I was introduced to The Bees at my book club, by friends who described it as “intense and extremely clever” – an enticing report. It turned out to be both, and more.
The Bees is the debut novel by playwright and screenwriter Laline Paull. It’s a story about a colony of honeybees whose mysterious lives rely on complete obedience and sacrifice for the Queen. Flora 717, our curious heroine, begins questioning her role in the hive from the moment of her birth – a somewhat unusual characteristic for a bee, especially one of her status. As she learns to decipher and understand the structure of her society, we too begin to navigate our way around this tense, totalitarian world, a world which quickly becomes a place of wonder, alternatingly dark and bright.
I loved that the characters are bees. They are simultaneously familiar, human-like, and totally foreign. Paull creates a scenario that allows us to be a visitor within their enchanting world, anthropomorphizing them to make them relatable educators.
There is a fascinating undercurrent of suspense, as Flora learns more about her kin, rebels against her caste as a sanitation worker, and begins to question the distribution of power within her society. And what Paull cleverly made me ask was this: Is Flora’s rebellion unnatural? Is she, by not complying, a danger to her species, or a savior? Not only does her disobedience threaten to disrupt the hive, but it also puts her own life in danger.
The hive revolves around the holy Mother, the Queen, whose very scent, like a drug, lulls them all into dopey obedience. The level of blind faith was for me a jarring reflection of human behavior, as was the way they worship ‘Maleness.’ Every bee has an inherent and unchangeable worth which they may never reject. A group of high status ‘priestesses’ maintains this with threats and violence, exterminating any ‘defects' – a familiar echo of human social hierarchy and discrimination.
By making Flora the heroine, Laline Paull commends rebels and individual thinkers. She praises those who question authority, challenge religion, and defy tradition. She insists that we must know the reasons why we abide such structures and truly agree with them if we are to participate. This is a powerful message and the way Paull writes it into a story about bees, whether it was her immediate intention or not, worked for me on so many levels.
What’s more, it’s not just a story. The book is full of facts. Which, to be honest, makes it all the more impressive. Paull notes that she did a lot of research. It makes the hive an even more beautiful yet frightening place. The bees are highly complex beings, who really do dance maps and distinguish nuances of scent and vibration. This produced in me a huge sense of awe.
Flora is my favorite kind of heroine and we experience her becoming one. By the end, she is humble, intelligent, bold, and loving. She’s strong, motherly, compassionate, and forgiving. But perhaps most importantly, in thinking for herself, she changes her destiny and the future of her world.
In reading The Bees, I found an engulfing dystopian semi-fantasy that illustrates how much we can learn by observing nature. It highlights dangerous social structures that must be challenged, whilst of course encouraging the respect and protection of such amazing insects.