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Thomas McMahon: McKay’s Bees

What makes McMahon’s novels both so readable and so worthwhile is the confluence between science, history and people, all told in a deceptively light-hearted style. This novel, as both the previous one and the next one, illustrate this perfectly. The science is, of course, biology (though the novel ends on a key method for sewing shoes!), specifically bee-breeding and bee diseases, though all the while Darwin and evolution hover in the background, with Darwin’s opponent, Louis Agassiz, even putting in an appearance in the novel.

The McKay of the title is a rich man who, in 1855, decides to lead an expedition from Massachusetts to Kansas, where he plans to breed bees”because of their energy”. His bible is Langstroth. Following Langstroth, he had calculated that he would produce huge amounts of honey as the bees proliferated, shipping it down to New Orleans. He decides to take with him a group of Germans who will make the hives. He also takes his wife, Catherine, and her twin brother, Colin. They set out from New Orleans, where McKay is impressed with articles made from alligator skin and buys a pair of (live) alligators for breeding. As McKay is suspected of being an abolitionist (he isn’t – according to his wife, the only reason he does not buy a slave is because they are too expensive), they have difficulty finding a pilot and the one he does find soon disappears when they are en route, taking with him the crew and leaving the boat on fire and aground. They manage to make their way to St Louis, where they are able to hire William Sewall as pilot. Sewall is both a good man but also an experienced naturalist (which includes a knowledge of bees), which turns out to be of great help to them once they reach Kansas.

More misfortunes befall them. In their absence their boat is attacked by border ruffians and Sewall is almost hanged (they hang the male alligator instead) and the boat and Sewall are only saved when one of the ruffians foolishly opens one of the hives. But, in Kansas, after an initial successful crop of honey, most of the bees die of a mysterious disease. McKay writes to Langstroth for advice but, on receiving no reply (he thinks his mail is being intercepted), he sets out for Massachusetts with Colin and Sewall. Here is where we meet Agassiz and Sewall gets involved in the debate over evolution. Of course, the beekeeping adventure fails but the shoe sewing one is a wild success!

But behind all of these stories are the current events of the day – evolution and Agassiz but also John Brown and Bleeding Kansas and the inexorable move towards the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. We also see, in McKay’s expedition, the westward expansion of the United States and the treatment of the Native Americans (Crows in this book). All of these events are cleverly integrated into the story so that we get a good history lesson, a good science lesson and a good story!

Publishing history

First published 1979 by Harper & Row