Bees — which is to say, the fear of them — dominated many summers of my childhood. Especially when walking (inevitably barefoot) through a particular Eastern Shore clover patch, I could focus on little else than trying to avoid their sting.
Now my thoughts are hovering around bees again, but for a less foreboding reason. Laline Paull’s transfixing first novel, “The Bees,” isn’t explicitly about the real-world problems that threaten their survival , but the story’s inspired imagining of hive life compels one to wonder about the extraordinary complexity and sophistication of these insects — and to care about their fate.
Set in a honeybee hive, the novel is a parable about the consequences of groupthink. Its heroine, Flora 717, is born into the worker caste, destined for nothing but the basest drudgery. But 717 isn’t like the other Floras. Though the elite bees, the Sages, call her big and ugly, she can speak, she produces royal jelly, and she’s very brave. Those unique abilities allow 717 an unprecedented freedom within the hive’s rigid class system. She nurses the larvae in the Nursery, waits on the bawdy males in the Drones’ Hall and flies as a forager, gathering pollen and nectar. But her greatest ability is also her most dangerous: Flora 717 can produce eggs, something only the queen is meant to do and a guaranteed death sentence for any others who dare.
At first, I found myself putting down the book every few pages to research Paull’s descriptions of bee life. (Do they really secrete beeswax from their bellies? Fan nectar into honey? Periodically murder the drones?) It quickly became clear that in its basic facts, the novel sticks closely to real-world apian biology and behavior.
That is fascinating enough, but Paull deftly wields this information to create an even more elaborately layered culture of beeness. It is beautiful with the intricate architecture of the hive. It is religious with worship centered on the queen: “Our mother who art in labor. . . hallowed be Thy womb.” It is sensual and passionate, especially when it comes to the harvesting of pollen from flowers. But it is also vicious, particularly when bee turns cruelly on bee.
Paull’s version of the hive’s extreme matriarchy is home to many kinds of females, strong and meek, thoughtful and superficial, forward-thinking and hidebound. There is something comforting and cozy in the group-focused industry of the hive, where every bee knows its role. But of course, there is something deeply creepy, too, about a world that rejects individualism. In this sense the hive mind of “The Bees” evokes that of Star Trek’s Borg. While Paull may not have named Flora 717 in homage to the former Borg drone Seven of Nine, both are misfit members of dystopian collectives who break free. We can’t help but hope that 717 has the brains, strength and drive to save her colony from disaster.
Sadly, whether her real-life sisters will survive remains to be seen.
Sklaroff is a writer in Washington.
By Laline Paull
Ecco. 340 pp. $25.99