I began Laline Paull’s The Bees with good feelings towards bees. I mean, I wasn’t ready to be snuggle buddies with a hive, but I adore honey so I was willing to spread the love to the honey-makers. Now? Well, I’ve probably developed apiphobia.
Let’s start at the literal beginning – Flora 717 being born, grotesquely large and deformed, into the lowest caste in the hive, the sanitation bees. Sanitation is responsible for removing the dead and other waste and its members are considered to be dumb in both senses of the term. All bees are expected above all to be dutiful and obedient to their hive, including by following the cardinal rule that no one but the queen bee may breed.
Because of Flora’s biological differences and innate curiosity, a Sage priestess decides to use her for a series of experiments, elevating Flora first to the nursery where she demonstrates the rare ability to feed the offspring and then to forager status, allowing her to fly free and gather food for the family. However, her actions soon stray into sedition as she inadvertently challenges the status quo by proving to be more fertile than the queen. Her growing maternal instincts battle with her socialized desire to serve her society, as she struggles to discover how to protect both her child and her hive from the evil within and without.
Flora is the worst, and therefore I frequently amused my roommate with vehement exclamations wishing for her imminent demise. She possesses the simultaneous and awkward mix of too much intelligence and too little, questioning everything and not exactly knowing when to shut up, though thankfully her judgement improves over the course of the book. Sadly, without her, there would be no plot because she was the one exploring the hive and overthrowing the rigidly hierarchical system – what can I say, guess I’m not a rebel. Her short-sighted ignorance frustrated rather than incited sympathy from me, especially as her ill-conceived actions kept endangering her fellow bees, including that of her own caste whom she behaved snobbishly toward. She was generally one selfish little bee-otch.
Most of the supporting cast were only vaguely sketched out, so it was difficult to know them as individuals rather than the collective. My favorite characters appeared on page only briefly, including a sweet fly that sacrificed himself for Flora, the devious fortune-telling spiders, and the elderly gentleman who “owns” the hive and serves as a rare human intrusion into hive world. The drones were (debatably) the highlight, adding a welcomed humorous element with their narcissistic affectations and dialogue dripping with sexual innuendo – at least until their macabre death sequence. (May they rest in…pieces…)
I’m still unsure what was truth and what was fiction about bees, which could be considered the mark of a good writer, but in actuality annoyed me. For example, how badly are the bees affected by the removal of honey? Does bee mating work as she posited? (A question I never thought I’d ask.) In general, while Paull’s plot was wildly innovative, her world-building was imbalanced. Pivotal points went unexplained, from the Sages’ schemes and religious authority to the queen’s communication and memory retention capabilities and, most irritatingly, Flora’s pregnancy. The writing overall tended towards the poetic, favoring style over substance.
This book is billed as The Handmaid’s Tale meets The Hunger Games, but perhaps more accurately can be considered the end result of Quentin Tarentino and George Orwell teaming up to revamp Charlotte’s Web. As I mentioned initially, I’m currently still traumatized from the experience of reading this. I’ll certainly never forget this book as it is one of the scariest tales I’ve read, perhaps ever. I’m torn on the rating because it was memorable and creative, but I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience of reading it.