There is a scene in Blade Runner 2049 in the latter stages of the movie in which the hero, the replicant (a bioengineered human) blade runner Joe aka K, played by Ryan Gosling, comes across a somewhat unexpected and a tad surprising collection of beehives. He is in a future Las Vegas that has been devastated by radiation and basks in a solar glow of orange-yellow hues. The beehives hum in the golden penumbra of the stunning scene in a movie not short in them. Joe puts his hand in for a moment before he withdraws it to find it covered in bees. He has never seen a living bee before. The message perhaps is not all that subtle, or rather it is heavy handed but still can benefit from some unpacking. One of the major themes of the film after all is fertility and what it means to have progeny, the ‘miracle’ as one character terms it, of the creation of life itself.
Inside this Las Vegas beehive whose beekeeper is presumably Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, are many dancing bees. They’re not dancing to Elvis but rather they’re dancing to indicate the location of the flowers glimpsed in hydoponic gardens in Deckard’s living quarters. The dance of bees is that bumble rumba with the terrific name ‘the waggle dance’ and it is the method by which honey bees communicate to one another about where exactly the most abundant source of nectar is to be found. It involves them moving in a circle and then waggling their bodies for a duration of time the length of which indicates the distance of the flower, a second circle indicates its relation to the sun and the result is one of those beautiful feats of the natural world: an accurate map for other bees to follow.
Without bees and their dancing and in turn their collecting of nectar, the pollination of plants and crops, and with it the reproductive life of plantlife, will ultimately fail, breaking the cycle on which we humans depend for much of our food and nutrition.
In Blade Runner 2049 this has in fact happened with earth’s ecosystem falling apart sometime in the 2020s and the movie’s opening takes place above a stunning, Andreas Gurskyesque landscape of Wallace Corporation farms of genetically modified crops and livestock. This storyline of ecological collapse and food depletion is one reason why the meaning of beehives appearing in a radioactive, depopulated and deserted Las Vegas carries meaning: bees and their survival is tantamount to our own survival. You don’t need to have seen the movie to grasp the fact that the humble bumble bee is both agent and metaphor in any future of mankind.
I guess it’s been a few years now that the death of the bees has become a thing in people’s minds, but like the shadow of a hyperobject such as climate change it is also something that is hard to get a grasp of. What exactly are the consequences? The buzz of bees is known to us from childhood onwards, redolent of summer days when life was simple: a bumblebee comes buzzing along and spots a flower and goes to it, lands upon its open leaves and busily extracts the nectar to bring back to his queen, taking the flower’s pollen from the male stamen as it does so and bringing it to the next flower’s female stigma or pistel, and so on, until a whole host of pollination has occurred. This fertilisation results in a seed, or grain, and a fruit. It gives us food.
Insectageddon is the name of the largescale destruction that is currently happening to bees. The culprit? Funnily enough, it can largely be blamed on farming. Just last October there was a study conducted in Germany that showed a remarkable decline in bees and other insects connected to the use of pesticides in the lands abutting and surrounding arable agricultural land. A lot of the studies carried out to date are concerned with just a single species with little attention paid for the insect biomass in general, this study spread over twenty seven years in 63 nature reserves in Germany and the result showed up to 82% decline in summer time.
The point is that while science fiction is doing what it does best with Blade Runner – telling us about our present by extrapolating that present into a logical, science based future – science on the other hand, as it is currently prioritised and funded, is not doing it’s best for bees. Science has been very well funded by various pharma-chemo companies interested in how to kill insects but hardly any funding has been put into researching what the impact of this killing will be in the mid to long term. Without more research into the bees and their dance, the world of food production is going to be ‘retired’ soon.