Bzzzzzzzz! The Bees deserves all the buzz surrounding it! Nobody writes animal novels better than the English and The Bees is no exception. This wonderful novel by Laline Paull is being compared to The Hunger Games and The Handmaid’s Tale, and some of these comparisons are apt, but The Bees is really is more of a saga that fits nicely into the tradition of Watership Down and Duncton Wood. Just like Hazel in Watership Down or Bracken in Duncton Wood, the main character in The Bees, Flora 717, goes against the rules that govern the hierarchical caste society in which she lives.
Flora 717 is a sanitation worker, the lowest of the honey bee castes — so low, in fact, that these workers cannot even talk like the workers in the other castes. Flora’s ability to talk and her curiosity makes her unique among sanitation workers, and she is a threat to the workers in the higher castes. These workers — the nurses, the priestesses, the fertility police, and the inspectors — jealously guard their power and their jobs. However, Flora is loyal, big, and strong, and her capabilities are useful, so she is not killed on sight. Instead, she is used for her strengths, with the implication that she will be eliminated as soon as her usefulness is over. In the end, of course, Flora triumphs in an unanticipated way, but I’m not giving anything away, so you’ll have to read this book for yourself!
Laline Paull gets all the science right, describing the different uses of nectar, pollen, and propolis, the dances of foragers communicating flower locations, the chemical communication between bees via pheromones, the devotion to the Queen, and the general uselessness of drones except for mating. Any individual bee does not live very long, less than a year for most of them, and what feels like a short amount of time to us is a lifetime for a bee. Paull blends this information together with other factors which are anthropomorphized, and she does it seamlessly. Could a Hive Mind actually exist? Such a thing would imply some kind of conscious thought, which insects do not have. Flora is able to keep her thoughts private by sealing her antennae, which have telepathic properties. Knowledge can be transmitted through a kind of antennae mind-meld, both willingly and through force.
The bee hive is under constant threat from a variety of enemies called The Myriad, consisting of predators like wasps, spiders, birds, and honey-harvesting humans. Paull’s descriptions of these interactions are gripping; the scene in a greenhouse where Flora is trapped with flies, spiders, and carnivorous plants (Venus fly-traps) was un-put-down-able. Who knew that invertebrate dialogue could be both horrifying and hysterically funny? Paull’s description of the effects of pesticides on individual bees and the hive is enough to convince me to eat only organically grown food. Underlying all these threats is the horror of colony collapse disorder.
So, yes, the bees are anthropomorphized, and Paull has done a superb job of it! Other mammals are not really all that different from us, but insects and invertebrates are different enough to be almost alien. Honeybees are so specialized that the worker castes are morphologically different. (This premise, when flipped, makes for some really great science fiction, where humans have evolved to live in a specialized caste society like bees, like in Stephen Baxter’s novel Coalescent). Maybe it is the cute fuzzy factor that makes characters like Hazel, Bracken (or Ratty, Mole, and Badger) believable. Naked mole rats are an exception, being neither cute nor fuzzy, and living in a kind of mammal hive. Insects and other arthropods see and hear differently than us, and communicate via chemicals and pheromones that we are completely unaware of. Every so often an author comes up with an idea that seems so simple in retrospect and so brilliant in execution, and The Bees was awesome! I was sorry to see it end.
Eight Cousins Note:
Lysbeth loved this book so much that she created these images from the back cover. Enjoy!