The History of Bees

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 31 May 2018

Member Reviews

The structure of this book, which has three related stories set in different places and times, was a gamble, especially because one part is set in China in 2098... sneaking a little scifi/dystopia in there. It works. The strands that hold it together are clear, and it was enjoyable finding them throughout the book. 

I do remember thinking the characters were a bit distance, maybe a bit flat, but that didn't stop me from enjoying the read. If you want character-driven or something positive and uplifting, this is not for you. 

You don't have to be a bee-lover to enjoy the book, but it will get you thinking about relationships between parents and children, time, and the echoing consequences of decisions made in an earlier time.
Was this review helpful?
This is wonderful! 
By a Norwegian novel debut author, Maja Lunde; translated from Norwegian The History of Bees is really well written. While I give 80% of that credit to Lunde, a bit of credit is due to the translator Diane Oatley. 
Following three different timelines, all related to bees in some way, this is a literary masterpiece. 

The three settings
We have 1898, 2007 and 2089 as our time periods. Set in completely different parts of the world as well; England, USA and China respectively. 

Of course the future timeline starts off the most interesting because we get to learn what Lunde sees as our (and the bees) world in 80ish years. As always it's a bit bleak. 

In 2007 we are treated to honey production at the farm scale (not industrial) but still as the main income source. And of course, anyone who is aware of the bee situation today knows that this was around the time colonies were starting to suddenly collapse with no reason. 

The past starts off slow but becomes really interesting as a man with an awful lot of children starts innovating his own type of beehive.  The innovation is to allow for easier harvesting of the honey that doesn't require as many bees dying when you open the hive to harvest. 

This is where Lunde really excels. Her characters are so life-like. The point of views (one per timeline) we are treated to are parents with children at various ages. Relationships between parents and their children are what The History of Bees is really about; and what makes it a solid 'typical book club' pick. 

In all cases the parents wish better for their children, or at least speak of a legacy to help their children have better lives than their own in the future. A very typical parental obsession; but portrayed here in a way which even adults without children (like myself) can understand and appreciate. 

It's all about the bees
I've looked into a small beehive for our yard before with no success because we don't think we can meet the space regulations. So going into this I knew a teeny tiny bit about colony collapse disorder (CDC).

Now after reading this I'm determined to have a hive at some point under my care. The bees are the link between our three timelines but they are also the link to humanity's survival. Pollination is key for most fruits and many other food sources to grow. Now let's be specific here for a minute we are talking about honeybees. There are lots of kinds of bees but the ones that are critical make the honey. 

It's clear, even to a very amateur prospective beekeeper, that Lunde has done her homework here. Everything that happens in the 2007 timeline has already happened and her descriptions and explanations of the situations are anything but boring. Most of our characters are in love with bees and so they speak or think passionately about it. With just the right amount of truth and science built in. A very enjoyable way to learn about honey bees! 

So for me the book felt like it was all about the bees (and bees are what drew me to it). Even though the bees are the link across time, the reality is that The History of Bees is about people coping with being a parent in their given timeline. The bees just make it sweeter. 

The History of Bees was effortless to read. The characters and settings seemed to leap off the page for me. With the addition of a very relevant, important and interesting topic of bees thrown in this was a lovely piece of literature and one I look forward to adding to my print book collection (the next time I'm at a bookstore). In my book collection these days there is no higher honour than being an ebook or review copy that I read and decide to buy a print copy of. Lunde has earned this honour and I can't wait to read her next novel.
Was this review helpful?
I really liked how the three stories intertwined in this book. They all were interesting, but Tao's journey to find out about her son was especially good.
Was this review helpful?
The History of bees is a story with three protagonists from multiple generations, set in 2098 Sichuan, China; 1851 Hertfordshire, England; and 2007 Ohio, United States. The story is slow-burning but rich and beautifully written, although at times it did become a bit boring--overall, I enjoyed it. The cover is stunning and showcases the powerful story within the pages. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, even after reading the synopsis, but Touchstone releases some of the best novels so I knew I would not be disappointed, and this was one worth reading.
Was this review helpful?
Loved this story about three beekeepers across generations and how they ultimately intertwine. A very satisfying read.
Was this review helpful?
The History of Bees by Maja Lunde makes its environmental statement. With such a topic, I expect that. However, this book accomplishes that in a natural way within the context of the story rather than a political statement that happens to be couched in a story. The parallel and equally important theme in this book is the bond between parent and child. The joys, sorrows, hopes, and disappointments of parenthood ground this story. They give the story its heart and make the environmental message a memorable one.

