The Last Beekeeper: A Novel Excerpt

By Julie Carrick Dalton

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She pressed on the false front and held her breath for a beat, her hope mounting at the give of the spring-loaded catch.

Author’s Note: Several years ago, on a perfect August day, I lost 40,000 honey bees. My hive had been flourishing, honeycomb filling out the frames, brood thriving in geometrically perfect wax cells. Yet there they lay, in a pile outside the wooden hive I’d built with my own hands. As I mourned the loss of my bees—presumably from toxic lawn chemicals used in my immaculately landscaped suburban neighborhood—I couldn’t stop wondering how the native pollinators were faring. What if they were dying too? How would we live in a world without pollinators? This “what if” led to the inspiration for The Last Beekeeper, a near-future novel about the tenuous relationship between a beekeeper and his daughter Sasha as the world’s pollinator population collapses. In this excerpt from Chapter Two, Sasha has just returned to her family’s abandoned farm a decade after The Great Collapse of the pollinators. Homeless, hungry, and alone, she finds the overgrown property occupied by a group of squatters destined to become the found family she has been yearning for. Although the premise may sound bleak, The Last Beekeeper is infused with hope. Sasha’s hope. My hope. And, hopefully, yours.


This excerpt of The Last Beekeeper by Julie Carrick Dalton is published by permission of the author and publisher (Forge Books).

The Last Beekeeper, by Julie Carrick Dalton

It’s been more than a decade since the world has come undone, and Sasha Severn has returned to her childhood home with one goal in mind―find the mythic  research her father, the infamous Last Beekeeper, hid before he was incarcerated.

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Sasha went inside and snooped through the kitchen cabinets. A few beat-up pans, a collection of mugs, four plates, and a tangle of unmatched silverware. Nothing she recognized.

Making sure no one saw her, she eased open the door to the basement, and crept down the dark stairs. The main level of the house no longer held any familiar smells, but the musty basement yanked her back to stolen moments when she snuck into her parents’ larder to pilfer honey. A small, dirty window in the far corner let in enough light to confirm the hidden cabinet door to the larder remained in place. A casual observer would never suspect anything lay behind the wall in a dark corner.

You’re turning into a goddamn prepper, her mom’s brother, Chuck, had scoffed at Sasha’s father when he had sacks of rice and dried beans delivered. Next came flour in huge, sealed cans with expiration dates 25 years in the future. Nuts, dried fruit, and seeds filled the larder.

Why does it make you mad when Chuck calls you a prepper? Sasha asked as she helped her father haul the food into the basement.

Because he’s right, I guess, her father had said.

What’s a prepper?

Someone who stocks up on things because they fear the worst is coming.

Do you fear the worst?

Sometimes I do, Little Bee.

Dusty, long-abandoned spiderwebs clung to Sasha’s face and hands as she crossed the room. She pressed on the false front and held her breath for a beat, her hope mounting at the give of the spring-loaded catch.

The panel clicked and sprang open to reveal a time capsule of her father’s prepper tendencies in the small walk-in room. She ran her hand over the sacks, tins, and jars, longing to read the labels too obscured in shadow to decipher. She twisted a small canister open and touched a few grains to her tongue. Salt. As the grains melted on her tongue, she tried to remember the last meal she ate in the house, the last time she might have consumed salt from this canister. She hated that she couldn’t remember.

Ian seemed like the type who would claim squatters’ rights to everything on the property, so she had no intention of revealing the larder to the squatters. But salt might go a long way in building their trust. She rolled the shaker between her hands, remembering the satisfying weight and gritty texture of the ceramic. She slipped the saltshaker into her shirt pocket.

She crouched down and felt along the back of the bottom shelf, holding her breath in the hope of finding her father’s honey stash. Her fingers grazed a Mason jar. The airy heft of the glass told her seeds filled the container, not honey. Both of her parents had been dedicated seed savers, drying trays of seeds from the season’s best crops for the following year. Five more jars of seeds lined the back wall.

Sasha did not need light to recognize the individual seeds in the jars she had played with like maracas as a girl. The ting of tomato seeds against glass, and the sandy shush of spinach. The feather weight of zucchini seeds and the flaky but substantial mass of pumpkin. The last jar weighed more than the others. Sasha rolled the jar, allowing the seeds to fall slowly against the glass. The contents felt irregular, small and sandy, heavy and clunky.

This is a jar of hope, her mother explained as she tossed handfuls of her carefully curated wildflower seeds along the edge of the forest above the vegetable fields.

Pebbles and scales of bergamot, black cohosh, milkweed, fireweed, and echinacea shifted around the clunkier sunflower seeds.

You and Dad take care of the bees in boxes, and I’ll look after the ones in the woods, her mother said as she raked her seeds into the loose soil.

Dad says they’re gone.

But what if they come back? They’ll be hungry.

Her father always planned several steps ahead, too. He never acted without reason, although Sasha didn’t always understand his reasons. When he buried his research instead of turning it over to the authorities, he made the choice to go to prison. Only 11 at the time, Sasha had faith in him and trusted he had planned a few steps beyond what anyone else could see.

She had expected him to come home to her.

Instead, he betrayed her, setting her loose into a world that did not need her.

Digging up her father’s research might give her answers, even if they weren’t the ones she hoped for.

Sasha held her mother’s jar of hope to her cheek and rolled the smooth, cool glass across her lips, cheeks, and forehead before tucking it into a far corner of the larder. She ran her hands over the empty shelves, searching for anything that might have been left behind. Her fingers grazed a stack of papers on the back of the top shelf. Loose pages held together by a paper clip. It couldn’t be this easy. Could her father have hidden his work in the larder, and not in the bunker as she had assumed?

In the dark shadows, she couldn’t read the documents, but her fingers recognized the paper, not as her father’s work, but her mother’s. Crumpled, water warped, and crusty in places. Sasha’s mouth watered as she held the pages to her face and imagined the aroma of her mother’s potpies, stroganoff, and borscht. Before she died, her mother handwrote Sasha’s favorite recipes and walked her through each one several times.

Sasha had been too young to cook alone, but after her mother died, she read the recipes to herself like bedtime stories, acting out the scenes in her mind. Her mother chopping vegetables. Sasha stirring. The tick, tick, tick of the kitchen timer. And the triumphant moment when a perfectly browned, bubbling-at-the-edges chicken potpie emerged from the oven.

Sasha crawled inside the larder and sat with her back to the wall. She wrapped her arms across her chest and pressed the crinkled pages to her heart.

This was Sasha’s home, and she intended to stay.



Julie Carrick DaltonJulie Carrick Dalton is the author of The Last Beekeeper and Waiting for the Night Songa CNN, USA Today, Newsweek, and Parade “Most Anticipated” book. A Bread Loaf and Tin House alum, she is a frequent speaker on the topic of fiction in the age of climate crisis at universities, conferences, libraries, and literary festivals. When she isn’t reading or writing, you can probably find her kayaking, skiing, gardening, or tending bees.

Header photo by CL Shebley, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Julie Carrick Dalton by Sharona Jacobs. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.