By Sharon Reily, Reference Department
On the outside, it’s just an unassuming wooden box. But inside are vast chambers with amber walls, elegant royal quarters, secret passageways, and a charming royal nursery. Ruling over this magnificent structure is a beautiful queen, whose fragrance insures the love and blind devotion of her followers. It sounds like a traditional fairytale, but The Bees is set in a beehive, and the characters are the 10,000 honeybees who call it home.
The heroine of this mesmerizing debut novel by Laline Paull is Flora 717, a worker bee whose job in sanitation makes her the lowest of the low in a very rigid caste society. Flora 717 and her sisters in sanitation are literally the “untouchables,” and their main duty is disposing of the bodies of dead bees from the hive’s morgue. But there’s something different about Flora – she’s big, dark, and ugly. She’s also strong, intelligent, brave, resourceful, and fiercely devoted to her hive and queen. As others begin to recognize these surprising traits, Flora 717 is allowed to move up through the ranks of bee society. As she gets access to levels most maintenance workers never see, readers gain insight into the workings of different parts of the hive, including the nursery and even the queen’s private chambers. Flora finally wins a place with the foragers, whose vital mission is to gather nectar and pollen. Paull’s stunning descriptions of how the foragers experience the outside world and interact with flowers are sometimes delightful and sometimes frightening.
Life for bees isn’t easy. In fact, it’s downright brutal. The world is a dangerous place full of “the Myriad” – all the creatures who threaten the hive. Humans are a major menace, with their encroaching developments and pesticides that kill plants, pests and bees alike. Even the benevolent beekeeper who loves his bees wreaks devastating and heartbreaking havoc when he collects honey. Mysterious diseases cause entire hives to collapse. Most horrifying of all is the way the bees treat each other in order to maintain their social system. As the hive faces one calamity after another, Flora’s drive to protect her home and sisters keeps her in peril.
Loyal Flora embodies the hive’s mantra – Accept, Obey, and Serve. But when she makes a shocking discovery about herself, she begins to question the hive’s strict laws and hierarchy. As a result, Flora takes action that could put her and the hive in grave danger.
The Bees succeeds on many levels. It’s a fascinating look at the “hive mentality” and the way a beehive functions. It’s a great tale of adventure and a suspenseful and sometimes terrifying story of the struggle to survive. There’s also comic relief provided by the foppish male drones. But most of all, it’s the exciting, inspiring and touching story of brave Flora 717. After reading The Bees I’ll never again look at a tiny honeybee or taste a teaspoon of honey without thinking of this endearing character and her sisters.