Read my complete review at

Reviewed for NetGalley
Was this review helpful?
I have very mixed feeling about "The History of Bees". I loved how Maja was able to connect three generations of beekeepers at the end of the story. However, I found the pace of the story very slow and was tempted to give up several times. I will say that I am glad I did not stop reading. There are many lessons about life and parenting in the book and that along has made the read worthwhile.,
Was this review helpful?
Fantastic and thought-provoking novel. Very good at weaving in everyday concerns with visions of the past and future. One for fans of David Mitchell.
Was this review helpful?
According to Greenpeace, human beings have bees to thank for one in every three bites of food that they eat. As we in the real world face a bee crisis, literature provides us with some potential scenarios as to how this could all end for mankind. 
"The History of Bees" flits between the stories of three generations of beekeepers from the past, present and future. The past is represented by a Victorian English gentleman, William, who is unhealthily obsessed with creating the perfect beehive and cementing his place in the history books. 
The present is represented by George, an American beekeeper, trying to keep pace with modern farming by providing an essential pollination service with his portable hives, but struggling to make ends meet in the increasingly competitive marketplace.
The future is represented by Tao, a Chinese worker who hand pollinates plants, as there are no longer any bees left. When her son is involved in a tragic accident and is spirited away by the authorities, she embarks on a desperate quest to find out if her son is dead or alive and where he is being kept.
This is a wonderfully woven narrative, as Lunde effortlessly jumps backwards and forwards in time, shining a light on the events of the day and slowly piecing together the full picture. There is mystery, suspense, disaster and truths to be faced.
This book should be read in schools as a stark wake up call to look after our bees, as they play such an essential part in our fragile ecosystem. Let this book inspire you to get involved.
Was this review helpful?
A slow paced dystopian work that considers the deepest effect on the natural world beginning and ending with the bees.  This work is deeply impactful and not designed to make readers feel good but leaves them with a glimmer of hope--kind of like Pandora's box...  Lunde has done lots of bee-search on her subjects and does an excellent job in capturing exactly what bees do and when humans are given the job can't really hold up to the task.  Readers will see how much is lost when we don't care for our planet and hopefully begin to see that sustaining life begins at the smallest level--our bees who do a job larger and more important than any humans.  Everyone suffers in her story--children, women, men and families--no one gets off scot free when food sources diminish--even the most wealthy!  Readers must be entirely willing to shift their time schemas to cross major time/generational boundaries and knit them into a basic significance.  In demanding this of readers, Lunde shows us how our attitudes and practices are built into our generational DNA and political structures evolved to preserve something that in the end may not be of value to us at all.
Was this review helpful?
I love the science of bees, the history of bees, woven throughout this narrative. That was my #1 reason for requesting this title - my nephew is a bee keeper, and my great-uncle before him, while I believe in letting bees live in some hidden place on my seven acres. 

This novel took a long time for me to get into, with two time frames and several POV characters to keep track of. George, William, Tao, the women. The past (1850s), the near-future ("by 2029 China had lost 100 billion bees"). 

It's taking a long time to get past the scene where a dad takes a leather belt to his son, and later spends months in bed, clinically depressed, filthy, smelly, unbathed, until this only son finally comes in to see him, and this marks a turning point: the father who whips his son isn't going to kill himself anytime soon, after all. Somehow, I have not managed to care about this character. Except for the scene where he first starts teaching, and his historical aside about a bee enthusiast whose career tanked because of detailed drawings of bee genitalia (and proving no such thing as  King bee) - that would be a great scene in a movie. Thilda is in that classroom, that memorable day. This is why novels that seem to move slowly really don't. So much happens below the surface; a swift, silent undercurrent carries the momentum of the story forward even if it appears that not a great deal of action unfolds.

And I must add Francois Hub'ers "New Observations on the Natural History of Bees" to my queue.

The only aspect of him I like is his passion for bees. The way he's held back from his true calling (an academic situation) is just depressing. This is what we get with historical fiction, I know. The truth is bitter and painful and tough to swallow. 

This is a well written novel, rather slow at times and freighted with detail, yet fraught with tension and conflict. The characters are well drawn; you don't have to like them to appreciate how honestly they're depicted.

I'll never complain of too much science - though I have no way of verifying all the details on Colony Collapse Disorder, pesticides, weather (climate change), pheromones, and GMOs.

The father/son theme is echoed in both narratives, and the image of a boy named Wei-Wen, on the final page, is riveting. Unforgettable. The story ends with the word "hope," and for that, I'll grant it five out of five stars, even though some heart-rending scenes make me want to fling the book against a wall. I imagine Kindles have ended that irrational practice. Anyone who follows my reviews knows I tend to knock off a star if the author has me grieving the loss of a beloved character.

