in the filmmaking process?

From the beginning we knew we were along for an uncertain ride — would we have an answer by the time production wrapped? But it was such a great detective story that we just stayed on top of the latest developments and maintained contact with all the key players to find out which theories they had crossed off the list and which they were still exploring. The biggest challenge, actually, was the research embargo. We knew our scientists had found something, but they couldn’t tell us what it was until the research was published. We were nearly finished with our edit by the time they were allowed to talk. So much of the time we were planning shoots based on our own hypotheses of what was going on.


Filmmaker Doug Shultz

Bee population decline has been recorded all over the world. How did you select the locations where you shot and the stories that you told in the program?

It’s true that bee populations are declining nearly everywhere, and not just from CCD. So we tried to target locations that served a purpose in the overall story. France stood in as a case study for pesticide use and its effects on bees. They have had some very intense clashes over this issue, and in fact have banned chemicals that we now use in the United States. We went to Spain because they have the highest number of commercial beekeepers in Europe, and last year they suffered massive bee losses. England was an example of controversy, where beekeepers claim they’ve lost up to two thirds of their bees, but the government still insists they don’t have a problem. We also went to China because in the south, there’s a region that sort of stands as a grim omen of what a world without bees could be like.

What are some of the practical and technical challenges of filming bees versus getting footage of larger animals?

Well, they sting. But the main thing is that they are very small and very fast. So because you’re focused on such a small area, you don’t have much latitude to move with them. It requires a great deal of patience. You set up your shot over a flower, for example, and you hope that eventually a bee will stop by and will stay within your focal range for a reasonable amount of time. When you’re shooting inside the hive, you really can only shoot for a short amount of time, because once the bees are stirred up, there’s really no calming them down. Bees also flap their wings at a speed faster than the known laws of physics can explain. We used the new Phantom HD high-speed camera to capture this at up to 1,500 frames per second.

What went into getting shots inside the hive?

The hive is really like one big organism, and we poked and prodded into it with a variety of borescopes and macroscopic lenses. The real challenge is that many of the most interesting behaviors happen on such a small scale that they can be incredibly difficult to capture. Olympus America generously brought out a new HD endoscopic camera normally used for examining the inside of a human esophagus — they wheeled it right out into a pumpkin patch in Pennsylvania for us and we stuck it in a hive. We also had the help of several very knowledgeable and patient beekeepers who were able to quickly find certain behaviors in the hives.

When shooting the hive scenes, your on-camera experts are all in protective gear and masks. Did the crew wear something too? Did people get stung?

We all wore bee suits, and learned very quickly to make sure we were completely zipped up. On our first shoot in Maine, it was pretty chilly, and the bees were looking for some warmth…inside our suits. We all got stung. The bees even attacked the windjammer on the mic because they thought it was a bear. Spanish bees are particularly aggressive, and in Andalucia we were wearing extremely thick, double-layered bee suits in 110-degree weather. No one got stung, but I think we all lost weight.

Once we became accustomed to being around the bees, we let our guard down a bit. I got stung again a few times in France and ended up with a temporarily deformed head. But we all still love bees.

For this production, did you put yourself through some kind of “Bee Boot Camp” to become familiar with the natural history of bees?

I started by reading as much as I could about honeybees and beekeeping in general, and there was much more to learn than I had anticipated. Bees and bee societies are incredibly complex. In the case of this film, all that information was just base knowledge, because the film was an investigation into CCD, not just the natural history of the bee. The real boot camp came on our first shoot with commercial beekeepers, actually seeing how the whole business works.


David Hackenberg unloading his beehives in Maine for blueberry pollination.

Do you have a favorite sequence in the film?

That’s tough, but I really like the scenes in Maine, where they’re distributing the hives in the blueberry fields, dealing with bear damage, etc. Every time people see this, they are blown away because very few people know this goes on. I also like the China sequence because what’s happening there is pretty hard to believe as well.

Did something end up on the “cutting room floor” that you wish made it into the film?

I wish we had more time in the film to spend with all the different beekeepers. They’re a special breed of people and their enthusiasm for the bees is infectious — by the end, we were all considering starting hives, ourselves. Unfortunately, because of the amount of information we had to wrangle into an hour-long film, many of these characters had to be cut for time.

What appealed to you about working for NATURE?

Well, I’ve always been a fan of NATURE, and as far as natural history programming goes, they are the best. This is something a little different for NATURE because it incorporates natural history into a more investigative, topical story. It was an appealing challenge to find a way to make that work, both thematically and stylistically.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I think it’s important to note that the CCD scare has brought some overdue attention to the importance of bees, but bees and other pollinating animals have been disappearing for at least 20 or 30 years. This is just the latest example of a worldwide crisis that until now really hasn’t received the kind of attention that something like global warming gets. But pollinator decline is just as important — and just as worrisome.

To watch an interview with Doug on the The Alcove with Mark Molaro, click here.

  • Nori Lane Bishop

    Thank you, Doug, for this important film. I’d like to make viewing it mandatory for all science classes in jinior high school, high school, and college, as well as all corporate meetings. I’ve been researching this topic for over a year, and this is the most comprehensive coverage and background than I’ve found anywhere, and you’ve presented it well and in a readily accessible format. I’m trying to maintain positive expectations in the face of the overwhelming facts about our mis-use and mistreatment of the natural world, and it’s very difficult, especially when our political and business leadership persists in putting profit above all issues of health, social justice, sustainability, and common sense. I thank you and applaud you for your fine work in getting the facts and putting them out there in such a well-done documentary.

