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Why have bees been buzzing off?
In the UK bees pollinate one third of the food we eat

By Jan Gilbert

Ashton Kutcher has tweeted about them and Liam Gallagher uses their products to keep his voice in shape.

Now Cambridge graduate and director George Langworthy has made a film about them. But what are they?

Think of bees and what comes to mind? Honey? Beeswax candles? Bumblebee Man in The Simpsons?

Most of us didn't give much of a thought to the little black-and-yellow insects which pollinate a third of our food. But now they're headline news.

Colony Collapse Disorder, where bees disappear from their hives never to return, is affecting bee populations around the world.

Compelling story

When filmmaker George Langworthy, a former English student at Trinity College, heard about the unexplained phenomenon, he reached for his video camera.

Two and a half years later the result is a feature-length documentary, Vanishing of the Bees, which tries to unravel the mystery of declining bee populations with the help of beekeepers and scientists.

Vanishing of the Bees
Pollination contributes £200m to the UK economy each year
It is estimated 30 million people would be required in the UK to do the work of bees
90 commercial crops are pollinated by bees worldwide

"I've always been an environmentalist," says Langworthy about how he came to direct the film.

"I've always done volunteer work in that arena, so making this documentary was a real chance for me to bring together that interest and the skill set I've developed over the years as a filmmaker and writer.

"The story of the vanishing bees is very complex. It took my all as a writer and director to present this vast amount of information so that it's compelling and easy to understand."

As Langworthy and his co-director Maryam Henein tracked the story across the globe from the west coast of America to the Australian outback, and from Paris to England's south coast, there was no shortage of challenges.

Vital role

He said: "Making the film was gruelling at times. We were travelling a lot and the financial aspect was difficult too. What kept me going was that the disappearance of the bees is a hugely important story.

"It encompasses vital issues to our world today - ecology, economy, agriculture, and politics. And I really felt that a full-length documentary film was the best way to tell it."

Now a resident of Los Angeles, Langworthy made Super 8 films as a child and honed his writing and acting skills at Cambridge in the late 80s and early 90s, with roles including a disciple in Dennis Potter's Son of Man at the ADC, and sketches as part of the Footlights comedy troupe.

Vanishing of the Bees
The film calls for a review of the impact of pesticides on bees

Since then he's written for comedians and former Footlighters Ben Miller and Alexander Armstrong, penned a feature film with Cambridge grad and writer Iain Weatherby and premiered his award-winning short film at Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival.

On top of that he has produced and directed a host of documentaries on subjects from the teenage environmental movement to rockers The White Stripes.

Elevated approach

Twenty years since Langworthy arrived in Cambridge, his studies continue to influence his filmmaking.

"Studying English was fantastic," he said. "I enjoyed the elevated approach to the subject, looking at every single word and its importance, learning to choose words carefully and precisely.

"The structure of Vanishing of the Bees relied heavily on my studies in drama and writing. With narration in documentaries you have to say what you want in as few words as possible, so it's doubly important to get it right.

"Having that foundation in structure and precision with language was hugely important."

Equally inspiring was time spent watching plays at the ADC, says Langworthy: "I saw a lot of really talented people in Cambridge. It was a big influence on my work, my life.

Future generations

"In America you see a lot of actors who are just good looking and they think that's all they need. British people have a lot of discipline for popular culture, whether they're actors or musicians. They really treat it like a craft and train very hard."

So what does he hope to achieve through his own work on Vanishing of the Bees?

"My main interest is to spread awareness about the problems in modern agriculture and the use of toxic chemicals on our food supply.

"I like to parallel it to global warming - 10 years ago not many people were aware of it and there was this mindset that if we stopped using so much gas, everything would grind to a halt and collapse.

"Now it's an issue of public concern, and people are looking for alternative sources of energy.

"That's my hope for this film, that there's a growing awareness of the problem, and that there's a shift towards alternative farming methods so we produce foods that are healthier for our planet and our future generations."

Jan Gilbert is a journalist and broadcaster. You can hear her weekly movie reviews every Tuesday on Antonia Brickell's Drive show on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire. For more details see the link on the right.

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