Bill Moyers talks with Peter Nelson, director of The Pollinators about the crucial role that bees play in everyone’s daily life.
The film is available on all streaming platforms now
PETER NELSON: When I realized that the problems that bees were facing was not fully understood by most people, and the relationship to our food system was not really connected in a way that I had seen before, I thought, you know, I might be a good person to take a stab at telling this story. In the course of regular bee keeping I get stung maybe five, six, seven times a year. When I was shooting the film, I’d stopped counting.
ANNOUNCER: Welcome to Moyers on Democracy. Join Bill for a conversation with Peter Nelson about his film THE POLLINATORS, a top favorite at more than a dozen film festivals. The film is a cinematic journey around the US, following migratory beekeepers and their truckloads of honeybees as they pollinate the crops we all eat. The challenges that beekeepers and their bees face in their travels reveal the flaws to our simplified, chemically dependent agriculture system. Peter talks to farmers, scientists, chefs, and academics along the way to give a broad perspective about the threats to honeybees, what it means to our food security, and how we can improve it. Here’s Bill Moyers.
BILL MOYERS: Hey, Peter–
PETER NELSON: Hey, Bill. How you doin’?
BILL MOYERS: How did you know that bees were going to be so popular as a subject?
PETER NELSON: I found bees as a real great conversation starter with people. You know, if I told people that I was a beekeeper, they almost always had questions. And that was a great indication to me about people’s interest and somewhat lack of knowledge about what’s going on with the bees. Once I realized the connection to agriculture and then directly to our food system, I really thought that we were really onto somethin’– because most people know that there are problems facing bees. But very few people really understand what it is.
BILL MOYERS: When did you become a beekeeper? And why?
PETER NELSON: I started keeping bees a little over 30 years ago. And I grew up as what I refer to as a free-range kid. I lived in a rural area and I wanted to spend most of my days outside. And always had a real interest and passion for the natural world. So I was curious about what lived in that tree or under that rock. Or how things worked and the sorta cycles of nature. I was a birdwatcher and a collector of insects to some extent. And had some teachers along the way that really fostered that interest. Becoming a beekeeper was a hobby that I thought, “Hey, you know, I think I might be interested in this.” So I read a few books. And I jumped in with both feet. And, 30 years later I still love it. I go out in the bees and I get lost in it because it’s endlessly fascinating and complex.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I grew up as a boy around a lotta bees. But I was so busy ducking them, I never really took a close look at them. And I never thought of bees as beautiful until I watched your film. You get such wonderful closeups. Suspended there in flight, fluttering wings, colors shimmering in the light. It’s an incredibly beautiful little critter, isn’t it?
PETER NELSON: They’re so wonderful, they tend to be underappreciated. They are really, really, really beautiful animals. And they do such important work. And they’re so interesting as an organism. One honey bee can’t survive on itself. It needs its sisters and brothers in the hive to survive. And that’s fascinating. They’re in the same group with ants and termites, eusocial organisms. But honey bees are just one of many species of bees. There are 4,000 in North America. And they’re each in their own way just beautiful and lovely and elegant creatures.
BILL MOYERS: What prompted you to make a film about bees?
PETER NELSON: Making this film was a combination of passions. I have an interest in the natural world, also cinematographer, as you know. And I also have a great interest in food and agriculture and those systems. Love gardening, very much interested in farming. We live in a rural area. I grew up in a rural area. And so that has always been of great interest to me. And I really wanted to put all these things together. And when I realized that the problems that bees were facing were not fully understood and the relationship to our food system was really not connected to that in a way that I had seen before, I thought, “You know, this might be a project that I could be a good person to take a stab at telling the story.” It started literally as a backyard project in our own hives. I identified characters that I thought could tell this story. And I wanted them to tell the story. We spent a little over a year traveling around the country. We hit 14 states in the process to meet up with beekeepers and farmers and scientists and environmentalists and chefs through a season of pollination. From February through the end of the year, through cranberry harvest when it was actually snowing when we filmed. I thought that was a good seasonal look at our food system. But people don’t think about a bee necessarily with the apple that they’re eating. But that’s an intimate connection and an essential one. And so I wanted to try and bring that point home to people, about how important bees are to our food system. And then also about the threats against them.
BILL MOYERS: What should I think about when I see an apple in regard to a bee?
