The History of Bees

A Novel

LIST PRICE $19.99

About The Book

“Imagine The Leftovers, but with honey” (Elle), and in the spirit of Station Eleven and Never Let Me Go, this “spectacular and deeply moving” (Lisa See, New York Times bestselling author) novel follows three generations of beekeepers from the past, present, and future, weaving a spellbinding story of their relationship to the bees—and to their children and one another—against the backdrop of an urgent, global crisis.

England, 1852. 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 honor and fame.

United States, 2007. George is a beekeeper fighting 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, she sets out on a grueling journey to find out what happened to him.

Haunting, illuminating, and deftly written, The History of Bees joins “the past, the present, and a terrifying future in a riveting story as complex as a honeycomb” (New York Times bestselling author Bryn Greenwood) that is just as much about the powerful bond between children and parents as it is about our very relationship to nature and humanity.

Excerpt

The History of Bees TAO
District 242, Shirong, Sichuan, 2098

Like oversize birds, we balanced on our respective branches, each of us with a plastic container in one hand and a feather brush in the other.

I climbed upwards, very slowly, as carefully as I could. I was not cut out for this, wasn’t like many of the other women on the crew, my movements were often too heavy-handed. I lacked the subtle motor skills and precision required. This wasn’t what I was made for, but all the same I had to be here, every single day, twelve hours a day.

The trees were as old as a lifetime. The branches were as fragile as thin glass, they cracked beneath our weight. I twisted myself carefully, mustn’t damage the tree. I placed my right foot on a branch even further up, and carefully pulled the left up behind it. And finally I found a secure working position, uncomfortable but stable. From here I could reach the uppermost flowers.

The little plastic container was full of the gossamer gold, carefully weighed out. I tried to transfer invisible portions lightly out of the container and over into the trees. Each individual blossom was to be dusted with the tiny brush of hen feathers, from hens scientifically cultivated for precisely this purpose. No feathers of artificial fibers had proven nearly as effective. It had been tested, and then tested again, because we had had plenty of time—in my district the tradition of hand pollination was more than a hundred years old. The bees here had disappeared back in the 1980s, long before The Collapse; pesticides had done away with them. A few years later, when the pesticides were no longer in use, the bees returned, but by then hand pollination had already been implemented. The results were better, even though an incredible number of people, an incredible number of hands were required. And so, when The Collapse came, my district had a competitive edge. It had paid off to be the ones who polluted the most. We were a pioneer nation in pollution and so we became a pioneer nation in pollination. A paradox had saved us.

I stretched as far as I could, but couldn’t quite reach the blossom at the very top. I was about to give up, but knew I might be punished, so I tried once more. Our pay was docked if we used up the pollen too quickly. And our pay was docked if we used too little. The work was invisible. When at the end of the day we climbed down from the trees, there was no evidence of our work except for the red chalk X’s on the tree trunks, ideally up to forty trees each day. It wasn’t until autumn came and the trees were laden with fruit that we would know who among us had actually succeeded in their work. And by then we had usually forgotten which trees had been dusted by whom.

I was assigned to Field 748 today. Out of how many? I didn’t know. My group was one of hundreds. In our beige work uniforms we were just as anonymous as the trees. And just as close together as the flowers. Never alone, always together in a flock, up here in the trees, or wandering down the tire ruts from one field to the next. Only behind the walls of our own small flats could we be alone, a few short hours a day. Our whole lives were out here.

It was quiet. We weren’t allowed to speak while we worked. The only sound to be heard was that of our careful movements in the trees, a faint clearing of the throat, some yawns and the material of our uniforms against the tree trunks. And sometimes the sound we had all learned to dislike—a branch creaking and in the worst case breaking. A broken branch meant less fruit, and yet another reason to dock our pay.

Otherwise only the wind was audible, passing through branches, brushing across the blossoms, slipping through the grass on the ground.

A fly buzzed through the air, a rare sight. It had been several days since I had seen a bird, there were fewer of them as well. They hunted the few insects to be found, and starved, like the rest of the world.

But then an earsplitting sound broke the silence. It was the whistle from the management’s barracks, the signal for the second and final break of the day. I noticed immediately how parched my tongue was.

I climbed down with awkward caution. My workmates and I crept down from the trees to the ground. The other women had already begun chatting, as if their cacophonic prattle was flipped on like a switch the split second they knew that they could.

