The History of Bees by Maja Lunde

Updated: Jul 18, 2019

Review by The Wild Book Spy

At first, I have to confess, I was concerned that this book would be yet another bleak picture of a climate disaster future. However, on closer investigative reading, I found it was far from that – though this cautionary tale does pursue a thread that depicts the final decline of the bee population and the effect of that on our ability to grow sufficient food, the narrative pivots on the fortunes of three families living in different historical eras that are all, in some way, intertwined with and affected by bees.

The chapters alternate between William and his family living in Hertfordshire in the 1850s, George and his, living in Ohio in 2007 and Tao with her husband and small son, living in Sichuan Province in 2098. In parts, the story is very austere but it is cleverly constructed

to compel the reader to carry on and discover how the internal dramas will be resolved.

These families are linked together not just by their relationship with bees but by a fascinating depiction of the misplaced expectations a parent can have of their child and the damage and disappointment that can cause. Magnify the view, and I, for one, feel that the families weave around each other and their dependence on the bees, in a mesmerizing , dysfunctional pattern that is sharply contrasted by the intricate dance of the bees themselves which, though still a mystery to us, is essential to their success and well-being.

“Sometimes I just stood there studying how they danced. The movements back and forth, in which I wasn’t exactly able to discern any system, but I knew it was their way of telling one another where the best nectar was....”

The book cleverly highlights how the families themselves care about their children but are largely ignorant of their actual abilities and needs, and equally of the bees whose complex lives they hardly understand. They seek to mould their children into what would be most convenient to themselves and in a similar way to mould nature and make it equally convenient – but to the detriment of all.

“We reached the top of the hill. The landscape was spread out before us. Rows of trees as if drawn using a ruler, blossoming, symmetric cotton balls, against brown soil where the grass had only just begun to sprout through last year’s rotting leaves.”

Tension builds as the book progresses and each family discovers more about themselves, their relationships and their purpose. Equally, their expectations of the bees which is central to all their lives unfolds and unravels as they struggle to re-assess all their pre-conceived notions.

The natural world is sensitively described in small fragments – not to diminish its importance but possibly to emphasise the very real fraction of understanding we actually have of it. The disappearance of our major pollinators in the future sections of the book is a timely and urgent call to recognise how close we are to our own destruction by wantonly destroying what we hardly understand and the collateral impact that will have. Successful relationships on every level, with each other and with our world, require co-operation and understanding  - not dictatorship or tyranny and is, I think, a central message of the narrative.

This book is beautifully written by its Norwegian author who finally pulls all her threads together into a splendid finale which is both moving and satisfying. 

An intriguing and thought-provoking read from The Wild Book Spy

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