I caught up with Taggart Siegel through Skype on May 4 as he was taking a breather in his film screening schedule at Angelic Organics, the Illionis-based farm featired om Taggart's most famous film: "The Real Dirt on Farmer John."
Q: What drew you to bees as the subject for a feature film?
A: I had no idea about the importance of honeybees until I read an article in 2007 that bees were not only so crucial to our environment but that they were dying out on a mass scale, a phenomenon called
Taggart Siegel (Courtesy of Collective Eye)
Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The article had a quote attributed to Einstein which scared me enough to get me to pick up my camera and dedicate the next three years of my life to this film. The quote read, "If bees die out, man will only have four years of life left on earth." Even though this quote has been since disputed, it had a lasting effect on me, and the truth is that bees are so vital to our planet that we can't afford to lose them.
Q: How did you become involved with biodynamics?
A: Biodynamics (www.biodynamics.com) was out of making the film "The Real Dirt on Farmer John." Farmer John ... is a biodynamic farmer and it seemed that biodynamics is way beyond organics. It's the way I like to relate to nature. All the organisms are supported and interrelated and there's a lot of support for different ecosystems and the microbes and microorganisms in the soil. Everything is in the
soil. Built up in the soil. Of course, Rudolf Steiner talked about that. My interest blossomed with the mystical side too, with the cosmos being connected to plant growth and the cow horns bringing the
energetic fields into the crops and the soil. It's not something that we emphasized in "The Real Dirt on Farmer John" but it was something that totally changed my way of thinking of agriculture. Then, of
course, reading Rudolf Steiner deepened it substantially. The only books John reads are Rudolf Steiner. Steiner is sometimes difficult to read and understand, so I was able to ask John questions which he was
able to summarize and explain in a nice way. That made a big difference.
Q: I was always expecting to see Farmer John in a bee costume at any moment in this film.
A: Well, last night I did a Q&A in Madison with John. He had his bee antennae on. He's in the film. He's in every one of my films. I've kept up with that agreement. He was in the film with Gunther Hauk,
with his back to the camera. So, he was in the film. I didn't know when we made "The Real Dirt on Farmer John" that that scene at the end, the bumble bee scene, was so much what "Queen of the Sun" is
about. If you'll remember, at the end of the film, Leslie and John are being chased by a big combine that's spreading pesticides and they're running and getting sprayed. Ironically, that turned into "Queen of the Sun," my next film. It's all about what pesticides are doing. But not only that, but what Rudolf Steiner said 80 to 100 years ago, that if we continue to practice mechanized beekeeping and farming and queen breeding that bees could possibly die out in 80 to 100 years, which is what we are witnessing now.
Q: Is there cut-and-dried proof out there that insecticides are the cause of colony collapse?
A: It's all about a big cocktail that has been mixed together and it is such a dangerous mixture from queen breeding to pesticides to pathogens to varroa mites, to shipping/trucking bees across the country to feeding them genetically modified high fructose corn syrup, to taking their honey, to artificial insemination, to - it goes on and on and on. It's a big mess. A big cocktail mix. Like Gunther Hauk says "It's now like getting hit over the head by a sludge hammer." Bees have always died out over time, but we've never seen it like this, in such a weird way. Colony Collapse Disorder is when the bees disappear from the hive. The hive is still there, the queen is still there, but the bees are gone. What happened to them? It's not one thing you can point your finger at, but you could point your finger at the neonicotinoids and coumaphos, the pesticides that are neurotoxic. They're systemic. They go into the
plant. That pesticide covers the nectar and the pollen and everything is toxic. The bees can't adapt to that. It's neurotoxic. It disrupts their brain so they can't navigate back to the hive. So, it's been banned in France and Italy and Germany, where it's produced. It's produced by Bayer, you know, the people who make aspirin. It's a weird thing that it's gotten to this point. Silent Spring, you know, Carson's book. It was back in the '60s when she wrote that. That was about pesticides. Did we wake up? Not really. In the '90s we had a bee die off, but that was from the varroa mite. But now it's something so
much more major. In Chicago, 80 percent of their bees died off during the winter. There's 8,000 registered beekeepers in Chicago. That's a lot of bees.
Q: Does Colony Collapse only occur in industrialized countries?
A: The United Nations is very concerned about colony collapse. They say the writing is on the wall. Out of the hundred crops we grow, 70 percent of those crops are pollinated by bees and there's between
30 and 80 percent die off. This is world-wide. It's certainly much worse in the United States and Europe. And China. In China there's areas where they don't have any bees. They have to hand pollinate
Q: What were the biggest challenges of filming beehives?
A: Believer it or not, often I didn't wear any protective bee gear. I took my queues from the beekeepers and wore what they wore. The challenge is to be calm and peaceful while you have this big black camera with an intimidating looking microphone, that, with the muff on it, that looks like a bear coming in to steal the honey. Bees seem to sense your fear. If a bee landed on me, I would very still and give it time. Still, after being around millions of bees, I did get stung a few times, but as the beekeeper would often say, "It's good for arthritis. Plus, remember, they gave their life to protect their hive."
Q: How easy was it to get financing and distribution for the film? Is it becoming tougher?
A: We started making "Queen of the Sun" during the heart of the economic collapse in 2008. During the worst time you could possibly ask for money we were writing countless grants and seeking funding. It was very, very tough at points but this made it even more rewarding to see the film to completion. The film was a labor of love for both Jon and I. We believe very deeply that the public needs to know about the decline of our planet's pollinators, who keep the earth in bloom. As the film came together, we received a great deal of support from a growing movement around the bees, including many small donations. We were also fortunate to receive a number of awards on the film festival circuit.
The distribution realm for documentaries is changing everyday. We are distributing "Queen of the Sun" through our own non-profit organization Collective Eye Films which we have grown into an independent distribution company with the release of "Queen of the Sun." We will work strongly with the grass-roots in all of our outreach for the film, and we are ecstatic that a growing number of theaters in the U.S., Canada, and New Zealand will be playing "Queen of the Sun" this spring and summer. We hope that "Queen of the Sun" can do what documentaries are meant to, inspire our imaginations, create real discussion and foster change even in those who may never once have thought about the bee.
Q: Are you fans of honey and how do you prefer to eat/drink it?
A: Of course! A teaspoon a day is a wonderful way to start the morning. We love honey, especially Rata honey, Manuka honey from the tea tree in New Zealand which has a great medicinal value and healing
properties. Raw honeys are like fine wines, no two are alike. If you can, try eating it straight off the comb.
Q: What was the most alarming/surprising fact you uncovered while making the documentary?
A: Bees are so mysterious and so full of wonder. I was taken by the nuptial flight, where the Queen flies 600 feet up into the air toward the sun to mate with a whole swarm of drones. This allows her to lay 1,500 eggs a day, more than her own body weight in eggs, each day. It's also incredible to think that honey never spoils. They found honey in the tombs of Tutankhamen that is over 2,000 years old and still edible.
Q: What is up next for you?
A: Mushrooms. Mushrooms really are important. Like beekeepers, mushrooms hunters and mycologists around the world are a colorful bunch. Mushrooms are poisonous, like bees, but are very beneficial to the planet. Maybe I'm fascinated with how mushrooms can save the world in their own small way.