  • Christine Eppley

    In response to your comment that, “Unfortunately, because of the amount of information we had to wrangle into an hour-long film, many of these characters had to be cut for time,” I would recommend that at the end of the hour-long program, a statement that, “more information, including footage not shown here,” be included so viewers can see even more on this very important topic. I have heard that our world today is an environment which offers much less for young people to get interested and involved with nature. The video helps create a deeper level of understanding and interest as you see the bees and the world of beekeeping. I can not improve on the comments by Nori Lane Bishop, but join in complimenting you on the wonderful film work and helping to bring attention to this crisis.

  • Nathan Synan

    Doug Shultz you have revealed to the world the importance of these creatures. I used to raise honeybees when I was a child living at home. It was my first connection with nature and I loved it so. THANK YOU! THANK YOU, Doug for your effort in bringing this awareness to all of us.

  • Maria Jenkin

    THANK YOU DOUG SHULTZ!! What an amazing piece. Don’t worry about the stings, they are good for you even if you do swell a bit at first. You did amazing work!

  • Cathy Chadwick

    I wonder if you have read Michael Shacker’s book, A Spring Without Bees: How Colony Collapse Disorder has Endangered Out Food Supply which was published in 2008. He makes a very compelling case for banning the use of IMD in this country as they have in France until we have conclusive evidence that low-dose exposure to this insecticide is not the cause of CCD. Apparently IMD was fast tracked by the EPA and did not undergo rigorous testing before use in this country.
    Your documentary was compelling but I would like to see more follow up on this unfolding story. We need to take action to save the bees before it is too late.

  • Erin

    I thoroughly enjoyed this program. I love this behind the scene interview as well. This type of educational information on a seemingly trivial matter makes us all take a closer look at how delicate and fragile our environment really is, and how we need to take strides in studying,preserving,and caring for it.

  • Doan

    Why don’t they import bees from elsewhere and create new colonies of bees. Buy one hives from else where during flower blooming season and let them loose. Overtime they will grow and spread everywhere. African bees are suppose to be very hardy and can survive anywhere.

  • Matt

    I agree with Cathy in regards to the use of IMD insecticide in America. Why does America always seem last when it comes to logical solutions? Because of thoughtless, short-sighted multi-national corporations who don’t care? When whatever they invest in starts to fail, they just move their money to something else, a good enough reason to not care? Not this time, there will be very little of anything to move money to in agriculture if our world’s bees are not properly studied. Unfortunately, the EPA is another under-funded branch of government with few resources, and even fewer answers for what it lets through. The people of America and the World need to know more about this bee problem, the consequences, and possible solutions. Most likely it will take private resources to expedite these pollinator studies, you can’t count on the multi-national corporations to give a damn, nor can you truly count on any government to solve this serious problem.

    Thank you, Doug Shultz for your continuing work in film and with bees, hopefully it will reach those who will continue to grant funds for these very important studies’ into the pollinators’ decline. I wonder if any multi-national corporations are granting money towards this type of research?

  • Diego Duran

    Me gustaria trabajar con las bee…alguna experiencia con Africanas en Venezuela.

  • Richard Webb

    Beekeepers will tell you the biggest threat to bees in the U.S. is Imidacloprid effects on bee population. See Wikipedia

    We are headed to a Silent Spring even though Rachel Carlson may have overreacted to DDT and been responsible for many deaths from malaria.

  • Brenda Burgess

    I was shocked when I saw a tv show which highlighted the plight of Japanese farmers. They overused pesticides so much that they now have NO bees and must collect the pollen by hand and using ladders, they pollinate the flowers one by one by dipping a feather in the pollen and touching each flower. If a flower is missed it will not produce fruit.
    I think we all need to help in our own way to do what we can to stop the use of pesticides, and we can start with our own yards and gardens. I haven’t used pesticides for at least 5 years now, and my gardens are beautiful. The bugs don’t usually kill the plant they are feeding on, and as long as I think the plant will survive, I let nature take it’s course. I find ladybugs and other beneficial insects that like to eat troublesome bugs and place them in the problem area. If the problem is one that I feel will kill the plant I will cut it down completely (I only plant perennials, so it will come back) and dispose of the affected material appropriately. It’s a small thing, but if we all do this it will have some positive impact on the plight of the honey bee, and many other creatures as well, including humans, directly and indirectly.

  • Shota Kalandarishvili

    Dear Doug Shultz,
    We highly appreciate the film you have produced and see the importance that everyone has a chance to watch it.
    I am a head of beekeeping farm in eastern Georgia (former Soviet Union). Our apiary is the part of a monastery farm and serving beekeeping development in this region. Producing ecologically pure product our target is to increase awareness of local beekeepers and share actual innovations and consider problems of beekeeping as a part of agriculture taking in to account experience of different countries of the world.
    Indeed, this film is out of competition to reflect and analyze such problems. I am kindly asking you for a permission to translate it in to Georgian. The draft version of translation is ready to bring to studio for the narration with Georgian voice. The purpose of this translation is to spread such necessary information among local farmers how speak only native language. This initiative will not have commercial side.
    In anticipation of your reply.
    Thank you very much.

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