I said nothing, concentrating on getting down without breaking a branch. I managed it. Pure luck. I was infinitely clumsy, had been working out here long enough to know that I would never be really good at the job.

On the ground beside the tree was a beat-up metal water bottle. I grabbed it and drank quickly. The water was lukewarm and tasted of aluminum, the taste made me drink less than I needed.

Two young boys dressed in white from the Trade Commission rapidly distributed the reusable tin boxes containing the second meal of the day. I sat down by myself with my back against the tree trunk and opened mine. The rice was mixed with corn today. I ate quickly. As usual, a bit too salty, and seasoned with artificially manufactured chili pepper and soy. It had been a long time since I had tasted meat. Animal feed required too much arable land. And a lot of the traditional animal feed required pollination. The animals weren’t worth our painstaking handiwork.

The tin box was empty before I was full. I stood up and put it back in the return basket from the Trade Commission. Then I jogged in place. My legs were tired, but nonetheless stiff from standing still in locked positions up there in the trees. My blood tingled; I couldn’t stand still.

But it didn’t help. I took a quick look around me. Nobody from management was paying attention. I quickly lay down on the ground, just to stretch out my back. It was aching after having been bent over in the same position for a long time.

I closed my eyes for a moment, tried to shut out the conversation of the other women of the crew, instead listening to how the chatter rose and fell in volume. This need to talk, all of them at the same time, where did it come from? The other women had started when they were little girls. Hour after hour of group conversations where the subject was always of the lowest common denominator and one could never really go into depth about anything. Perhaps with the exception of when the one being talked about wasn’t there.

Personally I preferred one-on-one conversations. Or my own company, for that matter. At work, often the latter. At home I had Kuan, my husband. Not that we had the longest conversations, either, conversation wasn’t what held us together. Kuan’s references were here and now, he was concrete, didn’t crave knowledge, something more. But in his arms I found peace. And then we had Wei-Wen, our three-year-old. Him we could talk about.

Just as the cacophony had almost sung me to sleep, it suddenly fell silent. Everyone was quiet.

I sat up. The others on the crew were facing the road.

The entourage was walking down the tire ruts and towards us.

They were no more than eight or nine years old. I recognized several of them from Wei-Wen’s school. All of them had been given identical work clothes, the same synthetic beige uniforms that we were wearing, and they walked towards us as quickly as their short legs could carry them. Two adult leaders kept them in line. One in front, one behind. Both of them were equipped with powerful voices that corrected the children without cease, but they did not reprimand them, giving instructions with warmth and compassion, because even though the children had not yet fully taken in where they were headed, the adults knew.

The children walked hand in hand, in mismatched pairs, the tallest with the shortest, the older children taking care of the younger. An uneven gait, disorganized, but the hands held on tight as if they were glued together. Perhaps they had been given strict instructions not to let go.

Their eyes were on us, on the trees. Curious, wrinkling their noses a bit, cocking their heads. As if they were here for the first time, even though all of them had grown up in the district and didn’t know of any kind of nature other than the endless rows of fruit trees, against the shadow of the overgrown forest in the south. A short girl looked at me for a long time, with big, slightly close-set eyes. She blinked a few times, then sniffed loudly. She held a skinny boy by the hand. He yawned loudly and unabashedly, didn’t lift his free hand to his mouth, wasn’t even aware that his face stretched open into a gaping hole. He wasn’t yawning as an expression of boredom; he was too young for that. It was the shortage of food that caused his fatigue. A tall, frail girl held a little boy by the hand. He was breathing heavily through a stuffed-up nose, with his mouth open, missing both front teeth. The tall girl pulled him behind her while she turned her face towards the sun, squinted and wrinkled her nose, but kept her head in the same position, as if to get some color, or perhaps glean strength.

They arrived every spring, the new children. But were they usually so small? Were they younger this time?

No. They were eight. As they always were. Finished with their schooling. Or . . . well, they learned numbers and some characters, but beyond that school was only a kind of regulated storage system. Storage and preparation for life out here. Exercises in sitting quietly for a long time. Sit still. Completely still, that’s right. And exercises to develop fine motor skills. They wove carpets from the age of three. Their small fingers were ideally suited for work with complex patterns. Just as they were perfect for the work out here.

