Laline Paull’s novel “The Bees” is the story of an ordinary low-level worker bee named Flora 717 and her extraordinary journey. It sounds like a dubious premise upon which to base a novel and I was sceptical at first. The concept felt to me to be too similar to the 1998 movie ‘Antz’ in which Woody Allen is the voice of an existentially-troubled worker ant who questions life’s meaning when you are an anonymous being amongst millions. The movie was a fun way to express aspects of human angst in an indirect way via anthropomorphism, but it didn’t give you much appreciation for the way consciousness must work differently amongst insects compared to humans. Paull’s novel does this by showing you the way Flora 717’s thoughts and feelings are inextricably tied to the collective hive. In doing so she creates a compelling tale which gives a fascinating perspective on social interaction, hierarchies in society and will likely spark a keen interest in melittology (the study of honey bees) that you never thought you’d have.
The author vividly captures the extraordinary way in which bees communicate not strictly through language but more through scents and chemicals. Information is communicated through their antennas and dances are performed to let other bees know where to locate the best places to collect pollen. There is also the “hive mind” which seems to be a sort of collective intelligence that lets the bees know how to act – especially in times of crisis when the hive is being invaded or there is an insidious illness. Don’t make the mistake in thinking that because this novel depicts the lives of honey makers it’s going to be cute. There are scenes of really gruelling savage horror when there is conflict between sects of the hive or rivalry or bees that need to be disposed of because they’ve lost their usefulness. The drones (male bees) are amusingly portrayed as swaggering, greedy and bullying. I particularly appreciated how the female majority which kowtow to them in a really sickening way when exposed to their masculinity take on a very different attitude towards them when these males lose their place amongst the hive.
Since the hive is a monarchy the queen is a figurehead worshiped by the masses but she also bears the largest practical use to the hive as she is the only one that lays eggs. Without her the population would rapidly diminish and collapse. It’s fascinating the way she is for the most part a benign presence whose dirty work is carried out by a sage elite class of the hive which also has the support of the militant ants. Paull impressively demonstrates the complex politics which go into maintaining power and keeping the masses in check with slogans and prayers. The only time I felt this didn’t work so well is in one section where the bees give a revised version of the holy prayer in praise of the queen bee which felt like a bit of a silly appropriation. There political conflicts with wasps and there are negotiations with spiders who have access to a more in-depth knowledge that bees don’t possess because of their limited life span; the payment needed for this information is also impressively horrific. The queen maintains a library with stories which aren’t understood by the bees but whose importance into play over the course of the hive’s life cycle.
At times it does feel like a bit of a stretch that the character of Flora 717 who is born in the lowest social group can so rapidly rise up through different levels of the hive. Through demonstrations of a range of talents and the encouragement of other workers she participates in almost every aspect of the hive from cleaning waste to nursing eggs to attending the queen to making wax to gathering pollen to defending the hive from attackers. I assumed that the rigid social structures of the hive would prevent her from moving so freely amongst these different levels of workers, but it is true that worker bees can adopt a number of different responsibilities within a hive during their lives. But it does feel that there are some instances where the author is ushering her character through these layers of bee society simply to show the fascinating inner workings of a hive. The novel does give this validity by hinting that Flora 717’s sometimes rebellious behaviour is supported by secret dissenters in the ranks. Also, it didn’t really bother me as I felt myself so swept up in the sheer adventure of the story as complex politics play out amidst a year in the life of the hive.
Along with the thrill of the story, “The Bees” does give an interesting perspective on individual will versus the collective need. Those entrusted with directing the hive at times abuse their power out of self interest. It offers up numerous ways of looking at how the political philosophy of a monarchy versus that of democracy has different pros and cons. Flora 717 is a true royalist and worships as the other bees do, yet she is guided by an inner logic that isn’t self-servicing so much as directed by an interest in the survival of her kinfolk. Her role has a compelling trajectory when the bees’ carefully ordered society begins to break down. It’s also so refreshing to read a story that is all about a female-dominated society. This is a very creative, intelligent and entertaining novel which is a joy to read.