The Bees by Laline Paull

The old orchard stood besieged.

– Opening sentence

Do you ever read a borrowed book, and love it so much that you don’t want to give it back?

That’s the dilemma I’m in now. One of my closest friends, Lisa, lent me her copy of The Bees about 6 months ago. Feeling guilty for letting it sit and gather dust over this time, I finally picked it up to read.

The book follows the story of Flora 717, a lowest-class worker bee (role; sanitation) just hatched into a totalitarian hive society. It’s such a unique narrative (the only book that comes close to comparison would be Watership Down), that I was instantly gripped with fascination and admiration.

We are quickly introduced to the harsh politics of hive life; Flora 717 is born deformed – “excessively large” and “obscenely ugly”, with the ability to speak (unheard of for sanitation workers) – and wouldn’t have survive ‘The Kindness’ (death) if it wasn’t for the lucky presence of higher-ranking Sage for “a private experiment”.

But Flora 717 is smarter and stronger than she herself even knows, and despite the hardships she faces (and the crimes she conceals), she is a survivor.

If interpreted as a metaphor, The Bees confronts the reader with some interesting questions about humanity. The different kins of the bees clearly represent class; something you are born into with no choice which limits your opportunities and has an affect on the way you are treated by others.

The vast majority of the bees are female, who collectively work together to keep the hive maintained and thus ensuring its survival. Roles include foraging (collecting nectar and pollen), nursing (feeding and raising the Queen’s eggs), sanitation (cleaning and managing the morgue) and policing (the fertility police punish all sin with The Kindness).

I suppose this could be perceived in two ways. The first could interpret this as an ode to strong, independent women who have all the skills necessary to look after themselves without male assistance. However, the hive does produce males each season – arrogant, vulgar and demanding beings who are incapable of fending for themselves and spend their day making demands from their female sisters who pander to them with phrases such as “Worship to your Maleness”.

I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions about what the author might be trying to say with that…

The most challenging and complex theme I got from the book was that of freedom. On an individual level, we all want the ability to choose our own paths, without limitations or punishments. However, if all the worker bees were free to do as they please, no doubt the hive would collapse into chaos and despair.

Can the sacrifice of a few hundred bees be justified if it ensures the survival of the entire hive? Or is it better for the hive to die, if it means each bee can live freely?

On the surface, this is a beautifully-written story about bees – but read between the lines and it’s certainly full of thought-provoking questions.

This was an excellent book to kick off the start of the new year, and definitely one I’ll be recommending to anyone I can (including you, dear reader!).

5 Stars (5 / 5)

The family looked up into the bright and empty sky.

– Final sentence

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