No, it's not a spoiler. I haven't said which characters will die. 

In all, this is a splendid novel, carefully researched, richly imagined, and impossible to forget.
Was this review helpful?
In 1852 London, William provides for his family by selling seeds. But he really wants to work with bees and build the beehive that will finally make his mentor proud of him. George is an American beekeeper in 2007 who still builds his own hives, even as something strange happens to bee colonies around the world. Tao lives in China in 2098. The bees have been gone for a long time, so Tao and her co-workers painstakingly paint pollen onto trees to grow fruit. When her son is injured, Tao sets out to find out what happened to her son, the bees, and the world.

The History of Bees is, as you might expect, a story about what happens to bees over the centuries and how humanity interacts with nature. But it's also about the ways that people relate to each other and what we need to feel successful in our lives. In the 19th century, William is driven to bed by depression and readers witness his family deal with his illness and their dwindling resources in various ways. George tries to reconcile his love for the farm life he has always known with his love for his son, who finds purpose in words instead of manual labor. And in the future, Tao is resigned to her life as long as her child can have something better. When an accident destroys that hope, she becomes an angrier, more desperate person who is willing to do things she never would have imagined.

This novel seems important in so many ways. The future of bees will impact our future as humans. But this story is also about work, the difference between a job and a calling, and how we give our attention to our work and the work that accompanies being a spouse, a parent, and a person in the world. The three storylines might feel forced with a different author, but Lunde succeeds in making the reader care for each of them and brings them together in a very satisfying way.

The History of Bees
By Maja Lunde
Translated by Diane Oatley
Touchstone August 2017
352 pages
Read via Netgalley
Was this review helpful?
Three stories that are connected, though how is not apparent until book's end. 1851, William, 2007, George and 2098, Tao, tied together by their dependency on bees. In 2098, the bees have all been wiped out, in China they pollinate by hand, a labor intensive endeavor. Each of these three have sons, so this is also very much about the bond and expectations between parent and child.

Very slow start to this book, was tempted to put it down, but I have a profound interest in our environment, especially after the fires, storm, hurricanes and earthquakes that have ravaged so many areas. The lessening of the bee population has been on our nightly news, and it is something I have noticed myself in the area in which I live. Without bees and their pollination our food sources will collapse, the world as we know it unrecognizable, which is what happens in this novel. So I kept reading, and soon became better acquainted with these characters and how the author was putting her story together. This book is not fun to read, it is rather grim, us screwing up our environment could be nothing less,  but also I think important. 

The ending was so fitting, and though sad, also ends with a ray of hope. It all ties together, all three stories,and in a round about way comes full circle. Rather ingenious. A book I ended up glad I had read.

ARC from Netgalley.
Was this review helpful?
Some of the best speculative fiction comes from taking a kernel of reality and extrapolating it both outward and inward, building a compelling and interesting world anchored by a baseline of truth.

Maja Lunde’s “The History of Bees” takes its truth from the as-yet largely unexplained disappearance of bees. From that one foundational point, she spins a haunting literary triptych; three narrative threads that are both operationally separate and fundamentally intertwined. Three tales – one past, one present, one future – relating facets of an overarching story.

In the year 1852, an Englishman named William battles through the lethargy of depression in an effort to reinvent and redefine man’s relationship with bees. He’s a seed merchant by trade and a scientist by passion; struck by epiphany after epiphany, yet still struggling to both follow his vision and maintain the health of both himself and his family.

In 2007, an American beekeeper named George is fully devoted to the old ways. Modern farming techniques hold little appeal for him. While his commitment to the traditional methods has led to some complications with regards to his business, he has high hopes that his son will take over and continue, but as it turns out, the young man has ambitions of his own that don’t necessarily include beehives.

And in 2098, a Chinese woman named Tao is one of a legion of workers tasked with painting pollen onto fruit trees now that the bees are no more. But in the midst of her tightly regimented existence, something unexplained happens to her young son, leaving her to try and make her way from the country to the city and through an urban landscape that has largely crumbled, a collapsed civilization barely clinging to the craps of what was once a great society.

And through all times … the bees.

There’s a lovely contradiction to “The History of Bees.” There’s a simplicity to the stories being told, yet there’s a wonderful complexity to the manner in which they unfold.

At first glance, these three narratives feel apart, with only the most basic of connective tissues. There’s this idea that man’s relationship with the natural world is far more tenuous than we ever allow ourselves to imagine; each point on the timeline shines its own spotlight on that fragility.