PETER NELSON: Most of our essential foods are pollinated by insects. And there’re hundreds of everyday crops, from avocados to watermelons, that are pollinated by bees. And it’s the most nutritious and tasty foods in our diet. The animal pollination, and it’s much more than bees, it’s also bats and hummingbirds and other insects are essential in moving that genetic material from one flower to another. And without that you can’t form a seed or a fruit, which is what we really want to get from the plant. So, it really is an important, essential step in the process
BILL MOYERS: Dave Hackenberg, one of the characters in the film says, “One out of every three bites of food we take come from honey bee pollination?”
DAVE HACKENBERG: The reason them honey bees are here in the first place is to pollinate our crops you know cause one out of every three bites of food we put in our mouths comes from honey bee pollination.
PETER NELSON: It’s a staggering number of things that are pollinated by bees in particular. And honey bees can pollinate a diverse group of flowers for fruits and vegetables and nuts. But they also have the unique ability that they go home to the hive at night. And you can pick that hive up and move it to a different location. And that is where the agricultural system has taken advantage of their unique abilities.
BILL MOYERS: I never knew that so many bees hit the road every night. I mean, did I get it right? Tens of billions transported back and forth from one end of the country to another?
PETER NELSON: Yeah. That is correct. And that’s one of the things that I found really interesting about this story, was that most people don’t realize this. Because the bees go back to the hive at night– and the beekeepers load up and move these bees around the country at night. And they often go to remote areas in the agricultural fields, orchards that most people don’t pay attention to or have an opportunity to see. A semi load of honey bees – and they’re all put on pallets as they’re moved – can have 400 or more hives on it. And each hive has about, 25,000 bees. So you’re talking millions, and millions of bees per truck.
BILL MOYERS: Are the bees sleeping while they travel?
PETER NELSON: They’re not exactly sleeping. But what they do is when the trucks are moving, the bees tend to stay in the hive because of the air. And the whole truck is covered with a big net. So if you stop for very long, the bees will wanna get out. And so the truck drivers – they use truck drivers that are very adept at handling livestock. They move mostly at night. And keep on moving during the day so the bees don’t come out. They choose their routes very carefully so that it’s not too hot or too cold that the bees would get harmed in the process. In fact, that’s what the USDA considers honey bees, is a form of livestock. And so, they’re moved very quickly from one location to another. They can move ’em from Florida to California in just a couple of days.
BILL MOYERS: What would happen to our food system if all those trucks broke down and bees couldn’t go any further than they can fly?
PETER NELSON: It would be a real problem because of the dependency upon these managed honey bees to our agricultural system. Many farms are growing specific monocultures of certain crops. And so bees cannot survive over a whole year in almonds because there’s nothing else for the bees to eat after the almond bloom is gone. And so they have to move on to other forage, if you will.
BILL MOYERS: I ask myself as the story rolls forward, and you do tell a fascinating story about the bees and about agricultural and about the way the whole ecology of that system works, but I kept asking myself, “If bees are so beautiful and there are so many of them, are they really in trouble as you would have us think?”
PETER NELSON: I think they are. There’s not one thing that is gonna take the bees down. And I don’t think honey bees are going to go extinct. But the problem is that it’s a multifaceted series of problems that these beekeepers are facing. From pesticides, to parasites, to habitat loss. One of those things, maybe the bees could handle. But all of them, it makes it really very difficult for the bees to overcome. Some of these beekeepers, their loss of hives every year to these different elements can be 30-50% or more, depending on where they are in the country. I don’t know what business can sustain those types of losses, you know, a 40% loss every year. That’s really hard on a business.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me about Dave and Davey Hackenberg.
PETER NELSON: Dave is a great beekeeper and his son Davey is stepping up and running the day to day operation of the beekeeping business now. Dave was the first beekeeper I went to ask if he wanted to be a part of the film. And, I met him at a truck stop on 495 and I sat on the back of his truck and I told him the story I wanted to tell, and he said, “Yup, I’m in.” And the beekeepers want their story to be told. They know that people are concerned about bees but they have trouble getting their message out to the average person because it is a complex story. And Dave has been keeping bees as long as I’ve been alive. And he started as a 4H or Future Farmer of America beekeeper when he was just in grade school. And now his son and his grandson are involved in the business. And they traveled the country. I don’t think they went out to California this year. He was up in Maine last week doing blueberries. And they’ve struggled. They work harder than many, many, many people I’ve ever met doing what they do. And it’s physically hard. It’s emotionally hard to lose that many bees every year. But they keep at it. They’re dedicated to it. They love it in their core. It’s a great family business. I hope that these beekeepers can keep it going. We all need them.
BILL MOYERS: Is it a fact that Dave was the first beekeeper to sound the alarm on what came to be known as colony collapse disorder back in, what, 2006?
