AN ancient, ferocious society exists built around the devout worship of a queen, a magnificent creature defined by her fecundity. She has an innate ability to soothe her subjects with pheromones, which simultaneously render them infertile. The society rejects individualism, existing as a totalitarian state where each individual born has a predestined life and destiny. “Accept, Obey and Serve” are the codes each must live by. But Flora is born different — bigger, uglier, stronger and more sentient than the other workers, she can speak and think unlike the rest of her kin. It is obvious to the inspectors that she should be killed and removed as an aberration, but a priestess wishes to test her capabilities before that. The very moment of Flora’s births sets her apart from the rest of her community.
The premise of a rebel rising above a sea of anonymity, of one individual who cannot, will not accept, obey or serve, eventually destroying a tight hierarchal structure by some massive conflict, only to then re-establish a new society is something we’ve all read before. It’s the basis for many dystopic visions, both in adult and young adult fiction. But this time, it’s all set in a microcosmic ancient societal structure that isn’t fiction. This time it’s set in a beehive and Flora is an aberrant bee, clearly destined for more.
Laline Paull’s The Bees shouldn’t work and yet it does. It often feels dystopic but it’s incorrect to call it that, since Paull has not created or predicted a future totalitarian society but rather written about an existing one — just one that does not happen to be human, but is nonetheless incredibly fascinating and mirrors human society in a great many ways. It is probably better to call The Bees an animal fantasy, the way Watership Down or Animal Farm are: it certainly shares a great many elements with a frightening Orwellian society.
Bees have been considered sacred for centuries in Mesopotamia, Ancient Greece and Egypt, and even in Mayan cultures. More recently, their importance as pollinators for important crops has been discussed frequently because — to put it brusquely — the bees are dying. Colonies are collapsing and apiologists the world over are unable to understand why, though pesticides and chemicals used to cultivate crops have been partly blamed. Paull doesn’t ignore the current questions rising about colony collapse; rather, she works them into her narrative, drawing parallels between a disease killing off the bee population and the moral rot that destroys a society. Flora’s hive may be under danger from a “fatal sickness lurking in the hive, sheltered in the body of a single sister”, but it is also under danger from the priestesses who control the matriarchal seat of power.
It is a fierce matriarchal society that Paull writers about, with the queen bee at the very top of a tight hierarchical pyramid. She’s the only one who can breed — she alone can ensure the birth of the legions of bees needed to maintain the hive. She is, basically, a god —“Only the Queen is perfect” — the only bee with the power to create life. Paull takes this idea and extrapolates it to imagine a bee society that is run by the Queen’s priestesses, the Melissae. They control the ‘Flow’; who gets how much of it and who is given enough to turn into a Queen. Every so often a “laying worker’ will emerge in a hive, a worker bee who lays an egg against all rules. Hives have patrols to identify and kill these anomalous bees and eat their eggs. Paull calls these patrols the ‘fertility police’ and they are just as ominous as you would expect them to be, helping form a police state, as it were, in collaboration with the priestesses.
Flora is oddly able to do much more than a worker bee should. She may have been born a sanitation worker, destined to never speak and to quietly collect the filth of others, but she is immediately marked out as an ‘other’. Our very first instance in the beehive is that of Flora’s emergence from a cell, a violent and vibrant birth: “The cell squeezed her and the air was hot and fetid. All the joints of her body burned from her frantic twisting against the walls, her head was pressed into her chest and her legs shot with cramp, but her struggles had worked — one wall felt weaker. She kicked out with all her strength and felt something crack and break. She forced and tore and bit until there was a jagged hole into fresher air beyond. She dragged her body through and fell out onto the floor of an alien world. Static roared through her brain, thunderous vibration shook the ground and a thousand scents dazed her.”
Recovering soon, she is found to be able to produce royal jelly, aggressively fight an intruding wasp and ‘read’ the secret codas of the ancient stories the priestesses maintain for the Queen. Flora, it is evident, will never be just another sanitation worker. Readers must be forgiven for assuming Flora is going to rise through the ranks — she does, to a great extent, becoming a forager — but hers is a more complicated destiny. A cluster of spiders set up outside the hive and offer to trade secrets for nourishment, happy to divulge what they know to be true of the lives of disposable worker bees. One of them tells Flora that she will lay an egg and that she will bring disaster to the hive: “Madness. Sister against Sister. Disaster”. The fate of this egg is of course something many readers will guess, but it won’t matter even if you do know where this is all going. The Bees is told with such skill and intelligence that a familiar plot conceit isn’t enough to dilute a reader’s interest.
Paull winds Greco-Roman mythology deftly into her narrative. The bee priestesses are called the Melissae named after the nymphs who nursed Zeus but chose to feed him honey instead of milk. The spiders are Arachne — the teller of truths, spinner of webs and among the devious villains of this book. It’s a very thoughtful and almost highbrow treatment of a story that could easily have fallen prey to whimsy.
Instead, it resonates with implications that bring to mind Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. On the whole, The Bees is a convincing and ambitious narrative. On occasion, something may try to push the balance of your suspension of disbelief (the bees holding pitchers of nectar for instance — pitchers? Why? How? This turns what is a wild, viciously smart creature into a cutsey Disney animation), but luckily this isn’t enough to take away from what a reader will very naturally invest in the characters. Yes the bees are anthropomorphised with what feels like human emotion but who are we to say bees don’t feel something akin to jealousy or maternal love or even a hunger for power? Of course Paull has taken liberties with certain aspects of these incredible creatures but then it’s fiction after all, not entomology. And as fiction, The Bees really soars.
By Laline Paull
Fourth Estate, UK