The Bees

Laline Paull

Born into the lowest class of her society, Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, only fit to clean her orchard hive. Living to accept, obey and serve, she is prepared to sacrifice everything for her beloved holy mother, the Queen. Yet Flora has talents that are not typical of her kin. And while mutant bees are usually instantly destroyed, Flora is reassigned to feed the newborns before transitioning to the noble assignment of a forager. When a heroic act thrusts her into the presence of the Queen, she discovers secrets both sublime and ominous. Enemies roam everywhere, from the fearsome fertility police to the high priestesses who jealously guard the Hive Mind. But Flora cannot help but break the most sacred law of all, and her instinct to serve is overshadowed by a desire as overwhelming as it is forbidden.

Flora 717 is a fascinating character. Originally, I thought this novel framed around a dystopian society with humans that function as a hive but is, in fact, about honeybees. As a bee fanatic, this reveal was a pleasant surprise and one that engaged me quickly with the narrative. Flora possesses all the characteristic trappings of a dystopian hero in which she is born with unique talents that a lower class usually should not have, and this draws the attention of the priestesses, those noble bees that control everything. This book was promoted as “The Handmaids Tale meets The Hunger Games,” and while I might not have described it that way, it was fitting.

The focus of the book is on Flora’s low class which is not something expressed in true beehive structures. Bees subscribe to temporal polethism where their role in the hive is dictated by their age rather than their class. With that in mind, the basis of the plot centered on Flora being a sanitation bee at birth is far removed from reality and was a bit frustrating to read in the beginning since I knew classism in a beehive does not exist.

It’s important for me to note that I recognize that Paull had to take some liberties to create a fictional story of anthropomorphized bees. I cannot expect all details to be accurate because the wrong details are the basis of most of the drama, and I could argue without them there would be no plot. I will focus less on the story and narrative of Flora 717 because I find it more interesting to identify the truths behind the story and what I believe Paull was attempting to highlight.

Below is a list of all the details The Bees got correct regarding real beehives and the details that were changed for the sake of the story.

Correct: The use of royal jelly, the lives and deaths of drones, the threat deformed wing virus and foulbrood pose to a hive’s health, how bees handle being raided by animals like wasps and mice, the problems caused by laying workers and how their eggs are cannibalized by bee police, the importance of honey surplus for winter, the “hive mind” or instincts workers have in performing tasks and handling threats, the waggle dance to find flowers, swarming behavior, and queen replacement (kind of).

Incorrect: the gestation period of bees when developing from an egg to an adult worker, worker honeybees are not born into a class system where they keep one job their whole life, laying workers are not capable of producing female eggs, deformed wing virus is caused by the varroa mite which is never mentioned, and a hive functions less as an oligarchy and more as a superorganism.

I’m sure I missed things in both categories, but you can tell from the above that the author did a significant amount of research to write this novel. In her acknowledgements, she talks about the biologists she worked with to create an accurate representation of how hives function. This is where I must ask the question of whether the details given to her by the biologists were incorrect (less likely) or she took creative freedom with some of it for the sake of the narrative (more likely).

If I look at this story from the lens that the author was trying to bring attention to how bees are threatened, I think Paull deserves some kudos. She highlights the main causes of colony collapse (environmental destruction, pesticides, extreme temperatures, pathogens) except for varroa mites which are the largest cause (87%) of hive deaths. Bees play a vital role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem and pollinating food sources for humans, so, without bees, the amount of food we would produce would be significantly reduced. With that in mind, I don’t want to fault the author for changing some details of bee nature when she creates a narrative that draws attention to the plights of honeybees and may cause readers to become more interested in their protection. Unfortunately, almost no one is going to be as interested in bee well-being as someone trained in beekeeping unless the narrative is made dramatic enough. A good example of this is how in recent years, more news sources have focused on advocating for beekeepers especially when there has been considerable hive loss from hot summers or brutally cold winters. People care more about bees now than perhaps they ever have, and it’s time we start taking it more seriously before it’s too late.

I enjoyed Paull’s prose and the emotion behind the story. She humanizes insects that many people are allergic to and/or afraid of when they pose no threat to humans unless provoked. Flora was a relatable character, and her independent thoughts and actions are what ultimately destroy then save her hive. I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat wondering how the author was going to resolve the story, and that is the sign of a great narrative. Would I have been as engaged with it if I weren’t already well-educated on bees? I’m not sure but I think there is something here for any reader if you take certain details with a grain of salt.

Should you be interested in an engaging narrative about the intricate inner workings of a hive, I would recommend this book. Should you be interested in learning more about honeybees, please contact me.

Overall rating: 4.5

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