Review: Vivien Horler
The History of Bees, by Maja Lunde (Scribner)
A life without bees is unimaginable. Honey is the least of it – pollination is the major service that bees provide.
And as we all know, honeybees are dying out around the world. Maja Lunde, who is Norwegian, had her interest in the subject sparked by a documentary she watched on the phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder, something that she says both scared and fascinated her.
The result is this novel, a story about bees from three perspectives: one set in England in the 1850s, one set on a bee farm in Ohio in 2007, and one set in Sichuan in China in 2098.
In a Hertfordshire that feels more Norwegian than English (it’s full of forests), William sells spices in a village shop and becomes fascinated by the idea of building a new type of beehive that will enable honey to be removed without disturbing the bees. He is desperate for public recognition as a scientist, but always seems to be on the hind foot.
In Ohio in 2007, George is finding his life as an apiarist increasingly difficult. The farm has been in his family for several generations, but it is not as profitable as it once was, and his only son is not interested in taking over. Then his bees begin to die off.
And in Sichuan, Tao is pollinator, manually pollinating fruit trees with pollen using tiny paint brushes, because there are no bees anymore. She and her husband have a beloved three-year-old son Wei-Wei, and they are saving to be allowed to have another child.
Then Wei-Wei has an accident and he is taken away by the authorities who won’t tell her what has happened to him. Tao uses their savings to go on a long and difficult journey to a scarily dysfunctional Beijing to find him.
All three stories are linked, despite the huge differences in time. I was least convinced by William’s experience, but found the lives of George and Tao fascinating; Tao’s world of no bees, hardly any insects and few birds is chilling. It’s a world we need to avoid at all costs.
This is a novel with a message, and at the end, in an interview included in the book, Lunde says: “Keep bees. Plant bee-friendly flowers. And try to live as sustainably and green as you can. When planet earth is in trouble, the bees are in trouble. Everything is connected to everything, it’s as simply and difficult as that, really.”