‘The Bees’ by Laline Paull is the kind of book I dreamt of writing as a child. But rather than Apis, Aves were my infatuation at the time. Hand in hand with my mother, my short walk to school included a stroll along a beck, home to a variety of lower classification birds. I was intrigued by how they moved in flocks, almost regimented in their appearance. Inevitably – as any 6-7 year old boy would do – I saw brutalist potential in this, and began to create warlike scenarios between each species. Battle lines would be drawn, allegiances pledged and… the rest is up to imagination.
The Bees takes on an allegorical narrative of its own, but far afield of what my young mind could have conceived. This earnest tale of the turmoils of a beehive not only highlights the present threats of bee endangerment in rural areas, but provides a much-needed ‘through the looking glass’ account of our own race, and how we are destroying our solitary home through wars and fracases spurred by religious piety, class division and false prophets.
Ironically, it is only through an Orwellian-style societal condition that the hive may maintain its equanimity. Firstly, through the Queen’s pheromone, aptly named ‘Devotion’, which is communicated directly to each bees’ antennae via the intangible ‘Hive Mind’. As in reality, the assurance of the Queen’s presence creates a calming effect throughout the colony, making them more efficient, obedient and resourceful. The mantra ‘Accept. Obey. Serve’ and the highest law ‘Only the Queen may breed’ are frequently used by the upper echelons to maintain dominance over those considered a lesser being, including the protagonist Flora 717, a newly birthed bee genetically geared as a sanitation worker, but whom is seemingly destined for greater things.
The comparisons between The Bees and other totalitarian fiction are numerous, but the concepts are cleverly thought out and logically applied rather than plagiarised. An indication of Thought-Speak is ever present, especially between Flora 717 and Lily 500, a compatriot who’s ethereal influence reaches beyond the boundaries of regular communication.
If these motifs spawned from ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’, then the highly sexualised nature of the book could easily have drawn inspiration from Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. It’s innocent suggestion of innuendo is almost comical at stages, particularly when my girlfriend leant over my shoulder and read the following paragraph, thus coining the term ‘bee-rotica’:
She climbed up and positioned herself over one of the creamy white florets, and the contact of her feet on the flower’s virginial petal made them both tremble. Flora held it softly then sank her tongue into its depths…
There is much more to be said about The Bees, even without exploring the underlying conventions. Each concise chapter covers the different challenges a hive may face, from sickness through neonicotinoid contamination (which has recently become the focus of debate on a parliamentary scale), to the notorious varroa mite which can spread and devastate entire colonies.
Other threats lay closer to home. Aside from the bees’ interdepartmental bickering, the infamous relationship between Apis and Vespula is also explored, with Shakespearean like exchanges taking place between Flora and the fair weather wasps. There is no holding back when describing the savage combat either (this is more Watership Down than Wind in the Willows), which the author accredits to one of the early listeners of the book who ‘advised more violence’.
The Bees can be enjoyed on many different levels, and I particularly admire the none too preachy method of storytelling which Paull has brought to the table. The piece could have easily remained on the topic of neonics, and how lobbyists and the lack of public enlightenment has lead to a critical scenario for our bee population. But if you ask me, the information is there for all to see, and the reality tells a much more harrowing story.