This is a difficult book to review, because the subject matter is so completely foreign to me. But I’ll do my best.
The Bees is a book that takes place over the course of a year, about the lives of bees in a hive. It’s told from the perspective of Flora 717, who is born as a lowly sanitation worker in a very rigid, role-based society. Flora is different in that her curiosity and strength lead her to explore many different roles in the hive, from nursery worker (feeding the larvae) to forager (flying to flowers and collecting nectar). The hive is feeling threatened by the coming winter and lack of food, which creates an environment of paranoia – rule-breakers and those with deformities are killed instantly before they can corrupt the tribe. At the same time, there’s an understanding that the hive needs to utilize the strengths of all its citizens.
The hive, as you might expect, is a monarchy, with the Queen ruling all. The hive is also governed by rigid gender roles, where the females are workers and the males are drones – they are fat and lazy until it’s time to mate with the Queen and then they die.
Bees are pretty fascinating creatures. The challenge of this book – but also its strength – is that Paull doesn’t anthropomorphize the bees as much as you might expect; rather you have to really get into the mindset of what a bee’s life is like. For example, much of what Flora experiences is instinctual rather than the result of conscious action. She’s still the “plucky heroine” but not in the way you might expect. She challenges authority because her body simply does certain things that are unexpected.
This also makes the book very “spiritual” at times, in a way you wouldn’t see in a book about humans. For example, the bees have certain ceremonies, and they transmit thoughts and emotions to each other in various ways, like touching antennae or going into the “Hive Mind”. There is a beauty to this way of life that you might not expect. It’s not bad or good, it simply is. Yes, this is a repressive society but it’s also a complex one designed to survive in a dangerous world.
Is this a book about humans disguised as a book about bees? I’m not sure. Yes, it’s dystopian, and yes, it’s about freedom and free will and repression. The bees’ mantra is to “Accept, Obey, Serve.” But I think there’s a bigger picture here about nature and cycles and what different civilizations need to survive. Is Flora acting in defiance of the hive or is she driven by nature to act in a way that benefits the hive?
I don’t mind telling you that bees scare me. One bee at a time scares me, and lots of them terrify me. Most bugs don’t bother me too much but bees do, thanks to an unfortunate bee-stinging incident as a child. At the same time, my name (Deborah) actually means “honeybee” in Hebrew, so I’ve always felt an odd sort of connection.
At any rate, we know they have a complex society and are absolutely essential for the environment (check out this fascinating and scary article in i09). And you have to appreciate creatures that pollinate flowers and produce honey.
This book starts out on the slow side. I kept wanting it to be more action-driven and was frustrated by the instinctive nature of everything rather than conscious decision-making. However, that changes about halfway into the book as the character develops and I found I couldn’t wait to read more.
I doubt I would have read this book were it not for the endorsements by Margaret Atwood, Emma Donoghue, and Madeline Miller. I’m glad I did.
I also find that I want to learn so much more about bees now. I was sitting on my deck this weekend and – despite being startled by them as usual – I saw them in a different light.
I’ve seen this book compared to The Hunger Games, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Animal Farm – but to me this book was more like Charlotte’s Web. I may not like spiders but I still think of Charlotte every time I see one.
Note: I received an Advance Review Copy (complete with a vial of honey) in exchange for an honest review.
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