PETER NELSON: Yeah, that’s true. He told me the story that he was down in Florida and he opened up his beehives. When he was doing regular beekeeping maintenance that you do. And he saw his bees were gone. And not one hive, but many, many, many hives. He sounded the alarm. He went to Penn State and he went to the USDA. And he said, “Boy, this is a real problem. I don’t know what’s goin’ on here.” Nobody had really seen this before. And Dave did sound the alarm. He raised the profile of that problem, they still don’t know exactly what caused colony collapse disorder.
BILL MOYERS: What happens when a colony collapses?
PETER NELSON: When the colony collapse disorder happens, your bees leave. And oftentimes you’ll find the queen in a hive with a few attendants. But all of your field bees, the bees that go out and forage, just disappear. And they don’t come back, which is very unusual. If you have a beehive that is sprayed with a pesticide, a lotta times the bees will come back and then die. You’ll see a pile of dead bees. With this, they didn’t. There were just empty hives. And they didn’t know where they went. And it was many, many, many hives. They never really fully determined what it was that caused it. They suspect that it was a combination of a virus and maybe some pesticides. But they don’t know for sure. The name colony collapse stuck in popular culture.
BILL MOYERS: The whole idea of that became somewhat controversial. After beekeepers like Dave and then scientists sounded the alarm, they saw a decline in the population of the honey bees. Others came back and said, “No, no, that’s not happening.” It’s just that bees can replenish their numbers in a short of period of time. I think, what is it, queen bees lay thousands of eggs in a day? The population grows back pretty fast and this alarm over colony collapse disorder is exaggerated. What did you learn about that?
PETER NELSON: I don’t necessarily agree with that. It is true. It’s one of the great things about honey bees is that they can scale up their population really quickly, particularly in the summer. A queen, as you said, can lay couple thousand eggs a day. But it’s very unusual for bees to just disappear. And that’s what happened with the colony collapse. And so I don’t necessarily agree with the fact that it’s not a big thing. It is a big thing. The losses that these beekeepers are facing, and it’s not due to necessarily just viruses. But it’s all the other factors, monocultures and lack of good nutrition and pesticides. All those factors are conspiring to kill the bees now. It’s not just one thing.
BILL MOYERS: Governments around the world took it seriously. They put a ban on some pesticides to protect the bees. In fact, the EU I think instituted a ban on neonicotinoids. And some critics on the other side said the media had sensationalized the story. Did you find any evidence of that?
PETER NELSON: I didn’t find any evidence of media sensationalizing it. It does make for a tasty story, though. But I think that the neonicotinoids, there’s a great amount of misinformation that’s being put out by the manufacturers of those pesticides. The science has proven that they are harmful to bees. They affect their immune system. They affect their navigation system. And they affect their nervous system. And one of the more difficult things about these is that when you have a certain quantity of these neonicotinoids, it’ll kill the bees. But when you have those sub-lethal doses, where it’s an amount that won’t kill the bee outright, but it will affect its immune system and make it susceptible to other things or affect its navigation so it can’t find its way back, or makes it more lethargic. Or makes the queen less productive. All of those factors have been proven in science. But it’s a matter of fighting the misinformation that is coming outta the ag chemical companies because they wanna sell chemicals. And so they do whatever they can to fight the science. And they do they whatever they can to influence the USDA and the EPA.
BILL MOYERS: One of your beekeepers, Bret Adee says the Environmental Protection Agency and the chemical industry have a too friendly relationship.
BRET ADEE: Sometimes, you know, you look and think, “Well, is there a great cabal?” And I don’t know if there is or not, but it does look like a lot of times, you have what’s called “the captured client,” where the regulated ends up controlling the regulator. And it’s the idea that a manufacturer of a product wants to bring a product to the market, so he’ll write up the test and show the EPA the test he wants to do to test the product for its environmental impact. Then they’ll give him the nod, “Yeah, this is a good test.” Then he’ll go test it, and he’ll generate all the results himself, and then he’ll give the results back to the EPA for evaluation. So, you know, given that model, I think there’s not a single person that couldn’t be a Harvard scholar. It’s like, I get to write my own test, I get to take my own test, and I get to turn the results in. It’s like, I know it came about, you know, on Libertarian ideas – that the person that benefits from the product should pay for the process – but, you know, it’s like giving yourself a speeding ticket. It’s just not gonna happen.
PETER NELSON: I think that’s true. We heard over and over again and we see it now, particularly in the government with the revolving door between private industry, corporations and the agencies that regulate them. And when you have people from these ag chemical companies that are in positions of authority at the regulatory agency, things change. I believe that the government is full of well-intentioned and hardworking scientists and researchers that are doing the work. But if the management of them and the voice gets suppressed, then there’s not much you can do about that. It’s just the fight that you have to keep on fighting.
