Fascination with bees has been enjoying an upsurge in recent years and thankfully we are increasingly aware of the vital role they play in our food supply.
We are also becoming more concerned about the declining bee populations and the impact this will have on human survival. So The Bees, Laline Paull’s exploration of the life of a honey bee navigating the age of pesticides and urban sprawl, seems well-timed.
The Bees is the first novel by Paull, a playwright and screenwriter who lives with her photographer husband, Adrian Peacock, and three children near Hastings in England. She was inspired to write the novel by the death of a close friend who had kept bees and had referred to them as her girls.
The Bees is a journey into the world of a honey bee hive which playfully characterises the insects while still capturing the bizarre habits, rituals and castes unique to the bee. The novel’s main character is worker bee Flora 717, a hygiene worker, and the story follows Flora’s life in the hive and in the air as she has conversations with the flowers, wasps, bluebottles, flies and spiders.
Apart from a scene half way through where a beekeeper takes away the honey, there is no human involved.
Times are tough for the hive, and despite being a member of the lowest social caste, Flora has unique abilities that bring her to the attention of the ruling caste of bees , which propels her to the prestigious role of forager and critical to the survival of the hive.
Mysterious gray dust from the fields has been killing foragers in droves, and fewer and fewer healthy flowers can be found within flying distance, but Flora has the toughness and smarts to escape danger and find food for her sisters, but her bold individualism could put the hive she loves in danger.
Paull’s in-depth research into the hive culture shines through as she reimagines the queen-centric society of the bees as a devoutly religious colony that treats its queen as a god. She is certainly not far off the mark, as the life of the bee is ordered by the scents that convey the queen’s desires and hive vibrations that allot tasks for each bee to carry out daily -– and, of course, by the strict caste system that assigns different categories of worker to specific functions in the hive.
Paull’s extensive research makes for fascinating reading for a beekeeper, though at times the fundamentalist might be a bit irked at the liberties she takes.
Flora 717 at one point lays eggs and, to a beekeeper, if anyone other than a queen laid eggs it would be a disaster for the hive.
However, the book is most engrossing when bringing to life the intriguing functions of a beehive, from the feeding of royal jelly to the larvae to the dances by which foraging bees direct each other to fertile grounds for gathering nectar and pollen.
This novel reminds me of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. “Accept, Obey and Serve,” the bees intone to one another as a refrain. However, unlike Orwell, it seems that Paull has no intention of using her bees to comment on or to reflect human society; rather, she wants to portray a world hidden within our own.
To do that, she has created this world of scent and symbol, in which pheromones have the ability to unveil us, and all are in service to the hive mind, which is what happens in a real hive.
And yet Flora 717 is somewhere in the middle, a bee with a conscience, caught between her devotion to the queen, to the collective, and her own capacity for individual thought. When the fertility police caution: “Deformity is not permitted” she is the only one who can see the social order whole. What that gives her is a whisper of conscience.
On the story level the novel had lots going on but the sense of urgency and connectedness were somewhat lost. Paull frequently resorts to shortcuts and evasions to keep the plot moving along and to keep the rebellious heroine alive in a violently repressive hive. The story’s awkward pacing leaves a sense of dissatisfaction.
What was disappointing was that the broad environmental issues alluded to were never really confronted and from a naturist point of view it is difficult not to wish for a more courageous examination of the effects of development and pesticide use on honey bee colonies.
However, Paull’s empathetic and at times, funny treatment of the honey bee in the form of a novel, brings the remarkable social world of bees to a readership who normally would not have access.