Leslie Ellis--a Denver gardener, technical writer and executive producer of the documentary film “Bee People”—is creating buzz for honeybees and backyard bee-keeping. Aiming to educate people about the importance of bees, “Bee People” is one of many films to showcase in Women + Film “Voices” Film Festival sponsored by the Denver Film Society. David Knappe directed and co-produced "Bee People," which will show Saturday, March 22, at 12:30 p.m. at the SIE Film Center in Denver.
Filmed on location in Colorado, "Bee People" draws attention to the fact that honeybees are disappearing at an alarming rate. Ellis answered questions about bees and how gardeners can help these important pollinators.
How and why did you get involved in producing a documentary about bees and people?
Leslie Ellis: "It all started with gardening, really. Somewhere around 2010, I learned about the shocking declines in the honeybee population. “Shocking” meaning commercial beekeepers are losing half or more of their colonies every year. Once you start learning about honeybees, you get hooked. They’re pretty much endlessly interesting, at least for me.
"In early 2011, I took a beekeeping class from Greg McMahan (the “bee guru” of Denver, and the star of the film.) He runs Rocky Mountain Honeybee rescue, and is over-the-top passionate about rescuing bees and relocating them to a safe place, when they’re found in walls and attics and whatnot. Greg: He’s kind of a nut, a mixture of Jack Nicholson and the bee version of the crocodile wrestler guy on TV at the time, Steve Irwin.
"I’d met and worked with a guy who’d become a friend, David Knappe, the director and co-producer of 'Bee People.' The day after the beekeeping class, I called him to tell him about this crazy beekeeping thing. I asked him what it would take to do a video treatment about backyard beekeepers. A few months later, in September of 2011, we started filming. We shot all of the Colorado sections in a week.
What is the main objective of your film?
"To encourage more people to become backyard beekeepers, to ultimately get to a world--or at least a city-- with a beehive every two miles. That way, everything within that two-mile reach has a shot at pollination. It’s the commercial beekeepers who are seeing the most dramatic losses -- 60% or more per year since about 2008-2009 -- but it’s the backyard beekeepers who can contribute to a solution."
Do you keep bees? Are you one of the "Bee People?"
"Yes. I have 2 hives (that’s the legal limit in Denver county.) This season will be year four."
So you're a gardener?
Tell us about your garden.
"Ten years ago or so, the sprinkler system died, and I decided to replace as much water-thirsty turf as was allowed by the city. Answer: 30 feet out from the house, you can do whatever you want. So now it’s pretty much a wildflower jungle, and especially geared toward keeping the honeybees in nectar as soon as possible and as late as possible every season.
"Right now, for instance, the side yard is bursting with crocuses, and it’s so satisfying to see the girls out there on the warm days we’ve been having. They get into those little crocus cups and just roll around in there. Hopefully both queens are in there laying eggs at this point. I’ll check soon."
We know bees are pollinators, but what did you learn about bees that surprised you most?
"I think what intrigues me the most is the fact that every honeybee colony is 95% female. That’s in part what got me attracted to the notion of women and beekeeping, and why I co-founded (got talked into co-founding, truth be told) a beekeeping club for women, called Women Who Bee. We meet every last Wednesday of the month at To Bee or Not to Bee, owned by Vicki Munro. She’s the other co-founder. It’s a great little shop -- the most established beekeeping supply store in Denver."
So many of our food crops depend upon bee pollination. Do you think the average person realizes how important bees are to our food production?
What are the biggest threats to bees? Colony collapse?
"Pesticides and varroa mites, which are evil little monsters that suck the life out of the bees. There’s also a virus of the thorax that’s causing problems. But at this point, nobody really knows why colonies are collapsing. I have one that was super strong in 2013 -- but when I checked them on a warm day last month, the hive was empty. No live bees, no dead bees, just no bees."
I've heard that wi-fi might be harming bees. Any truth to that theory?
"God, I hope not. If that one turns out to be valid, we’re doomed."
How can gardeners help bees?
"By planting flowers that feed bees, by season. I have a wonderful list put together by my gardening hero, Mo Nevergold, who runs an all-girl gardening team called Dandelion Design."
When can we expect to see the situation for bees get better or worse? Is there a downward trend or are things improving?
"All eyes are on Eugene, Oregon. Go Eugene! Last June, they banned the nicotine-based pesticides that keep coming up as the biggest culprit for colony collapse."
Does your film include Mason bees? I've read that they pollinate but do not sting.
"No Mason bees in "Bee People." I hadn’t learned about them yet at the time, but you’re right: good pollinators, no sting."
Have you been stung by bees?
"The tagline of the movie is “Get stung.” It’s the big thing you have to get over, when deciding to become a backyard beekeeper. It goes like this: You’re a beekeeper. You’re going to get stung. Yes, it hurts! Yes, it swells up! Yes, you’re itchy for a week! Get over it."
"If you wear the protective clothing, you get stung through layers, and it’s much less bad. Last year, I was stung three times, but through two layers of shirt and one layer of bee suit. Not so bad.
My goal for this year (as was my goal for the last three years) is to be able to take a sting and not freak out. I’ve gotten it down from squealing like a girl (year 1), to expletives (year 2), to a low grunt (year 3)."
Have you heard of bee stings as therapy for arthritis and other ailments?
"Yes, there’s a whole body of research and work and activity around it. It has a fancy name that I’m forgetting. Api-therapy? Something like that. Dig around and you’ll find lots of people who deliberately pluck bees out of a colony, put them on the area of the body needing help, and take a sting there."
Anything else about bees or "Bee People" that you'd like to add?
"Yes: Honeybees die when they sting you. Somehow I think they know this. They are not the bees that visit your picnic items, or your can of soda. To a honeybee, we are but vertical objects they need to maneuver around, in order to get to the next source of nectar and pollen!
"Wasps, yellow jackets, hornets -- they’re the enemy. Not the honeybee."
••• "Cultivate your corner of the world. You grow your garden; your garden grows you." •••
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