Imagine a totalitarian society where your status and quality of life is determined at birth, where the weak and deformed are slaughtered for the greater good, ruled by an all-powerful Queen and her zealous minions who demand total adherence to the brutal state religion and reduce the helpless masses to lives of conformity through mind-controlling chemicals. You’re either imagining some terrifying future dystopia… or a perfectly standard beehive. From reading the blurb it was impossible to tell, but Laline Paull’s The Bees concerns the latter. Not a nightmare future where people are reduced to mindless drones by an almighty ruler…just a plain old beehive in a field somewhere, full of plain old bees. Well, anthropomorphic bees but still just bees. But the genius of The Bees is in how it takes the mundane details of insect life and turns them into such a terrifyingly detailed and convincing world.
The book follows the life of Flora 717, a disfigured but strong-hearted sanitation worker, from her birth into the lowest caste of bee society on her rise through the hierarchy. Honestly there isn’t an amazing amount of story- the narrative is basically just Flora 717 leading the reader through all the various aspects of bee life, showing off how they would all work if bees were capable of thought. And it’s hugely entertaining- the result of Paull’s meticulous imagination and evident fascination with hive life. Workers are controlled by scent and by signals coded into the very floor of the hive- markers which guide their feet and thoughts on their daily duties. The bees are human like in their personalities but their thought processes are distinctly alien- love of the Queen Mother and obedience to her laws are hard-wired into their brains and defiance is nigh inconceivable. The hive mind is portrayed cleverly, with entire swarms easily consumed by a single thought and stirred into frenzy. The fanatically religious nature of hive society makes perfect sense too- the Queen’s sacred fragrance is permeated through the hive like a pacifying drug, and her holy laws are enforced by the ruthless Sage caste- priestesses who think nothing of slaughtering their lesser kin for the good of the Hive. The other types of bee are also given amusingly human characteristics, whether it’s the superstar daredevil fliers who forage for food in the dangerous outside world or the slovenly, oafish male drones who demand constant attention from the adoring females. I learned an awful lot about bee life from this book, like how they survive winter by huddling together in a giant lattice with the Queen at the centre, or how males are culled at the end of breeding season. Oh, spoiler alert.
Paull’s transformation of the mundane antics of a bee in a beehive into a terrifying dystopian power struggle makes for excellent reading despite the lack of narrative momentum- The Bees is alternately ingenious, brutal and even pretty funny. Flora 717 is a weirdly likeable protagonist. Partway through the book when she commits the unforgiveable sin of laying eggs of her own (hive rule #1: only the queen may breed), the conflict between her hard wired devotion to hive and queen and her equally innate maternal instincts is effectively portrayed and creates some real tension as she and her offspring evade the detection of the murderous Sage order. You could probably draw all kinds of analogies between our society and the bees’, and there’s some of the usual environmental concerns raised about how climate change and pesticides and things are wrecking the environment. But for me the coolest idea in The Bees is how a complex and intelligent society could appear nothing more than mindless bugs to a sufficiently advanced outside observer. Humans are pretty absent from the book but their effects on the hive are disastrous- the regular harvesting of honey by the hive owner is akin to a devastating earthquake to the masses of bees but the humans are totally oblivious to the destruction and trauma they cause. Makes you wonder if there’s any super intelligent alien species out there who see humans as simplistic, instinct-driven herd creatures who follow pre-determined paths through life trapped on a tiny ball they think is the most important place in the entire universe. Like the human race, the bees think of themselves as the pinnacle of evolution and the only truly intelligent life, unaware of the existence of being far more advanced than them but feeling their effects as random, catastrophic events they cannot hope to understand. Are we just a box full of insects in a field to some cruel galactic race so far beyond our ability to comprehend that we can’t even perceive them? Could the entire human race be wiped out by the equivalent of a lost trekker stepping on an anthill? Are we but ants, and do we live and die on the random whims of alien gods with magnifying glasses? Probably not, but it’s a fun thing to think about as you lie awake at night, eh?