BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A lowly sanitation worker bee rises through the ranks.
PROS: Fascinating worldbuilding; realistic character portrayals; a fast-moving story (mostly).
CONS: Bee prophecies? That seems a little far-fetched.
BOTTOM LINE: If the-little-bee-that-could story doesn’t do it for you, there are much more meatier themes to satisfy the more intellectual side of your brain.
About a decade ago, I learned to respect the power of fiction, particularly when said fiction involves a cast characters who are non-human, and especially when those characters are animals. Had I not learned that lesson, I would have sadly passed up on The Bees, Laline Paull’s wonderful debut novel.
The Bees is about Flora 717, an uncharacteristically large bee for one of her station. Flora was born into the sanitation worker kin, assigned to clear the hive of the dead bodies of her sisters, casting them outside and down into the grass. Right from the start, we see that Flora is a dedicated worker. Despite her lowly position in the hive’s social structure, her heart remains loyal to the hive and, more importantly, to the Queen herself.
Flora’s dedication and loyalty do not go unnoticed by the Sage sisters, who fulfill the role of priestesses within the hive. They allow Flora to experience a variety of other roles in the hive, like nurse to the younger bees and then, after a particular feat of bravery, forager to fetch food for the hive. In this way, Flora gets to rise through the ranks. Through her, readers get to experience other parts of the hive. The outside world is also splendidly depicted, with a host of other insects in the “Myriad” largely acting as antagonists. (Dangerous wasps! Conniving spiders! Menacing birds!) Don’t let the potentially hokey-sounding description fool you: this is a society that is both fascinating and entirely believable.
The hive itself is a geometric marvel. Different rooms are used for different activities, some walled off by scent markers. There’s a landing area where foragers take flight in search of food. There’s a nursery where the Queen’s eggs are nurtured. There’s a main area where bees who travel outside can communicate whet they’ve learned through dance. (Communication in The Bees occurs through motion, vibration, smells and sound. Okay, sure, the science in the book is not entirely accurate, but to chide it as such would be missing the point of the setting.) There’s even a prayer room where six (admittedly far-fetched) prophecies are depicted, each one more dangerous than the last.
Paull’s wonderful depiction of the bee society works on multiple levels. As a pure story of ascension, the castes serve their most basic purpose. We get to see Flora succeed and fail at certain tasks, but always moving forward and always obeying the primary rule of the hive: Accept, Obey and Serve. Through her foraging, we get a healthy dose of adventure. There are also interesting interactions between the different castes. The priestesses are held in high esteem by all, but are eventually discovered to be somewhat manipulative and power-hungry. The Teasel “nurser” kin and the sanitation workers offer a glimpse into the bees’ circle of life. The male worker bees, hilariously portrayed as chauvinistic freeloaders, are the “necessary evil” that keeps the race alive. It is a worker bee, in fact, that throws a kink into the hive’s well-oiled machine of service and station when Flora becomes impregnated, a fact the reader knows well before Flora herself does. This is a sin because only the Queen may breed. And, as so often happens, one forbidden act leads to desperation and, at one point, a unexpectedly chilling scene of protection-at-all-costs. Flora surprises readers right up until the end, where events end up a little to the left of where readers may expect.
Here’s the most satisfying part about the portrayal of the bee society: there are larger themes at play. Feminism, racism, motherhood, social status, status quo — they are all on display here for readers to chew over as much or as little as they like…which is to say that the story is not preachy and does not come across as being heavy-handed.
But it’s characters that drive fiction as much as anything, and Flora is one to like. Flora’s love of her egg is equal to, if not greater than, her love for Queen and hive. She has other emotions and aspects to her personality as well: fear, loyalty, sisterhood, bravery, and inquisitiveness. Flora is a character that’s as real as any human character I’ve read, and putting a realistic character in such a marvelously built world is a win for readers.