The children passed us, turned their faces to the front, towards other trees. Then they walked on, towards another field. The boy without teeth stumbled a bit, but the tall girl held his hand tightly, so he didn’t fall. The parents were not here, but they took care of one another.

The children disappeared down along the tire rut, drowned between the trees.

“Where are they going?” a woman from my crew asked.

“I don’t know,” another replied.

“Probably towards forty-nine or fifty,” a third said. “Nobody has started there yet.”

My stomach twisted into a knot. Where they were going, which field they were headed for, made no difference. It was what they were going to do that—

The whistle sounded from the barracks. We climbed up again. My heart pounded, even though I wasn’t out of breath. For the children had not grown smaller. It was Wei-Wen . . . In five years he would be eight. In just five years. Then it would be his turn. The hardworking hands were worth more out here than anywhere else. The small fingers, already accustomed to weaving carpets, trained in fine motor skills every single day at school, already fine-tuned for this type of work.

Eight-year-olds out here, day in and day out, stiffened small bodies in the trees. Not even an excuse for a childhood, as my peers and I had had. We had gone to school until we were fifteen.

A non-life.

My hands shook as I lifted the hand holding the precious dust. We all had to work to acquire food, it was said, to make the food we would eat ourselves. Everyone had to contribute, even the children. Because who needs an education when the wheat stores are diminishing? When the rations become smaller and smaller with each passing month? When one must go to bed hungry in the evenings?

I turned around to reach the blossoms behind me, but this time my movements were too abrupt. I hit a branch that I had not noticed, suddenly lost my balance and leaned heavily over to the other side.

And that did it. The cracking sound we had come to hate. The sound of a branch breaking.

The supervisor came quickly towards me. She looked up into the tree and assessed the damage without saying anything. Quickly she wrote something down on a pad of paper before leaving again.

The branch was neither large nor strong, but I knew all the same that my entire surplus for this month would vanish. The money that was supposed to go into the tin box in the kitchen cupboard where we saved every single yuan we could spare.

I drew a breath. I couldn’t think about it. I couldn’t do anything but keep going. Lift my hand, dip the brush into the pollen, move it carefully towards the blossoms, brush across them as if I were a bee.

I avoided looking at my watch. Knew it wouldn’t help. I only knew that with each flower I moved the brush across, the evening came a bit closer. And the one hour I had every day with my child. That tiny hour was all we had, and in that tiny hour perhaps I could make a difference. Sow a seed that would give him the opportunity that I myself never had.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The History of Bees includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Maja Lunde. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

In the spirit of Station Eleven and Never Let Me Go, this dazzling and ambitious literary debut follows three generations of beekeepers from the past, present, and future, weaving a spellbinding story of their relationship to the bees—and to their children and one another—against the backdrop of an urgent global crisis.

England, 1852. 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 honor and fame.

United States, 2007. George is a beekeeper fighting 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, she sets out on a grueling journey to find out what happened to him.

Haunting, illuminating, and deftly written, The History of Bees joins these three very different narratives into one gripping and thought-provoking story that is just as much about the powerful bond between children and parents as it is about our very relationship to nature and humanity.

Topics and Questions for Discussion

1. The History Of Bees alternates between three perspectives: those of Tao, George, and William. With which of these three main characters did you most relate? To whom did you find it hardest to connect? With whom do you most identify?

2. On page 30, William’s mentor, Rahm, opines “One reproduces, has offspring, one instinctively puts their needs first, they are mouths to feed, one becomes a provider, the intellect steps aside to make way for nature.” Do you agree or disagree with Rahm’s statement? What do you think William felt when his mentor put it thusly?

3. On page 36, George thinks longingly of the bees’ buzzing as the “real reunion celebration.” How does George’s expectation of how his reunion with Thomas will go impact how the two men relate to each other?

4. Throughout the book, there’s great emphasis on experience vs. intellect. Think of George’s experience vs. Thomas’s books, Tao’s attempts to discover what happened to Wei-Wen, William’s relationship with Rahm. Which brand of “knowledge” do you think is more valuable?

5. George is preoccupied with leaving a “legacy” behind, resisting Emma’s attempts to move them to Florida. From where does his legacy ultimately come? Is it what you expected?

6. William, on page 116, says of his desired creation “Only humans could construct proper buildings, a building it was possible to monitor, which gave humans, not nature, control.” From where does the impulse to control nature come? Do you think that a desire to control the natural world is something humans can overcome without catastrophic reason?