But these stories are also about family dynamics and how our relationships with one another – particularly the ones between parent and child – can be just as tenuous, just as difficult to maintain. Each of these distinct narratives marks a definition of interpersonal fragility just as it does that connection between mankind and Mother Nature.

What Lunde has done with “The History of Bees” is create something altogether unexpected. There’s an incredibly engaging demarcation of style – one narrative thread reads like historical fiction, another like contemporary literary fiction, the third like dystopian sci-fi – without any thematic or tonal sacrifice. Basically, these three storylines operate differently and distinctly, yet fit together exquisitely. It’s a remarkable feat of writing acumen.

Still, as admirable as the stylistic execution is, what makes “The History of Bees” such a truly exceptional reading experience is the substance. Lunde is a gifted storyteller, one who uses her considerable skills to put forth a powerful and engaging tale. The bees might be central figures – both in their presence and their absence – but it is the people, with their hopes and their hurts, that allow this book to burn so brightly.

“The History of Bees” is a powerful work, meticulously constructed, deeply felt and ultimately unforgettable.
Was this review helpful?
This was a fascinating and ultimately, uplifting novel. It tells the story of three individuals in three different time periods, all connected by bees. What I thought was clever here, was the absolute conviction demonstrated by the author in each of her depictions. William, a 19th century British gentleman, is rather unlikable, but we understand his motivations and can appreciate, if not necessarily agree with, his thought process. George, a farmer in 2007 USA is gruff and again, has aspects that grate, but we can see that he is just trying to do his best under difficult circumstances. Tao, a young mother in 2098 China is utterly driven by her need to do the best for her son and whilst this makes her selfish on occasion, we once again appreciate the strength of a mother's love for her child. I found the bee keeping aspects of this novel absolutely fascinating and thought that the author introduced and explained these concepts really well, providing enough information for the reader to know what was happening, but not bogging them down with too much detail. For me, this is ultimately a book about parents and children. The relationships within the book are nuanced, realistic and very compelling and the overwhelming feeling one is left with here, despite some pretty catastrophic episodes, is hope. 
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.
Was this review helpful?
So moving.  I can see why people compare it to Station Eleven. I wasn't expecting to shed tears over this story, but I couldn't help myself.
Was this review helpful?
In The History of Bees, Maja Lunde traces the eventual extinction of bees through three story lines. William, a myopic, British biologist who eventually begins building bee hives, set in 1852; George, an American myopic (this is a general theme) beekeeper in 2007 who experiences Colony Collapse Disorder; and Tao, a Chinese pollinator in 2098, on a desperate search to find her young son.

What all three of these characters have in common is the inability to communicate basic human emotions, and seeing their children not as human beings, but as ideal versions of themselves. Tao is the most sympathetic of these characters, since she's only allowed an hour a day with her son. With such a short amount of time, it's impossible to really get to know your child. But George and William have no excuse, and come across as idiots much of the time. And of course they have bees in common, but the bees end up more of a set piece to these characters.

I originally picked this up expecting something more along the lines of [book:The Bees|18652002] by [author:Laline Paull|7307477], especially with it being compared to [book:Station Eleven|20170404] and [book:Never Let Me Go|6334]. What I found instead read more like a family drama. Which is fine, it just didn't meet my expectations.

I also feel like the translation might have made it a clunkier read. Here's an example: "The yellow color was completely real, nothing I was imaging. It came from the brocade tapestry my wife, Thilda, had stuck up on the walls when we moved in a few years ago. We'd had a lot of space at that time."

Okay, there's nothing wrong here, but it's not very engaging or inspiring prose.

Despite these reservations, I did like the concept of weaving three stories together to tell the history of bees. 

Thanks to Touchstone and NetGalley for providing me with an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

[Posted on Goodreads 08/21/2017]
[Posted on my personal blog 09/04/2017]
[Posted on Amazon 09/08/2017]
Was this review helpful?
I received this ARC from in exchange for a review. 

This story is told from three exceedingly different views. William lives in England 1852, George in the U.S. 2007 and Tao in China 2098. Each character shows us how important bees are to our society.

As with many translated books, I feel things are lost in the translation. Just like watching a bee buzzing around languidly from flower to flower, the story wandered from here to there to here to there to here .... 

Was this review helpful?
Bees are a handy symbol of the planet's environmental degradation, as you'll know if you've read anything by Dave Goulson – whose endorsement is featured proudly on the cover of this U.K. release of Norwegian children's writer Maja Lunde's first novel for adults. The creatures also provide subtle links between the book's three story lines.

First we hear from Tao, who in 2098 China has to perform the gruelling hand-pollination that's been necessary ever since bees disappeared once and for all in a worldwide environmental collapse around 2040. Next we're in 1851 Hertfordshire, where William Savage, a Darwin-like naturalist and seed shop proprietor, emerges from a deep depression to work on a new beehive design.

