The Bees by Laline Paull
By Natasja Hellenthal
The Handmaid’s Tale meets The Hunger Games in this brilliantly imagined debut set in an ancient culture where only the queen may breed and deformity means death.
Flora 717 is a sanitation worker, a member of the lowest caste in her orchard hive where work and sacrifice are the highest virtues and worship of the beloved Queen the only religion. But Flora is not like other bees. With circumstances threatening the hive’s survival, her curiosity is regarded as a dangerous flaw but her courage and strength are an asset. She is allowed to feed the newborns in the royal nursery and then to become a forager, flying alone and free to collect pollen. She also finds her way into the Queen’s inner sanctum, where she discovers mysteries about the hive that are both profound and ominous.
But when Flora breaks the most sacred law of all—daring to challenge the Queen’s fertility—enemies abound, from the fearsome fertility police who enforce the strict social hierarchy to the high priestesses jealously wedded to power. Her deepest instincts to serve and sacrifice are now overshadowed by an even deeper desire, a fierce maternal love that will bring her into conflict with her conscience, her heart, her society—and lead her to unthinkable deeds.
“Obey, Serve, Protect!”
The Bees revolves around the birth, life, and death of Flora 717. She is born into the hive as a humble sanitation worker – cleaning up and removing the dead bodies of her sisters. But unlike the rest, she has the ability to talk and question the meaning of her existence. She is very brave and saves the colony from a deadly wasp attack for example. She is rewarded by spending time in the Queen’s calm presence. Soon she is ‘promoted’ to be an important forager and responsible, with her fellow foragers, for bringing in the pollen on which everyone depends.
This was an excellent and thought-provoking read. I loved every moment of it and really found myself identifying with Flora. It is a meaningful addition to the anthropomorphic tradition of books such as Wind In The Willows and Watership Down. Even though those other stories tend to humanise the lives and thoughts of other animal species which can have an important message in itself, it’s not entirely true for The Bees. There is much scientific truth to this story, apart from the dystopian element. These stories are important, with whatever species, as they address human issues such as power, thinking for oneself, and breaking free from the norm and even religion. The Bees does more than all that though. It not only shows the struggle of a single bee with responsibilities to her home while bringing change to a hierarchical community thus bringing her story home to us humans and our society, it also a plausible and well-researched account from the point of view of the bees and their lives as far as it is possible.
The attention to detail in describing the use of scents and pheromones in a bee’s life was really remarkable as well as the complicated dance ritual they do upon returning to the hive. One gets to learn so much about nature, about spiders and wasps, various flowers, and the impact of deadly chemicals upon the environment.
The description is never over-sentimental as to living in a beehive either. From the mating of a drone with the Queen (and his immediate death after) to the clearing up of sick bees, to the situation of the colony as winter approaches (surviving drones and older and weaker bees are all thrown out), to the issues that a colony without a queen can face, everything is told in a matter of fact way. Life for bees can be very hard. The story also explains the idea that the colony is the ‘creature’ and that the bees are the cells that make it up. The Hive Mind can override personal thoughts and control their actions.
It has given me so much more knowledge and respect for bees and I look at them differently now.
I genuinely felt throughout the story for Flora while she tried to contribute to the hive in many ways. The author did a great job of ensuring that the bees, while having a personality, kept acting on their instincts and communication as they would in a real hive.
The author has written a really good book which I strongly recommend. If you want to comprehend the life of bees – and enjoy a fascinating page-turning read at the same time – then this is absolutely for you. You will be totally fascinated. The most memorable book I have read for quite a while.
Or maybe you’ve already read this book? What did you think?
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