Westport, Weston bees offer lesson in resiliency in documentary

Photo of Katrina Koerting

WESTPORT — The world watched as a fire raged through the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris in April 2019, leaving a wake of destruction. As the smoke cleared, people soon learned that the rooftop beehives survived, offering some hope amid a tragedy.

It captivated the interest of Maria Luskay, a professor of media, communications and digital arts at nearby Pace University, so much so that she decided it would be the subject of her annual documentary program.

But when the pandemic hit last March, the class had to shift, instead getting a first-hand lesson in resiliency from the bees in their own backyards, visiting apiaries in Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Among them were hives in Westport and Weston.

“They took what could have been a disaster and these students made honey,” Luskay said.

After months of work — going beyond the semester and even past graduation for some — adapting to collaborating and editing in a pandemic, their final product, “Bee Aware” is set to premiere at www.pace.edu/beeaware at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, with a question and answer session to follow on Zoom at 8 p.m.

The 20 undergraduate and graduate students in the class spent more than two months researching urban beekeeping, setting up interviews, securing permits and booking flights for Paris. Their bags were packed and they were ready to go, when Italy started to lock down due to COVID and it soon became apparent they would need a new approach.

Luskay and professor Lou Guarneri decided to split the class up by region and have the students now find beekeepers around them, having the focus of the documentary now look beyond urban beekeeping to beekeepers themselves.

“It was never really an option to just give up,” said Chris Sinise, a grad student from Stratford. “Professor Lou at one point said, ‘Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. It had every reason to fail, but it didn’t.’”

Students set to work, scouring the internet and social media sites for beekeepers.

“We went on a wild goose chase,” Sinise said.

Nearly all of the 30 to 40 beekeepers they contacted in Connecticut contributed in some way, either having the students over to interview them and film their hives, or providing sources or information. Those who were uncomfortable having people over during the pandemic also offered to send videos and photos they took themselves, he said.

“I feel really lucky and grateful to have had this project during lockdown,” Sinise said.

The class continued to meet regularly on Zoom and even set an example for editing remotely that larger professional production houses picked up.

Local beekeepers welcomed the shift because the documentary helps shine a light on the challenges facing the honeybees and hopefully inspire people to change their actions to help.

“I was thrilled because any attention that we can bring to these pollinators and the environment make me happy,” said C. Marina Marchese, an author and founder of Red Bee Honey in Weston.

Julie Cook, the store manager at Savannah Bee in Westport, said the idea of the documentary aligned perfectly with the company’s mission of raising awareness. They already offer educational programs on the importance of bees and how to help, both at the store and Wakeman Farm in Westport, where the hives are.

“One-third of every bite of food you eat is pollinated by bees,” Cook said.

It goes beyond honey, fruits and vegetables people might naturally associate from seeing bees buzzing between these blossoms during the growing season to other products, including cotton and chocolate.

Bees currently face several challenges from loss of habitat as more trees and plants are cleared for development, to pesticides used on the plants they eat nectar from to climate change. Both Cook and Marchese said the warming winters are causing the bees to come out in the winter when there are no water sources or flowers so they can eat. The cold snaps can also kill them.

Cook said more than 50 percent of her friends lose hives every winter.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports the total number of managed honey bee colonies has decreased from 5 million in the 1940s to about 2.66 million now.

The documentary goes into these challenges facing the bees, as well as other hardships beekeepers are currently fighting.

Sinise and Luskay said they appreciated learning so much about bees and the larger role they play.

They said they hope people see the film and take away how important honeybees are. The documentary will also be entered into film festivals.

“I hope people take something away about the honeybees and how they can help them because they’re in trouble now,” Sinise said.

The documentary and beekeepers touch on small things people can do to help out, such as planting native plants, creating pollinator pathways and not using chemicals on their lawns.

“I hope the public understands how their actions will affect the future and how we live on the planet,” Marchese said.