As highly functional and exceedingly authoritarian societies go, bees are legit. One need only skim some of the mass bee death headlines of the last few years to understand that for animals so small, seemingly innocuous and unwelcome at picnics, bees basically run the world. Or keep the world running.
Given their propensity for hierarchy, bees also seem an apropos topic for the ever-growing canon of dystopian fiction. After all, they’re an all-natural example of the kind of social order foisted on humans in books like 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale and Brave New World. Bees have a ruler, a class system, and a directive (however innate) to stick with the program lest the whole hive suffer for an individual’s absence of industry. Needles to say, I could never be a bee, or any other animal whose entire existence is synonymous with hard work and constant activity. (Given the choice, I’d be a house cat; their lives are 70% sleeping, 10% eating and 20% knocking things off tables.)
In The Bees, Laline Paull makes a valiant effort to bridge the gap between traditional dystopian literature and IRL bee stuff. Flora 717, a bee born to the lowest social order (sanitation) at the orchard hive, immediately recognizes herself as different from the rest of her beefolk. While most of the bees slog through their professional destinies, she is earnest, curious and eager to learn more about the hive. Flora finds herself ascending the ranks, from clean-up crew to child-rearing to food-gathering, and her progression prompts both respect and resentment, the latter from a powerful group of elitist bees who serve the queen directly. As Flora’s independence grows, she begins to question the very structure of the hive, and in so doing uncovers some fundamental (and very dystopian) bee injustices.
While I wanted to love The Bees, my overall impression was mixed. Books like Animal Farm and Watership Down have successfully navigated the Exploring Humanity Via Animals theme in the past, but extending that concept to insects adds a layer of difficulty that is in part cultural. Horses, dogs, rabbits, pigs—mammals, essentially—share a long history of anthropomorphism. We almost defer to the notion that such animals are capable of personality; we name our pets, talk to them and only semi-facetiously entertain the thought that their inability to emote is a cruel biological joke, like a 2-year-old that understands 80% of speech but has a personal wheelhouse of ten key phrases. We like to imagine that there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes than a moo or woof or meow can convey.
Bees, not so much. With the exception of 1998, during which both Antz and A Bug’s Life came out, bugs are less known for cutesy fictional personalities, and appreciating them as characters in The Bees takes some effort. Paull endeavors to humanize the hive by giving it tiny touches of the familiar (bee meals served on platters, for example) and by creating a sort of bee mythology—along her path to notoriety, Flora discovers a series of scent tablets (?) that document the history of the hive. But the result can feel unintentionally comic, and opens one up to distracting mental pictures of bees holding forth over a meal served on tiny little bee plates. I frankly don’t know enough about bees to understand which parts of Flora’s semi-personality are unique versus common, or even biologically accurate.
Still, where The Bees falters in execution, it excels as a thought experiment. The gap between bee life and authoritarian rule is small, and the anything-for-the-hive mentality with which bee decisions are made brings to mind every dystopian classic equally concerned with sacrifice in the name of “the greater good.” Moreover, bees are constantly faced with life-or-death situations—wasp fights, drone massacres, winter starvation. Confronted with the undeniable dangers of Being Bee (and obligated to draw a parallel to the dangers of Being Human) one can’t help but acknowledge the benefit of the hivemind, and the necessity of “doing one’s part” to ensure that everyone survives.
Ultimately, The Bees isn’t quite emotional enough to be relatable, or blatantly scientific enough to feel truly informative. I found myself constantly wanting to Google bee facts to see which behaviors were real and which imagined as part of Paull’s universe. Do forager bees really dance to show other bees where to find pollen? Can bees really share chemical memories? Do bees really speak in Old English? My suspicion is that Paull went to great lengths to preserve certain facts in her description of bee behavior (bee-havior, if you will) but what emerges is a book that struggles to moralize. After all, if bees didn’t do all the weird crap that bees do, in the very specifically organized way that they do it, wouldn’t their whole operation cease to function?
Then again, I guess that question is the point.
TITLE: The Bees
AUTHOR: Laline Paull
PAGES: 320 pages (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: n/a
SORTA LIKE: Brave New World meets The Handmaid’s Tale meets A Bug’s Life
FIRST LINE: “The old orchard stood besieged.”