The History of Bees: Maja Lunde

Translated from Norwegian by Diane Oatley
Published by Scrivener UK / Simon & Schuster, 2017, 352 pages. Original version published in 2015.

We are in the midst of the sixth extinction and are losing species at an alarming rate. But we seem to have trouble recognizing the scale of the loss. How many of us associate lazy summer afternoons with the buzzing of bees? Not to mention the fruit and nuts we take for granted, crops that rely on them for pollination. But already in 1998, countries in Europe were noticing that bees were abandoning their hives. Colony collapse disorder (CCD) became a global phenomenon over the next few years, affecting North America in 2006.

Maja Lunde charts this disappearance over three centuries and interweaves narratives about three sets of parents and children and their connections with bees.

The three main characters live in three centuries and on three continents. In England in 1852, William is recovering from a bad bout of depression and finds release in designing the perfect hive; in the United States in 2007, George is battling with colony collapse disorder in his hives; and in China in 2098, Tao, who works as a manual pollinator because the bees have disappeared, is looking for her young son.

William has been in bed for months with severe depression. The only thing that gets him out of bed is a need to prove himself to his son, Edmund, and leave him a legacy. William is going to design the perfect hive—not a straw one as was common then, but one designed like a house with frames. But Edmund is a wastrel and a drunk, and it takes William a while to see that his real heir is his older daughter Charlotte, working quietly by his side.

George, a bee-keeper, makes a living selling honey and driving his bees out to areas where the local bees have gone, so that fruit trees can be pollinated. He is angry with his son Tom who, instead of taking over the business, wants to be a writer. But George is also hit by the CCD that affected the other parts of North America.

By the time we get to Tao, the bees have completely disappeared, leaving humans to painstakingly pollinate by hand. As Tao says, “We were a pioneer nation in pollution and so we became a pioneer nation in pollination. A paradox had saved us.” One day, when she and her husband Guan and three-year-old son Wei Wen go out for a picnic, the boy runs off to play. The parents find him in the forest, listless and comatose. The authorities are worried about the cause of his sickness and rush him to Beijing. Tao, determined to find out what happened to her son, goes in search of him.

The chapters move back and forth between the three narratives. The stories that Lunde weaves of William, George and Tao and their children are very moving and very human. But this is also a history of bees, and Lunde shows how, over three centuries, these very familiar creatures go from abundance to extinction.

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6 thoughts on “The History of Bees: Maja Lunde

  1. I saw a documentary about bees and why they’re disappearing, and part of what the film discussed was the way bees are moved from place to place by bee owners who are hired out by farmers. Because the bees aren’t located in one place, they tend to die. It’s a bit fuzzy in my head because it’s been a while since I saw the film, but I remember being surprised that bees’ work could be sold.

    1. suroor alikhan

      I didn’t know either and am not surprised it upsets them. In the book, the son, Tom, disapproves of his father driving them around. The trouble is that without bees, so many plants won’t be pollinated, so it’s a Catch-22 situation.

  2. Sophie

    What upset me quite recently is that I read that in America, studies were on their way to launch pollinating robots in a near future.
    Which means that as we’ll always find ways to adapt and “thrive”, why care about what/who is dying around us?
    Thank you again for your book reviews.

    1. suroor alikhan

      That kind of thing makes me angry too. It’s like trying to colonize Mars. “We’ve destroyed one planet and can’t be bothered to fix it, so let’s go destroy another one.”

  3. Sophie

    Exactly. I completely agree with you.

    On a more positive note, I really enjoyed reading A Gentleman in Moscow. I loved both plot and narration. I also enjoyed the author’s elegance in describing Rostov’s hardships in a light, witty and subtle way!

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