Far from the bumbling little balls of flying fur we all associate with over-the-top shrieks from schoolchildren when one dares to sneak in the classroom window on a summer’s day, bees are extraordinary. A matriarchial, totalitatian society founded on co-operation and cohabitation, like any outwardly appearing utopia it has a deep, dark menacing side demonstrating no mercy for those who deviate from social normality. The Queen, like a living God, is everything, so when a measly worker threatens the natural order of things a fight for the survival of the hive and its thousands of inhabitants is all but inevitable.
Flora 717 is born into the kin of sanitation workers, destined to be at the service of all other castes – amongst them foragers, guards, nurses and, most revered of all, priestess – forcibly remaining subservient, obedient and mute and treated with derision and disrespect by the rest of their sisters. When a commotion reveals that a worker has laid an egg, strictly forbidden by the laws of the hive and immediately punishable by death, Flora 717’s considered reaction catches the eye of a Sage priestess, who takes her under her wing to further investigate the seeming intelligent of a bee who should show no signs of individuality.
It took me a while to realise (with the help of a little Wikipedia search) that although anthromorphised to an extent the bee society portrayed by Laline Paull in her hugely imaginative yet astoundingly believable novel is surprisingly realistic. Bees are assigned to different duties; not all go out to scavenge for nectar, there are indeed nurses, “ladies-in-waiting” to the queen and even bees who take on the role of “worker policing” when a worker bee lays an egg illegally. When a queen is sick or dying larvae are specially reared to take her place and so there will be a degree of egg laying in that case, but very rarely a worker will begin to lay, and the special army of worker police is created to do away with the offending bee.
Not being au fait with the biology of bees (until said Wikipedia research) I was confused about how this could possibly happen, if the eggs were unfertilised. But it turns out that drones – those lazy, entitled, gauche princess portrayed in the story – are born of unfertilised queen eggs, and their worker half-sisters are the off-spring of eggs fertilised by a number of different drones on the mating flight the virgin queen partakes in in order to become true queen of the hive. When a laying worker bee develops and begins to lay the whole hive is threatened, as her feelings of protection over her egg outweigh her natural devotion to the rest of the hive.
The story of Flora 717’s ascent from sanitation worker to being given the privelege of observing the workings of the nursery, to fearless warrior and subsequently to revered forager is one of survival over all costs, initially for the hive and then for love. Paull weaves a compelling, convincing story of this astounding alien society, so absorbing that one forgets that the stakes are honey and royal jelly and the enemies are our every day nuisances like wasps and spiders. Comparisons with our own way of living are unavoidable – the religious fervour used to keep the bees in check may be intrinsically part of the bees’ DNA, but the treatment of the higher society, who make and maintain draconian laws that are not totally justificable, towards those born into less fortunate circumstances casts a judging eye over the moral implications of keeping groups subjugated.
The Bees has unsurprisingly been shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and its exceptionally imaginative story deserves high praise indeed. Flora 717, although a six legged, winged creature with a lust for nectar, is one of the great heroines of the year; tenacious, intelligent, ferociously protective and humble. Unlike anything you’ve read before The Bees will take you on a journey like no other.
– Aoife B. Burke
First Published in The Tuam Herald on 13.05.15