BILL MOYERS: I was taken by Lucas Criswell and his father William whom you found in Pennsylvania. They’re coming up with some unusual and untraditional ways of dealing with this.
PETER NELSON: Yeah. They’re a father-son farming cooperative. They farm independently and they farm together in neighboring farms. And Lucas, the son, is a real leader in the sustainable, regenerative agricultural field. He is showing his father many of these techniques, which are not necessarily new techniques. They’re techniques that many of our grandparents used in farming, which are, you know, crop rotation and cover cropping. And multi-species in a field. They’re all things of diversity. It’s going against the monoculture of farming that has become the norm in many farms over the last couple of decades. And Lucas has had great success. He’s not afraid to speak his mind. And he put it all on the table and he’s become a leader in that field. And his dad is there with him doin’ it. And it’s really inspiring to see. And he’s part of this movement of people that are tryin’ to make a change and, thankfully, being successful at it.
BILL MOYERS: So what exactly are they doing?
PETER NELSON: Many farmers start the year by ploughing the ground up. And that is the first sign that spring is comin’ in many places, is when you till the soil. But tilling the soil, many farmers, including Lucas and his dad, feel like that is bad for the soil because the soil is an organism. And it needs to maintain and grow and have its integrity. They put a cover crop on in the fall, a winter rye, a winter wheat. And it becomes a green manure, if you will. A fertilizer that’s growing in the field. And they roll it down. And then they plant in it. So that when that breaks down, it becomes a barrier for weeds to grow up, but it also goes back into the soil so it regenerates the soil. And they do that as well as rotating crops of different species ’cause every time a farmer plants something in a field, it takes something out of the soil. It becomes an ongoing process every year of building the soil and trying to make the soil stronger through this diversity of plants that you grow.
BILL MOYERS: So what did Lucas mean when he told you that farmers…
LUCAS CRISWELL: Farmers need to realize is that the bees are like one of the first line of defense of why they’re disappearing. If the bees are disappearing, what else is disappeared already? Because we don’t count anything else. And I think that’s, that’s kind of the canary in the mine shaft of opened our eyes up to pay attention to what’s going on in the fields.
BILL MOYERS: I like that. A bee as a canary in the mineshaft. What does he mean?
PETER NELSON: Honey bees are really an indicator species. And so if you see high losses in them, you should pay close attention to it because they are indicating that there’s something wrong in the greater environment so we really need to pay attention to that. So farmers like him, he depends upon bees. He doesn’t wanna have to pay to bring bees in because that’s an added expense. And farmers are really pragmatic and are very thrifty for the most part. And so, if you don’t have to bring in the bees to do the pollination, and many farmers use bees as kind of an insurance policy to ensure pollination, you can save some money. And so that means that you’re more profitable. He’s a very pragmatic guy. By planting a diversity of species in these fields, you have things that are adding back to the soil in different ways, but then also creating a habitat in the process for bees. Not just honey bees, but native bees as well in that ecosystem.
BILL MOYERS: So listening to you, I hear echoes of what our mutual friend Bill McKibben the great environmentalist says about growing the food we eat.
BILL MCKIBBEN: Bees are important for all kinds of reasons. They’re important because we’re not capable of making all kinds of things grow by ourselves. It’s not some kind of magic, it’s a deep biological process of which bees are a part. But bees are also important to us because they’re a very good kind of sentinel signal for the trouble that we’re in. There they are every day out in the world, foraging through every corner of the rural landscape. If suddenly one year 25% of them show up missing, that means there is something wrong with that landscape.
PETER NELSON: I wanted Bill in the film because he has this amazing view of the world from 10,000 feet up. And he also personally knows a great deal about bees. I thought he was a very important voice to have in the film as kind of that distant view of connect all those pieces together. What he was saying was that when you start pulling these different pieces out of the system, eventually, it’s gonna collapse And, as species go extinct or as species are declined because they’re sprayed or their habitat is gone, whatever, it affects myriad other species around. And it’s so important to look at how all of these species and organisms work together. And they work together as a system. And we really need to respect that.
