Honeyland: From a Hobbyist Beekeeping perspective

Honeyland movie poster
Theatrical Release Poster

If you have been beekeeping on a small scale for a few years Honeyland may change your perspective. The movie is shot in the “fly on the wall” perspective or should I say “bee on the wall.” The dialogue is organic, the cinematography is outstanding, but the true beauty is how Hatidže Muratova interacts with wild honeybees. You can actually feel Hatidže Muratova connection to nature and her bees. The experience is a bit magical. Hatidže does live in poverty, making her living off of a few wild beehives. The title “Honeyland” seems to suggest some sort of mecca, but the reality is drastically different.

Hatidže is credited as the last keeper of wild bees in Macedonia. She lives in an abandoned, derelict, village in the mountains of Macedonia. From my perspective she was not their keeper. There was a symbiosis between bees and people in Honeyland that made me question how I approach my domesticated bees at the bee yard. Hatidže never showed any signs of possession towards the bees. They were not hers, they were just sharing a space. A space that each party benefited from, and also benefited from having both around. Hatidže protected the bees from outside dangers (mostly her neighbours)

Tender Symbiosis

The movie opens with Hatidže scalling a gut wrenching cliff to check on a colony of wild bees far up in the cliffs of Macedonia. Her movements up the cliffs were sure and her movements with the wild bees were even more exact. While watching, my first reaction was that there was no way I would scale that cliff and absolutely no way I would approach a wild colony without some serious protection. To my surprise the bees were calm to the point that they seemed to respect her handling of them.

The way she grabbed the honey comb hanging from the top of the small grotto in the side of the mountain was so delicate that the bees didn’t even notice that she was taking their honey. She used both hands, but only the tips of her weathered fingers would touch the comb. She used an old metal cone to remove some of the bees and tenderly place them on the ground beside the hive. Every bee was important and she took the time to make sure that none were hurt. There were a few scenes in Honeyland showing her gently help a struggling bee out of a pool of water, or gingerly remove a bee from peril. Even in backyard beekeeping there are times that I rush and squish some bees, or I am a little quick pulling an outside frame. I feel like most beekeepers are extremely caring and receptive to the needs of the hive. Hatidže caring went so far beyond that. She was not just concerned about the health of the hives, she was concerned about the health of every single bee.

Take Half Leave Half

Hatidže is rarely seen using a small veil to cover her face. I couldn’t help wonder if she wore the veil as a sign of respect for the bees. Almost if she wanted them to know that they were equal partners. Her motto that she repeats throughout Honeyland is take half, leave half. While most modern day hobby beekeeping already makes sure to leave adequate stores for the winter, the idea of taking half is a sign of only taking your share. I know for a fact that I take much more than half of the bees honey in a season. I always make sure that they have at least 100lbs of honey going into winter in two Langstroth boxes but I am taking more than my half.

Hatidže would use Skeps to transport bees and while much her processes were left to the imagination we witnessed her singing to the bees. When she was collecting the bees she would sing to them like a pied piper coaxing them into her skep. The bees were likely attracted to some comb in the skep but we got a sense that she could communicate with her bee friends in a way that has been lost in time.

Cant Pick your Neighbours

The antagonist in the film is portrayed by a nomadic farming family (The Sam family) that decides to take up residence beside Hatidže. The Sam’s see Hatidže interactions with her bees and want to try it on a larger scale. The real struggle is between ancient and modern day farming methods. While the film tries to represent the Sam family as neglectful and unreceptive to Hatidže teachings, I argue that poverty has a large part in their struggles. They are looking to turn a profit on bees in their first year and it appears that they have purchased at least 20 hives. In my first year, one hive was overwhelming, and dealing with the insane amount of variables in beekeeping was even more so. The other aspect is that I am not sure it is possible to responsibly turn a profit in the first year. The cost of setup, bees, equipment, and the cost of making mistakes all cuts down on your bottom line. I argue that the family was ignorant to Hatidže teaching but outside influences and the need to provide for the family was overwhelming.

To the Sam family, the bees became a place of tension in the family. They were often getting stung and the frustrations were mounting. The Sam family only saw the bees as a source of profit. They were unable to look closer at the beauty in beekeeping because they were not in a place that provided them with the stability or time to do so. Not only did they not understand the fundamentals of beekeeping, they were overwhelmed by the amount of hives they took on and the 100 (or so) head of cattle they were also keeping.

Commercial Beekeeping

I think that Honeyland tried to connect beekeepers to nature and understand what is at stake. I know that everyone wants to save the bees. It is a very popular catch-line. While I am not one to believe that beekeeping saves the bees, the relationship that Hatidže had with the wild bees was different. Hatidže made beekeeping a delicate art rather than a process. The movie made it important that anyone who wishes to become a commercial beekeeper starts very small and learns to look closer at the bees, learns to see the world from their eyes, and respect what they do. Beekeeping should be symbiotic, the amount of pain bees caused to the Sam family, both in hardship and stings, shows that we have a lot to learn from the bees, and we don’t control them.

Here is a great link to traditional Turkish beekeeping