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.