BILL MOYERS: Maryann Frazier, a character in your film, says that we are all consumers of pesticides…
MARYANN FRAZIER: We ourselves have become users, consumers of pesticide. You can see that very easily when you go to Walmart and you go to Lowe’s, you go to Home Depot and the shelves are lined with pesticides and particularly herbicides. So, you know, you think, well herbicides aren’t toxic, but herbicides are completely, in many places, eliminating the forage that bees require. Bees require flowers, they require nectar and pollen-producing flowers. And this widespread use of herbicide not only in agriculture but also by homeowners. Everybody wants a magnificent green lawn without a single dandelion or clover plant in that lawn or a blooming flower in that lawn. That’s a food desert for bees. If you want a green lawn, great, you know let your front yard be green and allow the backyard to have some dandelions and clover and grow a pollinator garden. Herbicides, fungicides and insecticides – all three of those categories are problematic for our bees. And again, it’s not just honey bees, it’s all of our bee species.
BILL MOYERS: And it prompts me to ask you, Peter Nelson– what are pesticides doing to us?
PETER NELSON: I will say that I am not totally anti pesticide. I think that they are a necessary a tool that we need to use. But we could use it a lot less than we do. And what farmers should be going to, in my opinion, is integrated pest management. Is when your pest level becomes to a certain level, at that point do you spray targeted for that specific pest. So many of these pesticides, like neonicotinoids are a systemic pesticide that is in the plant from the time it’s planted. And it’s there to kill a pest if a pest comes along to bite into that plant and damage it. But the problem is that there’s a lotta collateral damage with that. It becomes part of the vascular system of the plant. And it gets into the pollen that may go into other plants and affect bees and other animals as well. And so if you go back to Lucas, Lucas said that it’s kind of like takin’ an aspirin in the morning ’cause you might have a headache in the afternoon, instead of just treating the pest that you see at a certain level. So I think it’s one thing that we all can look at. And any homeowner who has a lawn that uses a fertilizer or pest control in their lawn to have a great, green lawn could reconsider how much we use ’cause we as consumers use a tremendous amount of pesticides in our own habitats. And that has a great effect. And so I think that it’s not just the farmers, but it’s all of us that can make a difference in this process.
BILL MOYERS: After this experience, you and your producer, Sally Roy, are you two thinking about growing a pollinators’ garden?
PETER NELSON: Oh, we have. We are very careful about what we grow. And I think about that. I mean whenever we plant a tree, I wanna plant a tree that is gonna be a beneficial tree for either bees or for fruit or for berries that some birds would eat. And so it’s definitely a consideration for us. And we’re always planting things that will be beneficial for pollinating insects of all types, whether it’s butterflies or even humming birds and birds.
BILL MOYERS: But exactly what is a pollinators’ garden?
PETER NELSON: The thing that pollinators need is a diverse rotation or sequence of pollinating flowering plants throughout a season. So, like, the early flowers where we live here in New York would be crocus or maple trees. The maple flower is a great source of nectar and pollen for bees, and most people don’t even realize has a flower. And so having a sequence of different trees and flowers that bloom throughout a year, that provide nutrition for insects and birds throughout the season would be the best thing to grow. So from March through the end of October.
BILL MOYERS: So when all is said and done and the film closes, can you remember the most important thing you learned from this experience that took you from one end of the United States to another? 200 hours of material you collected, 90 days of travel, 14 states, what did you come home with? What insight?
PETER NELSON: I think the thing that I take away from it, and it’s especially relevant in this particular time, is that we can all do something to make this better. This is a subject that people can really do something about. On a very simple level, they could go to the farmer’s market and buy local produce and support those local economies. Or find a beekeeper. Even in New York City or Los Angeles or Boston or Chicago, you’ll find beekeepers at farmer’s markets. And so you can support those local economies. Creating habitat is really important. Again, even in an urban area, those small habitats create those little mosaic of opportunities for pollinators to live. And even in the big cities or in a rural country, if you live in an area that has monoculture of just corn, having a diverse pollinator garden can make a big difference. And education is really important. And educating young people and legislators alike. There’s a big environmental effort going on for pollinator protection. We’re not getting such great leadership on the federal government at this point in time. But the states have risen to the occasion. And I think 17 states now have opportunities in 2020 in their legislative calendar that people can support those pollinator protections. And then not using herbicides, pesticides and fungicides in our own habitats is really important. For me, the thing that is the most rewarding is when people say, “Wow, I can be empowered and do something about this and make a difference.” And, particularly in this day and age, I think that’s so important for people to have.
BILL MOYERS: A lesson taken to heart, I hope, by many of us who otherwise might be taking the honey bee for granted. Peter Nelson, thank you for this film, THE POLLINATORS.
PETER NELSON: Been a delight. Thank you, Bill.
ANNOUNCER: Thanks for listening to Moyers on Democracy. Until next time, learn more about THE POLLINATORS, and find out where you can see the film at our website billmoyers.com.