7. How do the workings of the hive impart a lesson for humans? Is there any wisdom to be gleaned from the way their “society” works?

8. When George goes on the camping trip with young Tom, he tells him a tale about a snake (p. 186). What could the snake be symbolic of?

9. Colony Collapse is partially about abandonment of the queen. How does the theme of abandonment or fear of abandonment play out throughout the novel, specifically in Tao’s timeline?

10. Both William and Tao find refuge in going to bed, while George finds himself unable to rest. How do the characters hide from their loved ones? Where do they each find solace?

11. Which character do you think is most important in the book? Whose life story holds the three narrative threads together?

12. On page 316, Tao notices that Li Xiara and the teenage boy are using the same words to describe two very different feelings—“Each and every one of us is not important” could be about either community or loneliness. Do you find meaning in community? How? How could a sense of community be taken too far?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Pick up New Observations on the Natural History of Bees by François Huber or Robbing the Bees by Holley Bishop from your local library. Discuss how what you learn from those texts enhances the fictional world Maja Lunde has created in The History of Bees.

2. Find a local nursery, garden center, or farm that keeps bees and visit to see them in action!

3. Do some research on Colony Collapse Disorder. What was surprising to you? Did you know about its existence before reading The History of Bees?

4. Have a honey tasting! Try some local honey and some that’s more mass-produced. Discuss the differences between the different varieties you try.

A Conversation with Maja Lunde

All three of the main characters are parents, and they’re deeply affected by their hopes and disappointments in their respective children. In comparing their relationships to their children, what were you trying to say about the nature of parenthood?

The three main characters are very different, live in different times and places, but have in common that they are parents filled with fear and hope, a fighting spirit, and resignation. And they all want what’s best for their kids, but don’t always know what that is. This is a theme I, as a mother of three, really relate to. Children are constantly evolving, and thus the role of a parent is ever-changing. It is so easy to forget that your child is a completely different person than you, and what’s right for you is often not right for him or her. Tao, George, and William are certain they know what’s best for their children, but are quite often mistaken.

Each of the three narrators uses such distinct diction and has such different backgrounds and priorities. Which was the easiest for you to write, and which was the hardest? How did you ensure that you kept their diction distinct?

I think George was the one who came easiest. I just loved him, with all his weaknesses, and felt I knew him from day one. Tao was the most difficult one, mostly because her story is from the future. But when I forgot that and instead focused on her as a mother, it started to flow. Her son is three; my youngest was three when I did the writing. It was him, really, I imagined when writing about Tao. That actually made their story very emotional for me.

What first sparked your curiosity in writing about the importance of bees to humans? Why choose to make your statement through fiction instead of a research-based nonfiction work?

I came up with the idea for this novel after seeing a documentary about Colony Collapse Disorder. It scared and fascinated me at the same time and I immediately knew that I wanted to write this novel.

When starting to work with the book, I had three questions: why do the bees die, how does it feel to lose them, how can the world be without pollinating insects?

To answer the questions I did a lot of research, and through the research, I found the three main characters of the novel. As a fiction writer, it was the characters who inspired me and made me go on writing.

What books did you read, or what websites, to understand England in the nineteenth century? What resources did you draw upon to imagine China in the year 2098?

I read a lot of Dickens, among other authors. I found Great Expectations especially inspiring. I also read different history books, and talked to a historian. The biology part was quite a challenge. I did quite a bit of research to find out how much they knew about bees back then, and of course tried to find out as much as I could both about Lorenzo Langstroth and Huber. Langstroth’s story also inspired the story of William: the depressed father rising through a new invention.

When it came to China I had to find out how the world could look without bees and pollinating insects. It was not easy—I had to imagine everything, really—but I checked with several experts to try to make it as realistic as possible. I also read books about China today and took note of the pollination system they have in place, the names they’re already using (the Committee, for example), and details like the red scarf, which is used in school.

Have you ever thought about keeping honeybees yourself?

Every day, at least in summer. But my garden is very small and next to a playground. I’m not sure if the other neighbors would be thrilled.

The History of Bees ends on a hopeful note. Why choose to add an element of hope to the dystopian future? How do you theorize the bees made a return?

