life without bees

…would be bleak, if Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees (translated from the Norwegian by Diane Oatley) is any indication!

In this novel, an English man in 1852 throws himself into inventing a revolutionary hive for beekeepers, hoping his work will bring fame and fortune to the family he’s struggling to provide for. On another timeline, an American man in 2007 tends to the bee farm that’s been in his family for generations, though his wife would prefer to sell and their son would rather pursue journalism than take up the mantle. Finally, a Chinese woman in 2098 works long hours pollinating fruit trees by hand; she and her husband barely make enough money to keep themselves and their small son fed in a world devastated by food shortages, in the wake of mass bee extinction.

The three threads are linked, on one side a bit more directly than the other; the narration weaves back and forth between each of the main timelines, drawing parallels between the three parents who are all in their own way trying to guide their children into a life of stability. However, the adults all seem to be afflicted by the same parental blindness, believing that what’s best for their sons is to keep them close behind on the paths the parents themselves have forged, using the lessons learned from past mistakes and lost opportunities to show the children how to succeed where others- perhaps even themselves- have failed. Of course, the children have their own dreams and ideas about what’s best for them and nothing goes quite as planned.

“It was as if I’d created a bond between my own childhood and his, between us and the world, between the world and the universe.”

This is actually the part of the novel that worked the least well for me; as someone who has only ever been the child in the “parent knows best” tug of war, I was not especially inclined to feel sympathetic toward the parent narrators trying to reshape their sons’ futures, good as their intentions may have been. The trajectories of these relationships feel drawn out and obvious. I would much rather have seen these three characters more clearly as individuals, with the focus primarily on their bee-related passion projects, than so preoccupied with their familial relationships. Of course parents are often preoccupied with trying to care for their children, but that can be true without also redirecting the entire novel (though perhaps parents who can relate to worrying about their children in this way may find the family focus a more appealing aspect altogether than I did). Giving the reader more than one generation to invest in along each timeline does help bridge the gaps between the centuries covered here, but I think The History of Bees would have stood firm (perhaps even firmer) without losing focus on the relationship between humans and bees over time to a very repetitive sort of family drama replaying itself over and over again.

What interested me most here was, by far, the bees. This is a fiction book, not a source of scientific authority, but there are some fascinating asides detailing how bee colonies function, some of the labor involved in beekeeping, general bee habits, and population changes across a span of decades. I did not know, for instance, but have looked up on my own to confirm, that bee farmers rent their bees to fruit farmers for pollination purpose; apparently apiarists really do pack their hives up on trucks and tour them around to make a little money aiding fruit production. I was also unaware of Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon in which seemingly healthy colonies suddenly abandon their homes and disappear in large numbers, for unknown reasons. I loved seeing how a beekeeper might feel about these parts of the job, how they could affect the work both logistically and emotionally.

“In 1988 the number of hives had been halved. Bee death had afflicted many places, in Sichuan as early as in the 1980s. But only when it struck in the US- and as dramatically as it did precisely in 2006 and 2007, farmers with several thousand hives suffered mass disappearances in the course of a few weeks- only then did The Collapse receive a name. Perhaps because it happened in the US, nothing was really important at that time until it happened in the US: mass death in China didn’t merit a worldwide diagnosis. That’s how it was back then.”

The economic Collapse that occurs in this novel in conjunction with the dying out of the bees is futuristic and built upon speculation, but Lunde’s proposed science provides intriguing food for thought and feels plausible enough. This part of the book, the explanation of Lunde’s dystopia and the weaving together of the three narrative threads, was another strong suit for me. Unfortunately this comes very late in the novel; despite the shortness of the chapters and frequent switches between characters to keep the plot from stagnating at any point, I found the majority of the read to be dull and dry, my time with the book mainly spent waiting for those impending connections as the characters walked slowly into fates that are all too obvious, sometimes even to the characters themselves:

“Perhaps I had known it all along, but couldn’t bear to take it in, because it was too big, too important.”

Ultimately, I do appreciate how all of the pieces of this plot fit together, as well as the environmental themes I’m left with. It’s simply much more pleasing to consider this novel in concept after the fact than it was to read through, and I’m not sure that I have any good ideas about what might have improved it for me. Perhaps if the whole thing had been presented as a heavily bee-detailed dystopian with more expansion on the futuristic timeline given up front, and the historical portions left as more of a footnote? The characters from the past do have their place here, but those old family squabbles carry very little of the book’s weight.

A final nagging complaint: either Lunde or Oatley seems to have had a penchant for placing commas between full sentences, where periods, dashes, semicolons, or just about any other stylistic choice would have made a better fit. I take no issue with the prose itself, but the comma usage gave the whole narrative an awkward flow I could never quite get past.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m glad I finally read this one, even if I didn’t find it quite as scintillating as I’d hoped. And I’m leaving this experience more interested in learning about bees and how necessary they are to human life than I was when I began, so I’ll chalk this up as a win. Further bee-related recommendations (of any genre) are welcome!

