When I first began The Bees by Laline Paull, I thought I was getting into the bee version of Watership Down. That assumption probably explained why I dragged my feet a bit at the beginning of The Bees, but I was soon swept up in a story that was nothing like Watership Down despite the surface similarities.
Like Watership Down, it does give us creatures with consciousness and speech. Also like Watership Down, the protagonist is different, with unique abilities. And yes, we learn about the culture, religion, economy and social structure of these creatures imagined from basic understandings of their real social structure, but the similarities end there. While there may be a message in The Bees and while there are ways the social structure is allegorical to humanity, not once are you hit between the eyes with a two by four. It is also different in another, much more significant way. While the bees in The Bees have consciousness, it is nothing like human consciousness. There really is a hive mind.
The Bees starts quickly with the birth of Flora717, one of the Flora kin–the worker caste assigned to sanitation, cleaning out the detritus of hive birth, life, and death. Unlike the rest of her kin, Flora717 can speak, something that brings her to the attention of one of the Sage kin, the priestess caste that serve the queen and the hive and maintain orthodoxy. Other kin include the Teasel who are charged with child-rearing. There are others who do building, who work in patisserie and of course, the foragers who go out and about. Then there are the drones, the few males who are a boorish bunch of louts who laze about, overindulge and are feted and petted by the females who do all the work. Last, and most importantly, there is the Queen, the mother of them all whose love brings them to ecstasy and whom they worship with adoration and absolute obedience.
Accept. Obey. Serve. That is the life of the bee. There is no straying from that orthodoxy and 717 does her best not to do so, but she is plagued with curiosity. Through adventures and misadventures, she manages to visit and learn about nearly all parts of the hive, to meet and get to know bees from all kin. Because of her courage and strength, she even becomes a forager and learns about the wild world outside the hive, about the threats from predators, pesticides and urbanization.
This is a great adventure story, but it also an emotional story about love, friendship and courage. It is fascinating and creative. Many specific elements of bee society are as factual in The Bees and in any nearby apiary. Bees are a matriarchal society. They do have defined tasks. Their preparation for winter is similar, if perhaps less violent. Bee colonies are under threat and dying off mysteriously. And as to the religion and worship of the Queen, who can say? It is not as though it is presented as conscious choice and conversion.
Even the most implausible element of the story, Flora’s unique ability and her great sin, is rooted in reproductive possibilities that may arise with African Cape bees mingling with European bees. Some might see that as an allegory about diversity bringing strength. Of course, the story is too subtle to tell us that the few new, different bees from the south are African bees, because this book is never one to hit you between the eyes with a two by four.
Generally I only give five paws to books that contain prose so lyrical, poetic and fresh I have to pause to savor it. That is not the case with The Bees. I don’t have a lot of memorable quotes that sparkle. The writing is good, but the story is paramount. This book excels because it is so wildly new and imaginative. Paull created a completely new society and approached the concept of writing about animals as rational, speaking actors in a new way, one that does not anthropomorphize the bees in any way. That is something unique and wonderful.