Book review: The History of Bees

I never knew how important bees were until I read Maja Lunde’s novel “The History of Bees.”

One warm October day a few years ago, I joined friends on their boat for a last sail of the season. A single honey bee tumbled out of a sail and spent the rest of the cruise snoozing in my hand.

I marveled as it docility and its appearance: the enormous black eyes, the furry thorax, the restless antennae. I wondered why it was alone and why it was so un-busy. When we came ashore, I watched the bee fly off, hoping it would orient itself toward home and rejoin its hive. I had a new awareness of how cute a bee was up close. Downright personable! But I had no idea how connected this individual was to a community, nor how essential it was to my life.

“The History of Bees” gave me another opportunity to examine bee-kind up close, but on a world-wide scale and attached to a vast reservoir of scientific facts. Did I know that without bees to pollinate, crops like blueberries and apples would not produce fruit? Did I know that bee farmers have been working to perfect hive design for hundreds of years? Did I know that in 2007 and 2008, domesticated bees vanished from North American hives?

Honeybees star in this book. They don’t speak, but they are continually communicating. By the end, I was fully impressed by the important role bees play in global agriculture and the danger to overlooking them or even abusing them. Lunde’s novel is truly a history of bees, as advertised in the title, channeled through three sympathetic but occasionally problematic protagonists.

The novel is constructed by interlocking tales by three narrators from three time periods. In England in 1851, William rouses himself from depression to invent a new honeybee hive and prove himself. In Ohio in 2007, George struggles to communicate with his studious son and save the family business–a bee farm. In 2098, brilliant Tao wrestles her intellect into submission to perform manual labor all day, every day, in rural China. Her job: to hand-pollinate pear trees, one blossom at a time, because bees have disappeared from the earth.

These various bee-related threads don’t converge until late in the book. But each story line stands on its own. when they do come together, it’s gratifying. I found myself most eager to get back to Tao’s story. After losing her three year old son to a medical mystery and then an authoritarian regime, she follows a tendril of hope into a devastated Beijing, into a decrepit library, and into a book that holds an answer too big for the tiny insects it describes. Her journey is heartbreaking, but she finds hope.

The two men were less sympathetic, so their stories were less gripping. Neither evolves on his own but rather depend on their children to carry on both bee keeping and positive character development. Which the children do, faithfully serving the bees that drove their fathers to ruin.

Read as a whole, uild to a harsh reality: without bees, the world is bleak.

The day I finished this book, a spring day trying to be warm, I glanced out my window to see a honeybee hovering outside. My heart leaped not just with recognition, but also with real relief. The bees are here. We’re going to be all right.

When there are problems in “The History of Bees,” as in the history of bees, it’s with the people. The facts about bees are perfectly clear and their background hum, thank God, goes on.