Books: The Bees

The Bees by Laline Paull was our book club selection this month. It’s not quite a page-turner, but still a very interesting story. It’s hard to categorize – which is not a bad thing for a book – but it makes it harder to describe to someone.

The protagonist in the novel is Flora 717, a member of the lowest caste in her hive. They are the sanitation workers, keeping the hive clean by removing dirt and the bodies of dead bees. The rest of them seem content with their lot, but not Flora.

Paull describes life in the hive as ruled by rigid rules, enforced by police who will ruthlessly kill a bee who steps too far out of line – or merely has physical characteristics that do not fit within the prescribed parameters. The worst “sin” is for a worker bee to lay an egg (which Flora does more than once, though it is a process she has no control over).

Bees know what to do through a combination of smells, sounds, chemical stimuli, and the “hive mind” speaking to them. Central to their lives is their devotion to the Queen, who is essentially their goddess, and each day includes a time of religious observance.

I don’t know just how true-to-life the depiction of hive life is (even aside from obvious anthropomorphisms such as bees “speaking” to one another, a necessary technique to allow for dialogue). A good deal of it certainly sounds plausible.

But the novel is not about how bees live. It is about finding one’s place in life, about desiring freedom and knowledge and justice. Despite her birth, Flora takes on various roles in the hive, including nurse to newborns, attendance on the queen, and even as forager, although her caste had never been allowed to forage.

In each situation, Flora does excellent work for the good of the hive, but she also thinks and acts independently, even managing to “seal her antennae” to keep other bees from knowing her thoughts. She violates rules knowingly, but never just for herself – it is always for the hive, or for her (illicit) offspring.

What I found most disconcerting about the book is that it’s not clear whether it’s about bees or about people. There is a long history of writing stories that use animals to reflect on human behavior, from Aesop’s fables to Orwell’s Animal Farm. But such stories do not attempt to describe the biological behavior of animals.

The Bees is so full of vivid descriptions of instinctive bee behavior (such as foragers dancing a message to show other bees how to find the best flowers) that Flora’s independent thought and behavior seem out of place.

Not because she is violating tradition – that is the “human” side of the story – but because she is a bee. There is a reason for the rules that govern bees’ lives, and while those rules would be seen as arbitrary and harsh in a human society, they work very well for bees, who do not have the ability to think and plan their lives the way humans do.

So the reader, inside Flora’s mind, sees her as representing human desires to expand one’s knowledge, to ignore arbitrary rules when they get in the way of justice or doing good, to allow one to choose one’s own path and to develop one’s own abilities, even when these do not fit within existing traditions, especially religious tradition.

And then all that detailed bee behavior with its smells and chemical “gates” and other instinctual patterns pushes its way to the forefront of the story again, and I feel this disconnect between the bee story and the human story.

A story that I think does a better job of conveying the human desire for freedom of thought and action in the context of insect behavior is a chapter from T. H. White’s The Once and Future King (one of my favorites among the dozens of Arthurian novels I have read). Merlyn has turned Wart (who will grow up to be Arthur) into an ant as part of his education.

Wart spends time living as an ant, experiencing human emotions and thinking human thoughts as he observes ant behavior. One thing he quickly learns is that ant language simply does not have words to express ideas such as freedom, love, or even happiness.

It is not that such feelings or ideas are repressed by ant tradition – they simply have no place in the ant’s mind – except in the case of the ant who is really a boy. These and experiences as other animals help Wart to become a better human, and eventually a better king.

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