The History Of Bees by Maja Lunde (2015)
There are some spoilers in this review
It’s Hertfordshire, England, 1852, and biologist William Savage is faced with a crisis. He has neglected his research for family life, much to the displeasure of his mentor, Rahm. Trying to fight his way out of depression, William finds inspiration in a book that he believes was left on his bedside table by his only son. The tome deals with bees and their cultivation. It’s enough to drag him from his bed and into society again, to the delight of his large, young and voracious family. William begins to design a new kind of bee hive that will, he hopes, revolutionise apiculture.
In Ohio in 2007, George runs a family bee-keeping business. It’s not an easy life but it’s one he loves. He seasonally moves the bees from place to place to pollinate trees and flowers at the paid request of local farmers. George has big plans for his business. Expansion is on his mind. Sadly, his only child, Tom, shows little interest and George becomes increasingly disheartened.
China, 2098, Sichuan Province, and the world has become a dystopian reality. The bees have gone and the proletariat are forced to pollinate the tress by hands. Tao is one of a multitude who ensures that the trees bloom and bear the fruit necessary for survival. She exists quietly with her husband, Kuan, and their adored child, Wei-wen, a lively little boy. It’s monotonous but bearable as they try to save enough to be able to afford another child in the totalitarian society. But disaster strikes when Wei-wen is struck down with an undiagnosed illness during a picnic to an orchard. The child is taken away by the authorities and Tao is given no explanation. She refuses to accept this and soon sets off in stubborn pursuit of her child.
As William finishes his first ‘new’ beehive, he is informed that, although he arrived at the design independently, it has already been thought of and built. Deflated, he is ready to give up when his eldest daughter, Charlotte, innocently points out the way in which her father failed to take all factors into account in the design process. Thus, William returns to the books and studies bees, bees and more bees, determined to not only build a new type of hive, but an vastly improved one. Charlotte is with him every step of the way.
George’s life becomes chaos. His plans in disarray. It’s bad enough that he doesn’t get on with his only child due to the apparent rejection of apiculture as a lifestyle and career by Tom, but the incidence of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has completely destroyed his business. A lifetime of work and plans are all gone with the bees, and no one can explain why. CCD is a catastrophe not only for George, but for every bee keeper and, therefore, for humanity. The banks are not sympathetic and insist that George makes certain changes to how he does business. No more self-made hives, as was the family tradition – brought to the US from England by George’s female ancestor and her young nephew. George must buy factory-made hives. It makes little difference though, as CCD looms large no matter what they do. Life becomes an interminable gamble with the deck stacked heavily against George and all other beekeepers.
Tao takes whatever money she and Kuan have saved and sets off alone for Beijing, where she believes Wei-wen has been taken. When she reaches her nation’s capitol, she finds a veritable wasteland. Large areas of the city have been abandoned, the population dead or fled. Those who remain struggle day-to-day to feed themselves and their families. Some fight to keep businesses alive. Others exist through crime. Hospitals are closed and bureaucrats unhelpful as Tao pushes from place to place in search of her three-year-old. She discovers that the old are left to die in horrific conditions, a terror which explains what happened to her mother, supposedly taken to an idyllic retirement home. Tao is shocked and sickened, but more determined than ever to find Wei-wen.
William and Charlotte succeed in building a new and improved hive. William sees fame and fortune emerging from the invention of the Savage Hive. Charlotte remains quietly in the background. Even William’s former mentor is impressed with his creation. Success! Not quite. His application for a patent is to be rejected. Someone has gotten there before him. Yet again, William’s dreams are crushed and he contemplates suicide. And yet again, it’s Charlotte who comes forward to save him. William finds that it was his daughter, not his drunkard and promiscuous son, who left the book for him. Charlotte has quietly guided her father every step of the way and he never saw it.
George and his wife, Emma, are in a bind. Their life is all but over. Emma wants to retire to Florida and leave the hives. But George is reluctant to abandon generations of family traditions. Tom is still disinterested in the family business, but is concerned with CCD and its social impact. As a journalist of promise, he resolves to record all that is taking place, including his father’s battle with the Collapse.
Tao finds Wei-wen. She has located the facility where he was taken. It’s there that she meets the Chairwoman of China who speaks with her about all that has befallen her country. The chairwoman is a mother too, who wants only good things for the people of China. She speaks of the past and the collapse of the colonies. She speaks of the present and the need for order and hope. She speaks of the future and what can be achieved, and the role that Tao can play in that. But Tao hears none of this. She wants only to see her little boy. She gets her wish, and then wishes she hadn’t. He lies dead.
