The Premise: England, 1851. William is a biologist and seed merchant, who sets out to build a new type of beehive—one that will give both him and his children honour and fame.
United States, 2007. George is a beekeeper and fights an uphill battle against modern farming, but hopes that his son can be their salvation.
China, 2098. Tao hand paints pollen onto the fruit trees now that the bees have long since disappeared. When Tao’s young son is taken away by the authorities after a tragic accident—and is kept in the dark about his whereabouts and condition—she sets out on a grueling journey to find out what happened to him.
Thoughts: This was a really fascinating read, with plenty to engage and scare the reader in its presentation of a bee-free near future and its catastrophic effects on Earth’s population. I have had a slightly weird amount of interest in bees ever since reading Laline Paull’s The Bees, and I’ve also spent a disproportionate amount of time Googling bee-related facts for my daughter (I don’t really know why. We just talk about bees a lot). It seems insane to me that we are so reliant on bees for pollination, and how screwed we’ll be if they die out. This book played on all these fears and scared me quite a lot.
Divided into 3 alternating narratives, the book encompasses 200 years and 3 continents, from a man in 19th century England trying to invent a perfect bee hive, via an apiarist battling to keep his bees in 2007, to a futuristic China where a mother describes a life of hand-pollination and unending drudgery. Inevitably, one narrative strand fails to engage quite as strongly as the others, but the novel never loses pace or interest; I was engrossed in Tao’s futuristic storyline, and Lunde does a great job of setting up the complexities of the society she lives in, with all its restrictions and rules. The most recognisable of the time frames, focusing on George in 2007, was also very effective, reading like an Annie Proulx story (this is obviously a great thing). I felt like the historical plotline was a little dull by comparison, and didn’t really fit in with the others in terms of urgency, but maybe that’s the point: highlighting that bees were taken for granted and misunderstood until it was too late.
In Conclusion: Billed as being in the same vein as Station Eleven and Never Let Me Go, The History of Bees is, like these novels, a very immersive and exquisitely written book with plenty of elements of dystopia in the future setting. I found it hugely enjoyable, intriguing, eye-opening and well-written. Lunde cleverly takes a prospect that could well happen in the loss of bees, and invests it with humanity, emotion and hope. I really recommend this book.