For about five years Rob and I were heavily involved with Friends of the Earth – running our local group, going to conference and doing lots of campaigning. While we are still very well disposed to the planet we found that we had less and less time for active campaigning so now we do our supporting a little more remotely. Many of the campaigns themselves, however, have stuck in my mind and, like many people, the fate of bees has been a constant worry. Because without bees we would have a much more difficult future (and we’d probably have to survive that future without easy access to some of the amazing things which are pollinated by bees – fruits, vegetables, coffee and even *gulp* wine) we owe it to ourselves to consider how our actions, and those of our governments, affect the wider environment. Which means that, as well as apocalypses I am drawn to books which consider ‘green’ issues (and love those which carry both off with style).
In The History of Bees Maja Lunde achieves both of these things. There are three linked stories set in England in 1852, America in 2007 and China in 2098 – in the first William Savage is a seed merchant and failed academic who is trying to develop an improved bee-hive while struggling with depression; in 2007 we meet George who faces the problems of keeping his hives going in the face of Colony Collapse Disorder and finally, in 2098, Tao is one of thousands of Chinese workers who have to pollinate fruit trees by hand. Because the bees have all died. This covers the history of hive development, the fight against the inexplicable death of millions of bees in the present day and gives us an in-depth look at a world without the unseen work all those bees do for us. For me the 2098 section is the most interesting because of this – the lack of various food crops is the obvious change but there are other things which were more surprising; cotton fabric, for example… Each portion of the story also has a human angle – specifically one exploring relationships between parents and children. In the 1850s William is investing all his hopes in his son, to the extent of missing how much one of his daughters, in particular, is supporting him: in 2007 George is, again, wanting to mould his son into his own idea of the perfect child (and again struggling with his own mental health) and feeling that he is failing. Tao’s story is the saddest – her son is very young and she loses him. He becomes ill and is whisked away by the state; her mission is, initially, to find hm and then, as she looks deeper, to discover what happened to the bees…
These are fascinating linked stories which explore both our relationship with bees and with our own families. The balance which must be made between individuality and society – the bee and the hive – applies both to insects and to humans.