Simon & Schuster, August 22, 2017.
The History of Bees is an ambitious cautionary tale about Colony Collapse Disorder – bees all over the world are disappearing without explanation, and without pollination, our food sources will disappear with them. This isn’t exactly a dystopia, since it is already happening today, and the world described here is a likely outcome if we don’t protect our bees from pesticides and other invasive modern farming methods. This is one of the most relevant and quietly terrifying environmental disasters of our time, and it is described here with an emphasis on the personal repercussions of the collapse – if we don’t fix it now, it is our children who will suffer.
The novel is told in three parts, looking at the past, present and future. In Hertfordshire, England in 1852, William is a biologist who has failed professionally and given up on life and ambition. He takes to his bed, leaving his family with no source of income, until he is inspired by his daughter to design and build a new type of beehive. It is built so that the layers can be removed and studied without damaging the colony, and he thinks his study of bees will result in fame and fortune for his family.
Years later, in 2007, George is a beekeeper in rural Ohio. He shuns modern farming advances, and still builds his own hives using the design that has been passed down through generations of his family. As George watches how powerful pesticides are destroying neighbouring bee colonies, he learns about the newly named Colony Collapse Disorder, in which beekeepers open up their hives in the spring and the bees are just gone with no explanation. George hopes for the best, and expects that his son will take over the family business – but Tom is more interested in his university writing classes.
In Sichuan, China in the year 2098, we see the full repercussions of the loss of the bees. Tao is one of many people who does the hard labour of hand-painting pollen onto fruit trees, to preserve the crops that cannot live without the bees. The government controls every aspect of peoples’ lives, they barely make a living wage, and have almost no free time to try to improve their lives. Tao wants more for her son Wei-Wen, but her decision to spend a day in the fields teaching him simple math ends in tragedy. Wei-Wen is taken by government authorities, and Tao makes the dangerous journey to Beijing in order to find out the truth about Wei-Wen’s accident.
The History of Bees is a haunting story because it is already happening in our world – this isn’t some distant future issue, but one that is affecting us today. However, this is not only an examination of environmental disaster – it is also about the powerful bond between parents and their children. It’s thought-provoking in this context, because while we will do anything for our immediate children, we are less concerned about destroying the planet for generations to come.
I wish the storylines had come together sooner, because the ways that the three plots echo each other aren’t clear until the end. The pacing is often slow, especially in some of the technical explanations of beehives, and of the events that led to Tao’s world. However, it is definitely worth reading when it all comes together and we see how William, George and Tao are connected. This is a wake-up call about the bee epidemic that is told without being pedantic – and ultimately it is hopeful that this crisis can be reversed if we start thinking now about the future.
I received this book from Simon & Schuster and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.