The Literary Elephant

19 thoughts on “life without bees”

  1. I also enjoyed so much learning about bees from this story! Every time I pass by a bee-hive I think about the book 🙂
    I also like the fact that Lunde wrote this book, and the other stories of the Climate Quartet, to raise awareness about climate change – climate fiction it’s a genre I haven’t been exposed to so far.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The best part of the read has definitely been my piqued interest in bees, I’m sure I’ll be thinking about that part of the book for a long time to come also! The climate change angle was one of the main reasons I picked up this book in the first place so I was disappointed not to see more exploration of that topic in this novel; it seemed like there was some info-dumping about how the world had been affected in the future timeline, but it felt like a quick mention rather than the deeper exploration I wanted. I am glad to hear you found that aspect more engaging than I did! I am considering reading further in the series in hopes of more climate content; I do like climate fiction also but have not read much of it yet.

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  2. I will be skipping this one cause the only section that sounds interesting in the future part. I find bees so interesting and have several books on the ports for plunder list. One of the fun and weird fiction books I read was The Bees by Laline Paull.
    x The Captain

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Unfortunately in the end I feel the same about the dystopian portion being the most interesting here; the history does play a small role in the story but I would’ve preferred it delivered in an abbreviated way with the focus staying on the future. Good choice skipping this one if that’s your preference up front, since the dystopian timeline is only 1/3 of the novel.
      And thanks so much for the recommendation! I have actually seen Paull’s The Bees floating around but never looked into it- now that my interest in bees is piqued I will look forward to checking it out!

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  3. Great review! I haven’t read them yet but Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson and Bee Journal by Sean Borodale (both part of Vintage’s gorgeous Birds and the Bees series) sound really interesting re: learning more about bees.

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    1. Ooh, thanks so much for the recs!! I had no idea where to start with this sudden interest, but both of these look really promising!

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  4. I think I would also find the facts about bees more interesting than the family drama. I’m kind of tired of these multi-timeline stories so unless they really offer something new, I’m not drawn to books that do that.

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    1. I actually liked the idea of the three timelines initially and it was kind of fascinating seeing how people have worked with bees across time, but the drawn-out family dramas really didn’t add anything for me. I would’ve been much happier with a more straightforward dystopia, perhaps with brief interludes flashing back to relevant scenes only!

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    2. Yeeees. So many authors do the dual (typically) timelines do it badly. I think I mentioned the only book I’ve read in which I liked this method was The Silence by Susan Allott. Every cut to a different time period adds to the one before it. It was done brilliantly.

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  5. It’s interesting how you phrased what the parents are up to — creating a wake in which the children can follow — because to me that sounds like what parents are supposed to do. But if that wake turns into “do what I say,” then I have to bounce. Listening to stories of parents bullying, either full-on or low-key, their children always enrages me. Even today a co-worker was telling me she saw her family at Christmas where she was the only one wearing a mask, so they relentlessly ridiculed her. We were talking about this because none of them will get the vaccine (the age was lowered to 45+ in Indiana today). At some point you have to ask yourself, “If I never see these people again, how would my life be different?” and then weigh the answer.

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    1. I have lots of complicated feelings about my own relationships with my parents and family; we seem to be fundamentally different types of people and I do regularly consider what it would mean to walk away. That definitely played a role in my lack of sympathy for the parents in this book- it’s one thing to give your kids something to stand on, another to try to push them into being a miniature version of yourself. All three of the parents in this book try to coax their children into a certain profession (mostly related to bees). They want their children to abandon all other pursuits but what the parents put in front of them. Only in the third case did I feel more sympathetic- the mother wants her son to be able to get a job that will give him more stability, so he’s not working 12 hour days pollinating trees by hand for a pittance, like she is doing, because her parents wouldn’t let her stick with math as a child. Even though some of these parents eventually get to see their children forging their own paths, there’s no moment of revelation to make it clear that the parents “get it.” Thematically it sort of ties in with the bees all working together toward a common purpose- in the same way, Lunde is arguing that humans need to work together to stop climate change and save the bees. But I think looking at it that simply ignores that people are not bees, and suffer human emotions that have to be dealt with even if one can argue that beekeeping at the cost of losing other dreams is for the greater good. Presented as it is without more nuance, it was just kind of painful to read about those kids.

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      1. Oh! I was also going to note that I remember seeing a documentary or news special about bees and how they keep dying. The conclusion was that part of the problem is moving the hives around to have the bees pollinate different areas. Basically, bees for hire. They get fatigued and stressed and die.

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      2. Yes, that’s mentioned in this book as well. The mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder hasn’t (in this book at least) been linked definitively to any one particular cause, but Lunde argues that it’s perhaps a bit of everything mixed together- moving the bees around, single-crop farming that makes it harder for the bees to access the right plants without being moved, modern pesticides, etc. A lethal combination. It’s hard not to believe that could be the case!

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  6. I’m weirdly fascinated by bees. I blame Ned Kelly and the City of the Bees which I read when I was a kid. I hated the last bee-related book I read (The Bees by Laline Paull) but that was actually from the viewpoint of a bee, so I’m glad to hear this one takes a different path!

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    1. Oh, interesting! I was very against bees as a kid thanks to a bad sting, but over the years I’ve become more interested in what they do (honeybees particularly) and how they work as a community. But I *think* this is the first time I’ve read bee-related fiction, and having it narrated by people who find bees fascinating was just the right way into the topic for me, I think.
      I’ve been curious about Paull’s book, but didn’t realize it used a bee’s POV- I will have to adjust my expectations. I’m sorry to hear you found it so disappointing! In that regard at least I think you’d get on better with Lunde’s work, though aside from the notes on bees it left plenty to be desired for me.

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