The History of Bees and the Aesthetic of Extinction
Pandas, penguins, polar bears: all cute, all endangered. Images of these animals are popular, and frequently used to raise money and awareness for various preservation efforts. It’s easy to feel a pang of pity for fluffy animals, but not so much for the various endangered beetles or slime molds; these are more important to their respective ecosystems but do not lend themselves to the same sympathy.
But there is a creature which falls in a curious in-between space on the cute spectrum between pandas and slime mold: the bee.
Bees are cute in their own way. From a distance, they can be charming, up too close and personal however they can be a bit scary and their sting full of an irritating (and sometimes deadly) toxin. Their image also makes for an excellent accent on bags, books, jewelry, and honey jars…
Bees are critically important to ecosystems around the world. They pollinate our crops. Without this pollination, there is no fruit yield. No wheat, no corn, no blueberries. Yet, not much thought is given to this. Our lives and wellbeing as a society hinges on, among other things, the bees. In the 2017 climate-fiction novel (cli-fi) The History of Bees, Maja Lunde envisions a near-future without bees. We genuinely risk losing bees and their critical role in food production due to climate change. Lunde takes us into a world where that has become a reality.
In The History, the bees serve a larger narrative purpose. The story isn’t really about the bees, it’s about us. The aesthetic of bee extinction is used to paint a picture of humanity which begs its reader to think about the tension between two modes of relating to others: rugged-individualism and hive-mind, a tension we must embrace if we are to survive as a species. This book is one among many examples of how bees and bee imagery have become popular, like the imagery of other endangered species unlikely to survive the next 100 years.
There’s a certain sick poetry to grasping at images of these animals. Increased visibility for the suffering of other animals leads to increased sales of stuffed polar bears and cute bags with images of bees stitched into the pleather. We become enamored with the images — the idea — of these animals as they continue to die out. This mass extinction will catch up with even the most privileged consumer but by then it will be too late. By the time we turn away from our image of the bee, the bee will be gone.
I loved Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2014 book, The Sixth Extinction. It was a pleasure to read, the carefully researched images of man-made disaster interwoven with portraits of human kindness in an intricate, nuanced, and sad display of what is truly a mass extinction — the sixth of its kind in Earth’s history. And it felt like a perverse pleasure, enjoying this book. Colbert’s own mixed feelings about her journalism were evident between the pages. I recommend it to anyone who wants a complex image of humanity’s role in climate change. I want them to enjoy it. And I hope they’ll feel weird about it.
We witness preventable mass destruction through the lens of poetic overture. We consume more — buy merchandise and literature made to raise funds and “awareness” — in the hopes it will undo the damage mass consumption has thus far done. It won’t. We know that. But we pretend to care when we play this game. Because it’s too big for us to swallow in any other form. We can only handle the curated, poetic and commodified sadness in the image of extinction.
By writing The History, Lunde invites her reader to learn from the bees. To learn how to think about the whole, not merely each individual who plays their own part. We are all part of the same hive, there is only one hive, and it’s on fire. To save the hive, we have to hope there’s a way, even if it’s a futile hope, it’s one we need to sustain if any bees are getting out of this alive.