Deep down I’m an optimist; therefore it would be wrong for me to end my novel without hope. As long as we have hope, we are also willing to take the steps we need to make our planet better and safer for children of the future.

I want the readers to have their own opinion about why the bees have come back . . . or . . . maybe they’ve been there the whole time?

What is something that readers can do to help combat Colony Collapse Disorder? What do you recommend people do if they’d like to help?

Keep bees. Plant bee-friendly flowers. And try to live as sustainable and green as you can. When Planet Earth is in trouble, the bees are in trouble. Everything is connected to everything—it’s as simple and difficult as that, really.

For which character in the novel—main or secondary—did you feel the most affinity? Affection? Annoyance?

I love the children in the book. Charlotte, Tom, and Wei-Wen. They’re the heroes of my story. And in them you find the hope.

I got annoyed with all my three main characters when writing, especially William. He could be quite irritating. But I also felt for them, understood them and loved them, and can’t decide which one is my favorite. It’s a bit like asking me which of my three kids I love the most. . . .

Are you working on another novel now? If so, can you tell us a little about it?

I am. And again I’m writing about parents and kids, past, present, future. And nature. Write where it burns, we say in Norway. This is where it burns for me.

You’ve written children’s books, YA books, and scripts. How did writing The History of Bees differ from those other undertakings?

Writing scripts for film and TV is different when it comes to language. The language is only a tool. But building characters and story is sort of the same. I also hear my novels are very easy to visualize for the reader. I guess it’s all my years working as a screenwriter that are coming through!

Writing for kids is like writing for the child inside me. Sometimes it’s more difficult than writing for adults, because I have to find her, the ten-year-old Maja. It’s not about being simpler or more childish, it’s about being more imaginative, more daring, perhaps. There’s little that gives more meaning to me than opening the door to the great adventures of books for young readers, and I’m constantly working on new books for children.

About The Author

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Maja Lunde is a Norwegian author and screenwriter. Lunde has written ten books for children and young adults. She has also written scripts for Norwegian television, including for the children’s series Barnas supershow (“The Children’s Super Show”), the drama series Hjem (“Home”) and the comedy series Side om Side (“Side by Side”). She lives with her husband and three children in Oslo.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Touchstone (June 2018)
  • Length: 352 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501161384

Raves and Reviews

"The History of Bees is spectacular and deeply moving. Lunde has elegantly woven together a tale of science and science fiction, dystopia and hope, and the trials of the individual and the strengths of family."

– Lisa See, New York Times bestselling author of THE TEA GIRL OF HUMMINGBIRD LANE and SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN

“When you think of coming to tears over a novel, a story about bee keepers and honey is not your first thought. But such is the genius of debut novelist Maja Lunde that her tale of three eras—the long past, the tenuous present and the biologically damned future—is strung on the fragile hope of the survival of bees. Without ever banging an apocalyptic drum, Lunde paints an achingly pure picture of what happens if we fail to protect the bees, our biospheric conscience, our fragile, sacred spinners of gold.”

– Jacquelyn Mitchard, New York Times bestselling author of THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN and TWO IF BY SEA

“As a lover of honeybees and a fan of speculative fiction, I was doubly smitten by The History of Bees. Maja Lunde’s novel is an urgent reminder of how much our survival depends on those remarkable insects. It is also a gripping account of how—despite the cruelest losses—humanity may abide and individual families can heal.”

– Jean Hegland, author of STILL TIME and INTO THE FOREST

“By turns devastating and hopeful, The History of Bees resonates powerfully with our most pressing environmental concerns. Following three separate but interconnected timelines, Lunde shows us the past, the present, and a terrifying future in a riveting story as complex as a honeycomb.”

– Bryn Greenwood, New York Times bestselling author of ALL THE UGLY AND WONDERFUL THINGS

"I once sat sheltered while a swarm of bees the size of a house flew over me. I wish readers this same cone of isolated, humming space when they read Maja Lunde’s fine novel The History of Bees. Here is a story that is sweeping in scope but intimate in detail. Stepping lightly between a 19th century British naturalist, a contemporary Ohio bee farmer, and a determined mother in a dystopian future China, Lunde dares to imagine the chaos our rapidly changing world invites, while finding order and hope in individual acts of care." 

– Laura McBride, author of 'ROUND MIDNIGHT and WE ARE CALLED TO RISE

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