The final first-person narrator is George, a third-generation beekeeper based in Ohio. His near-contemporary account gives a clear sense of the hard, thankless work involved in beekeeping, especially when he's not sure his vegetarian, academically oriented son will take over from him. He also witnesses first-hand the onset of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

Although these three voices are extremely different – Tao is straightforward and determined; William is melancholy and observant; George is folksy and hot-headed – there is never any doubt that they belong together in this novel. For one thing, bees are a shared fascination, and there are a few bee-related connections between these specific characters that are only revealed late on.

But there's another theme that joins the three narrators: each of them is deeply concerned about a son. Tao's life is turned upside down when her only child, Wei-Wen, is taken ill during a picnic on one of her rare holidays, and she travels to Beijing and does desperate research to try to save his life. William has seven pretty daughters but is disappointed in his only son, Edmund, who lives a dissipated life far from what his parents want for him. George, too, feels that he and his son Tom have different priorities and never quite connect.

Lunde is pretty much equally skilled at evoking a dystopian future, a Victorian past and the American present. The only sections of the book that dragged for me were those in Tao's narrative that explain the world's collapse. I find that it's best for speculative fiction in this vein (by Margaret Atwood et al.) to leave the exact how of the environmental catastrophe to the reader's imagination, as a blow-by-blow can end up feeling tedious.

However, from page to page this is a very readable novel that hardly seems like a translation. I appreciated the various symbolic uses of bees. For instance, William contrasts fatherhood and productivity thus: 'Like the drone, I sacrificed my life for procreation.' For Tao, raised in a country where individuals can feel swallowed by the vastness of the wider population, a bee colony serves as a reminder of the benefits of working collectively for the greater good. Moreover, bees represent a middle ground between wildness and domestication: 'bees cannot be tamed. They can only be tended, receive our care.'

Though it responds to the seriousness of recent and projected future ecological disasters, this novel is not a downer. On the contrary, its final word is 'hope'. If you appreciate lovely physical books and have enjoyed work by David Mitchell, Margaret Atwood or Dave Goulson, I can heartily recommend this.
Was this review helpful?
Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees was a unique novel that combined dystopian, contemporary, and historical fiction into one very engaging and thought-provoking piece. It will stay with me for a long time. I highly recommend it.

The novel is made up of three distinct storylines revolving around bees. It’s basically a look at the role of bees in the past, present, and future from the perspective of a family in each of those time periods, and the chapters alternate between these three narratives. The first storyline begins in England in 1852 when beehives are being perfected, the second one in the United States in 2007 when there is an increase in the number of colony collapse disorders being reported, and the last one in China in 2098 when humans have had to resort to hand-pollination due to the total collapse of bees. As the book progresses, the reader begins to see how the three families’ stories intersect. Once the book is finished, it’s interesting to look back and notice the common threads that weren’t obvious before.

On top of it being a book about human’s relationship and reliance on bees, it is also about family relations and expectations. It looks at husband-and-wife relationships as well as relationships and expectations between parents and their children. It is not a smooth journey for any of them. The most heart-breaking family dynamic is that of William’s family in England. William puts all his time and energy into trying to prove his worth to his son. However, it is his daughter Charlotte who is interested and eager to learn from her father and help him with his work.

Each of the narratives was very engaging, and it didn't take long before I was totally absorbed in the book. My favorite narrative was that of Tao in China. It was a depressing and grim world she lived in, but her quest to find out what happened to her son when he suddenly got sick and was whisked away by authorities without any explanation was a definite page-turner. Through the different storylines, I not only learned about the history and practices of beekeeping, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but I also got a glimpse of a world suffering from a total bee collapse, which was unnerving. Luckily, there was a glimmer of hope at the end.

My only complaint of the book was that in each of the three families, the hopes for the future were placed on a son. I understand that might have had to be the case for England in the 1850s, but it didn’t need to be that way in both the 2007 and 2098 narratives. Having the emphasis be on a daughter in one of those two later time periods would have been okay, I believe.

I actually originally read this in Norwegian. Since the publisher Touchstone kindly provided me with a digital advanced readers copy in English, I was able to compare the Norwegian edition to its English translation by Diane Oatley. I was impressed by her translation. It was a very smooth reading experience in English. Nothing jumped out at me as being different from the Norwegian edition. In particular, I was impressed with how well she treated the different language usage by each of the main characters. I am relieved that I can recommend the novel whole-heartedly to English language readers as well as Norwegian ones.
Was this review helpful?