Book Review – “The Bees”

The BeesThe Bees by Laline Paull
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Welcome to the hive. You are one of thousands. Your short life is dedicated to ensuring the survival of the hive. The queen bee is your goddess mother. You love her, and your sister bees, without thought. You have a role: cleaner, forager, receiver, guard, priestess, nanny, police. Your biology is your destiny.

What you, as the human reader, feels about any of that quickly becomes irrelevant. Your sense of morality, politics, and society has no bearing here. Instead, The Bees immerses the reader in the inner workings of a honeybee hive. Its heroine is worker bee Flora 717. She is born into a lowly caste, destined to spend her life inside the hive doing sanitation work. Except that from birth, she shows abilities beyond the life that nature and biology and hive hierarchy would have marked out for her. Therein lies the novel’s conflict and resolution.

To say more about the story would probably lessen the pleasure of reading it. The action moves quickly, and the plot takes new directions nearly every chapter, slowly broadening the horizons of Flora’s world and deepening its mysteries. Mysteries indeed there are — from how will the human industrial park nearby affect the hive, to is something wrong with the queen bee, and what was all that in the beginning about the nanny bees and the baby bees?

At times, the tale takes on shades of magical realism and mysticism. The world of the bees, although Paull also gives them human speech, is filled with scent and dance and near-psychic communication. The events of their lives are ritualized, often in terms borrowed from Catholicism. While they are biologically sisters and virgins, referring to each other as such, the bees take on the aspect of nuns in Paull’s language, who pray to Holy Mother (the queen). Witch-like spiders offer prophecy at a terrible price, and wasps, mice, birds, and humans threaten like mythological monsters. The story also shares the scope of an epic; by choosing such a tiny creature for a heroine, the world of the novel feels vast, and its events earth-shattering. The threats that Flora and the hive face are literally existential.

The book could have easily tipped into Orwell-style social commentary, or satire, or simple childishness, but Paull instead takes the setting and characters seriously, creating a complex culture that indeed is — so far as I know — accurate to what entomologists know of real bees. So, see metaphors, if you like, for human society in the hierarchical relationships among the bees: the sanitation bees like Flora are frequently described as “dark,” as are “foreigners” (bees from other hives); the priestess bees rule through a mixture of fear and religiosity; the male drones harass and order the female workers around; the fertility police brutally enforce the hive’s order. I am quite sure Paull includes these tantalizing descriptions in part because she wants us to reflect on human society. The bee society is horrifying in its rigidity — probably something of the dystopian world Veronica Roth attempted in her series — and yet in other ways I envy Flora and her sisters their nobility and most of all their effortless devotion to one another. It calls us to wonder about whether humans, in some time and place, are capable of the same.

But the book is also directly telling us something about bees themselves. Clearly, I have no way of knowing if the way Paull describes Flora’s inner world is accurate to what a real bee feels or thinks about. Yet the story does reach me in the same way as other literature from the animal P.O.V., books like Black Beauty or Charlotte’s Web. I finish it with greater respect for the small, brief lives of the tiny creatures around me, more care and more concern for their fate.

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