Gabriel Ponniah, Editor In Chief
ATX Screen Scene
What do pharmaceutical companies, honeybees, and the Oakhurst neighborhood of Decatur, GA have in common?
A lot more than you might initially think, according to the investigative documentary Buzzkill. In 40 minutes, the film explores the dark machinations behind a saccharine mural and a swarm of local beekeeping activists determined to expose an insidious sham.
In 2016, Bayer (of Aspirin fame) sponsored and directed the crass painting-over of a community mural, arousing more than a little suspicion from local Decatur beekeepers. The move was ostensibly part of Bayer’s “Feed A Bee” initiative, aimed at raising awareness of and combatting colony collapse disorder (CCD), but for seasoned professionals such as those in Oakhurst’s beekeeping community, Bayer is understood not as a friend to bees, but an existential threat to their survival.
As the environmentally conscious well know, bees provide an integral service to broad ecosystems via pollination, but when colonies mysteriously lose a precipitous number of workers, they risk collapse. This loosely-defined phenomenon has been given the umbrella name of CCD since 2006, and although such blights have occurred sporadically throughout the history of beekeeping, an alarming prominence of CCD and related colony declines since the 90s has become the chief worry among today’s apiarists. Perhaps most worrisome is the uncertainty behind the cause. Despite lack of consensus, one prominent candidate comes to mind.
Buzzkill suggests that Bayer’s neonicotinoids are the culprit behind CCD. While the optics surrounding pharmaceutical companies have been disastrous of late (see: Purdue and the opioid crisis, ongoing deficiencies of the American healthcare system, etc.), this time it’s agricultural and not medical products catching ire. Bayer’s first neonicotinoid was developed in the 80s, and has since become the most widely used pesticide in the world. As links between the chemical and CCD mounted alongside EPA pressure, Bayer differed responsibility to farmers and hid behind a hollow public service announcement. And how did they cover their tracks? With paint.
Seemingly in lockstep with the onslaught of CCD, Georgia has risen to prominence in American culture. The spiritual descendants of OutKast and Goodie Mob have made Atlanta into Hip-Hop’s center of gravity, capturing the cultural zeitgeist of a nation. In November 2020, Georgia’s decisive election results helped Democrats take the Presidency and Senate, redefining the geographical balance of power in American politics. Buzzkill describes Decatur and its Oakhurst neighborhood in question as activist-oriented, praising the community’s engagement, but acknowledging its drawbacks. Not unlike AniFab’s own Austin, TX, it’s a blue dot in a sea of red; and not unlike Austin, it’s easy for individual causes to get lost in a sea of activism. Nonetheless, the spirit of the community is demonstrably vigorous.
In spite of a seemingly-obvious villain in Bayer, and a David of beekeepers fighting a corporate Goliath, this issue presents all manner of intersections and knots which make for a frustrating activist experience, but a rich and intriguing film. Bayer may well be killing bees, but as a Georgia Tech Ph.D (Go Yellow Jackets) states in her segment of Buzzkill, there are tradeoffs: pesticides kill bees, but they’re necessary to farmers seeking to protect crops from other insect pests which pose an existential threat to others’ food and their livelihoods. The same vigor behind the beekeeper’s cause turned to hatred and vitriol when directed at the artist who was contracted to paint the mural; she was so upset by the ordeal that she credited the mural fallout with part of her decision to move to the west coast. The increased activism in Decatur owes a debt to the area’s gentrification, as one can’t help but wonder how many Black families were pushed out of Oakhurst since the 90s to make way for these predominantly white beekeepers. Harassing the workers who, yes, shot a plastic PSA and uprooted the wildlife around the mural isn’t so much a win for accountability as it is shooting the messenger. As is often the case, these issues are intersectional, and untangling them is rarely a matter of mere common sense.
Still, the effort on behalf of the bees is admirable and important, intersections be damned. While Buzzkill leaves much to be desired on the pacing and editing fronts, its arguments are strong and well-researched, and the filmmakers demonstrate their persistence as far as North Carolina. And the gains here shown are real: the Bee City USA distinction for Decatur is an example of genuine grassroots change which may only be marginal as a lone drone, but powerful indeed if proliferated as a swarm.