A Novel That Imagines a World Without Bees

Maja Lunde’s climate-fiction debut uses species extinction to ask its human characters: What’s more important, self-interest or sacrifice?

Bees on a blue fence
Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters

The category of literature known as climate fiction—“cli-fi,” as it’s known—has gotten quite crowded in recent years. Even just in the past six months, there’s been Paul Kingsnorth’s Beast, which remains hopeful about impending disaster; Lesley Nneka Arimah’s short story “What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky,” which tackles both ecological concerns and the refugee crisis; and Ashley Shelby’s South Pole Station, which takes on climate-change denial. Into this busy field enters Maja Lunde’s novel The History of Bees. Lunde, a writer of children’s and young-adult books, pieces together a tale that makes the long-term effects of climate change the backdrop for a set of stories about familial relationships, love, and loss.

Following a simple premise—what would happen if bees disappeared?—Lunde’s novel, originally released in Norwegian in 2015, jumps back and forth, across time, between the stories of three beekeepers. The term, it should be noted, is used loosely: There’s William, a British biologist in the mid-1800s; George, a farmer in the contemporary Midwest; and Tao, a young Chinese mother in a bee-less 2098 who spends hours performing manual labor in the fields to make up for the lack of apiformes. All three are dealing with personal problems brought about by the existence—or lack—of bees in their life. But the novel smartly relies limitedly on its ecological-disaster framework and instead gains its best footing in the quiet and intimate relationships it depicts between its characters. At times, it’s easy to forget you’re reading a novel exploring the consequences of a species extinction—instead, you’ve become invested in the lives of the people whose stories it follows.

This family-drama quality stems from the fact that much of the book takes place before the Collapse, an ambiguous event that occurred over several decades, led to the obliteration of bees, and has greatly depleted the resources they help produce (crops, animal feed, and, in turn, a number of animals). Tao’s plotline is the only one that occurs completely in the post-Collapse world, one in which China’s citizens are forced to hand-pollinate trees, due to the country’s early use of pesticides. “It had paid off to be the ones who polluted the most,” Tao thinks to herself. “We were a pioneer nation in pollution and so we became a pioneer nation in pollination. A paradox had saved us.”

Tao’s story, which opens the novel, is easily the most captivating. It’s also the most urgent, because it takes place after, not before, global disaster. In addition to the stress and exhaustion brought about by her grueling work outdoors, Tao struggles to create a life for her 3-year-old son Wei-Wen, and her constant attempts to provide him the best possible education exasperate her husband Kuan, straining their relationship. When Wei-Wen mysteriously disappears, it pushes Tao and Kuan further apart. Lunde places you in Tao’s head and forces you to feel the emptiness around her:

This thing that was between us had grown to be insurmountably large. It became almost unbearable to be in the same room. He stirred up the same thoughts again and again. The same two words. My fault, my fault, my fault.

Tao becomes so caught up in blaming herself for her son’s disappearance that she withdraws from those around her. Initially provoked by the ecological disaster, the void she feels deepens because of her lack of connectedness to those around her, and because of her belief that she alone can solve all of the problems—whether minute and personal or huge and systemic—that exist in her world.

If most of Tao’s storyline follows her attempts to discover her missing son, George’s and William’s more closely trace their irascible connections with their children. The difficulty with which the two men attempt to relate to their kids and their kids’ developing hobbies mirrors the trouble they have grasping the realities of a changing world. George, living during the beginning days of the Collapse in the United States, struggles to maintain his bees as he rejects new farming techniques meant to streamline the process of beekeeping. He’s disappointed in his son Tom, who’s recently gone off to college and seems wholly disinterested in his father’s profession, and much more drawn to pursuing a Ph.D. in writing.

George’s decided unlikability—he’s oblivious to his son’s desires and puts himself above everyone else—is clearly intentional. With his rigid self-centeredness, he serves as a foil for the bees, which are both the novel’s primary symbol and its binding narrative force. In addition to being an integral part of keeping the environment in order, “each tiny insect was subordinate to the greater whole,” as William points out early in the novel, sacrificing an individual identity for collective wellbeing. George is the complete opposite. If his verve for beekeeping drives his life, it also results in the downfall of his relationships. Lunde, in creating this unbearably stubborn character, suggests the tricky balancing act between human self-interest and sacrifice, and shows how parents can sometimes be the ones who struggle with this tension most of all.

The third storyline, William’s, works as a combination of the other two, mingling the sympathy readers may feel for Tao with the contempt they might feel for George. When first introduced, William is immobilized in bed by an overwhelming depression brought about by his lack of scientific achievement. A renewed sense of passion—both for his family and his work—becomes the driving force behind the scientist’s return to life. But, his fixations come at a cost: Determined to make new strides in the world of mid-19th century beekeeping, he becomes blind to those around him. His egocentrism and need for recognition don’t allow him to realize that “a single person’s life, … thoughts, fears, and dreams meant nothing” if they don’t “apply to us all.”

William’s inability to comprehend the communal nature of life, a quality each character shares in some way, is central to the novel’s broader point—that self-interest alone can result in both personal destruction and larger catastrophes that affect those outside of one’s immediate orbit. The book does, however, leave open the possibility of a way of life that values the collective over the individual, as bees do from the day they are born to the day they die.

At times, the moralizing about the environment and humans’ role in global warming can come across a bit heavy-handedly. But increasing awareness of the earth’s fraught future, in the end, is not the main thing the novel is trying to do. Instead, it wants you to consider what it is you feel deeply about—whether that’s achieving fame, standing by traditions, or protecting your family—and then consider whether you would sacrifice those things for the greater good.