William eventually sinks again into a funk lightened only by the introduction of a child into the family. Of all his daughters, who are all, but Charlotte, married off, it’s his son who produces the first grandchild, a boy. William’s son is lost to alcohol and the dark streets of Victorian London where he becomes a case for Sherlock Holmes (he doesn’t really but it would make a nice story though). Charlotte takes the baby boy and the plans for Savage Hives, and sails for the United States where she becomes a beekeeper of renown. George is her relative, descended from the baby boy.
George is defeated. He has no option but to sell his land and move to a grudgingly accepted retirement in the Sunshine State. Tom remains a journalist and author. His accounts of the problems associated with Colony Collapse Disorder become accepted as the premier authority in how to understand the dangers that presaged the Collapse. Tom wondered if it was man-management of bees, as opposed to allowing them to run free, that caused the Collapse.
In China, Tao is forced to return to her home where she discovers that her husband has sadly moved on. They cannot be together as they remind each other of all they have lost. But Tao does bring back a poor father and his humble teenage son, refugees from a crumbling urban environment. It’s not much but it gives her a purpose again, to see them find a life. Tao is also tasked with telling the people about what happened to her beloved son, Wei-wen. The three-year-old died because he suffered from anaphylactic shock brought on by a bee-sting. In China, the bees are returning. The government rushes to research the reasons for the disappearance, and discovers a translated book by an American author who recounted how the Collapse began and the ways in which it affected his father, a beekeeper. China becomes determined to learn from the life of George, as told by Tom, both ancestors of Charlotte and William, in fighting to ensure that the newly returned bees stay with humanity forever.
The History Of Bees is a beautiful book. It sweeps gracefully from Victorian England to modern Ohio to a stark China of the future. Bees are the premise, the connection, the glue that holds this story together. In this, they are reinforced as a metaphor for their role in the natural world, holding it all together. William is not likeable, and never really becomes so, even when he recognises Charlotte’s contribution to his project. George is of a similar bent, an overbearing man who tries to dictate the life his son should have. Tao is slightly different. She is a grieving mother who was once perhaps too determined to see her son excel in academia and thus avoid the hard labour of hand-pollinating trees.
So it is that as people try to manage the lives of bees, corralling them into the specific format they want to see, the three lead protagonists also try to manage the lives of their offspring. It all leads to disaster. The bee colonies collapse as disease spreads quickly though each. The parent-child relationships face hardship from the intensity of attempted control. In the bigger human picture, urbanity fails as human colonies fall victim to greed and need. As with the bees, so with the people.
This book works on so many levels. It’s a metaphor for those who wish to delve into it in that way. It’s also just a really nice story. Settings, characters, plot, chronological bounce, it all works. OK, the fate of Wei-wen is not ideal and Rebel Voice feels that the death of a child in this way is not strictly necessary. He could have been written as having survived and it would have made little difference to the ending. Perhaps it’s a philosophical quandary, but there is the question of life imitating art, so can we let art exist without the suffering of a child? It’s not avoidance of reality, merely a refusal to engage in gratuitous child death in fiction.
However, elsewhere, The History Of Bees is a gem that will engage and hold the reader’s attention. You may not wish to put this book down until you reach the end, and that is the mark of a very fine book.
As to the bees themselves? Colony Collapse Disorder is very real. Should the bees disappear, as they are doing, then humans will not disappear as is commonly stated. But modern societies will. Bees are the main pollinators of the crops that humans need for survival. Less bees means less pollination and less food. Less food means starvation, war and disease. Our societies would essentially break down as it became dog-eat-dog. We need the bees yet they are dying.
The story suggests that man-management of the bees is the problem. Wild bees are also suffering, but likely from contact with cultivated ones. Think farmed salmon versus wild. Farmed salmon have more sea-lice then wild salmon. They are more susceptible to disease. They are less healthy and of poorer nutrition. Are farmed bees to be any different? As bees are transported for the purposes of pollination of orchards, any undiagnosed diseases are transferred from hive to hive, population to population. Perhaps, as with so much on this planet, it’s human avarice and arrogance that is destroying the very basket in which we hold all our eggs. The History Of Bees is not a treatise upon human failings, not entirely. It is a human story that can lead to consideration to our failings as individuals and therefore as a species. Much to think about.
Sult scale rating: 8 out of 10. This is a poignant, tender and thought-provoking story that flows through generations with the humble bee as the link. Human planning, maintenance and, ultimately, failures in beekeeping are presented in the context of family life. This might be one of the cleverest books you will ever read if you want it to be. If not, it’s still a gently evocative tale well worth the little time it takes to read.