Flora 717 lives in a world where everyone is born into a particular caste with a particular job to do. Her kin, the floras, are the lowest caste, the sanitation workers whom others are loath to touch. At the top of the chain are the Queen, her maids, and the kin Sage, or priestesses. When Flora 717 is born, a Sage recognizes her as something different. She is large and, unlike the rest of her kin, can speak.
If you haven’t already guessed, Flora 717 is a worker bee. She lives and dies to serve the hive. Her kin are dispensable. Because of her abilities, Flora has opportunities others of her kin don’t. She’s asked to work in the nursery, and serve the Queen. When a chance to fly with the bravest kin of the hive, the Foragers, appears, Flora takes it and lives the most adventurous life. However, Flora has a secret, a treasonous secret that endangers her life.
If Watership Down taught you everything you needed to know about warren life, The Bees will teach you everything about the hive. Laline Paull intertwines bee behaviour, like the Swarm, the Cluster for winter, and the fight for a new Queen into an imagined bee mythology. The Queen, or Mother, is worshipped by the bees and she provides them with Devotion, a pheromone that calms the hive. Without Devotion the hive would fall into anarchy. Above even the Queen is the Hive Mind, which enables the bees to commit terrible things to ensure their survival. The Hive Mind connects all bees together mentally so when the hive in threatened they are able to work as one entity.
During Flora’s lifetime, the Queen becomes sick. A fact the Sages try to hide. To even discuss the health of the Queen is treason, but the Sages have their secrets. I’ve read The Bees described as a dystopia, but is it? I mean, the bees are just doing what bees do here. The bees are connected to the Queen and each other by pheromones. It’s not some kind of conspiracy, it’s nature. It’s like saying your liver is being hassled by your heart. Even Flora’s secret has some basis in science (thelytoky- only look that up if you don’t mind spoilers). Yes, I fell down the bee internet rabbit hole when I wrote this review. I wanted to know how much of this story could be fact, and I got to say Paull has covered all her scientific bases. As for Flora’s uniqueness, to answer that look closely at what the spider tells her about her father and what the old bee says before she dies.
If Paull strays out of science and into dystopia territory, it’s in the caste system. Yes, bees do have a caste system, but they aren’t born into “kins.” Bees have different duties based on age: new bees clean, old bees forage. The Sages, in this story, are the most useless of all the worker bees. They just wander around being bossy. They are the source of the conflict: no bee but the Queen must breed. Only Flora’s abilities enable her to transcend her kin and become what she ultimately becomes.
Does Laline Paull have a point other than bees are cool in The Bees? I don’t know. I mean, in Watership Down the destructive hand of man was all over it. I thought maybe that’s where she was headed with the weather, and the poisoned crops, but that never really went anywhere. Is it the religious aspect? It was a weird component. Drawing parallels between bees and humans is a stretch though. I don’t see this as an allegory (and Amal El-Mohtar of NPR agrees). We’re not bees! Bees are bees, people are people!
As for the characters, besides Flora the superbee, I loved the bravery of Lily 500, the craftiness of the wasps, and the all knowingness of the spiders. The Drones threw me for a bit. They were out of place in the seriousness of the rest of the bee shenanigans. I suppose they were comic relief with their bawdy jokes and demands for the worker bees to “clean my groin.” Sir Linden did eventually win my heart.
This is something different, for sure. The Bees is an imaginative look at the life of a bee and the hive where she lives.