Book Review: The History of Bees by Maja Lunde

“The bees are dying, Dad. We’re the only ones who can do anything about it.”

Oscillating between three narratives set in three different time periods, The History of Bees by Maja Lunde highlights the unparalleled importance of bees and what happens to humanity as they begin to disappear and eventually vanish.

When I came to see him after completing my exams eighteen years ago, I hoped to study insects, particularly the eusocial species, the individual insects that functioned together virtually as one organism- a superorganism. That was where my passion lay, with the bumblebees, wasps, hornets, termites, bees.

In England in 1851 William is bedridden, suffering under the weight of his depression after sacrificing his dreams of academia to raise and support a family. At first, his effort to maintain his passions led him to open a seed shop, to provide the fodder that would attract his coveted insects, opening the possibility to study them tangentially. But even then the pressures of family life overwhelm him and he hides away in his study, haunted by the very books that used to bring him so much joy.

With his family on the precarious edge of poverty, his children are terrified to cross the threshold, but when his eldest son braves the stench and gloom of his father’s room, William is roused. He vows to improve himself, for the sake of the legacy he hopes to leave for his son. He reminiscences on the conversations he had with his mentor and the research they shared and in doing so becomes inspired to improve upon the hives that house his precious bees. The current design provides feeble access to observe the bees, leaving much of their inner lives unexplored so William throws himself into inventing a new design that would be coveted by academics, thereby catapulting him back into this prestigious circle. What he creates will change the way beekeepers operate for generations to come.

Emma had painted the hives, all of them, over the years, the color of candies. Pink, turquoise, light yellow and a kind of greenish pistachio color, as artificial as sweets full of additives. She thought it looked festive. For my own part the could just as well have been white, like before. My father had always painted the white and his father and grandfather before him. They used to say that it was the inside that counted- not the color.

In America in 2007 George is the quintessential American farmer- just trying to make a living off the the bees his family has kept for generations. He labors from dawn until dusk on the sorbet colored hives his wife painted and the bees that reside within. Like a father, he ensures each bee is cared for with the drones and worker bees ultimately serving their queen. Wax, honey and pollen are the fruits of his labor but is it the bees that do the most fundamental work.

Every one who worked with bees knew that the real money didn’t lie in honey; Gareth’s assets didn’t come from honey. The real money was in pollination. Agriculture didn’t have a chance without bees. Mile after mile of blossoming almond trees or blue berry bushes; they weren’t worth a dime unless the bees carried the pollen from one flower to another.

Like most business owners, George hopes to pass his legacy on to his son, Tom, but like most sons, Tom has other plans. He attends a university, hoping to work as a writer, and when he finds some success, his father puts on a brave face, afraid to lose his only child to the wild world beyond the farm’s fence. George struggles to support his son, knowing that without him the farm will fail and his life’s work will be for naught.

When George discovers one morning that the hives are empty, the dreaded Colony Collapse Disease has come to claim his bees, he is forced to reevaluate his life. Can he continue to practice the methods that have worked for over one hundred years or must he venture into the unknown modern way of things? Is there any way to secure the future for his cherished bees?

The little plastic container was filled with gossamer gold, carefully weighed out. I tried to transfer invisible portions lightly out of the container and over to the trees. Each individual blossom was to be dusted with the tiny brush of hen feathers, from hens specifically cultivated for precisely this purpose.

In China in 2098 Tao works in the fields as a prestigious hand-pollinator, a skill developed out of necessity after the mass extinction of bees, known as the Collapse. Her demanding work, which requires the utmost coordination and finesse, is vital to the survival of the human race. Without pollination there are no plants, without plants, animals cannot subsist and when the crops and livestock dwindle, humans are left without food to sustain life.

And so, when the Collapse came, my district has a competitive edge. It had paid off to be the one who polluted the most. We were a pioneer nation in pollution and so we became a pioneer nation in pollination, A paradox has saved us.

When Tao and her husband are awarded a rare day off together, they take their three-year-old son, Wei-Wen, out to enjoy an afternoon of fresh air and a picnic on the edge of the fields and forest that bracket their village. Full on canned plums, Wei-Wen wanders off, as children are wont to do, but with few threats to his safety in their secluded community this is of little worry so Tao and her husband lounge, drunk on the pleasure of unscheduled time.

Suddenly, Tao awakens in a blind panic, unsure of where her son is. She frantically searches for him and when she locates him on the edge of the forest it becomes very clear that he has sustained a severe injury. They rush him to the nearest hospital. Hours pass and they are unsure of the outcome. When they are updated it is only to be told he has been sent to another hospital without their knowledge or consent; they are not told where or what condition their son is in. Distraught, Tao sets out in to the barren, dangerous land beyond her village determined to find answers, to find her Wei-Wen.

What happened to Wei-Wen? What had happened to him? Something that involved the others. The closing off of the forest, the military, the fence, secrecy… Something that involved all of us.

The three narratives are elegantly woven, their connections like a fine thread and together they reach an astute conclusion. A subtle call to action, The History of Bees illuminates the past and present of beekeeping and imagines a future that is probable if our current situation is not reevaluated and drastically altered.

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A review copy of this title was provided by Touchstone Books

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5 thoughts on “Book Review: The History of Bees by Maja Lunde

  1. Ok I keep seeing this book around and it sounds both really awesome and also like it could be kind of boring to read. I cannot remember ever having a harder time deciding whether to add a book to my TBR or not! What do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As an environmentalist I love the focus put on the endangerment of our honey bees. It is such a timely issue and I’m surprised at the draw the book has been getting! I will be going out to purchase the book sometime soon for sure. Hopefully I can use it in my future biology classes, though not as a history lesson!

    Liked by 1 person

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