Whenever a book features honey bees like The Bees: A Novel by Laline Paull, it is likely to catch the interest of apidologists and others who find bees fascinating. Although this book falls definitively in the realm of fiction, that does not mean it has nothing to say about honey bees or, for that matter, our human perception of them. For this particular novel, however, separating the fact from the fiction is where things get sticky.
Told from a third person limited point of view, Flora 717 is a member of the sanitation caste of her honey bee hive. We soon learn that she is no ordinary sanitation worker when she is allowed to feed the new larvae in the Nursery. There, in a bit of foreshadowing, it is revealed that only the Queen may breed and Flora 717 is introduced to the gruesome fertility police. What else will this special worker bee do?
The book contains facts, such as honey bee workers produce wax from glands on their abdomen or that drones are kicked out of the hive in the fall, mixed with highly imaginative elements. Sometimes the creative aspects of the story are easy to discern, for example there is a Greek chorus of spiders that exchange glimpses of the future for honey bee sacrifices. Other parts, like Flora 717's changing tasks through time, will be more difficult to decipher. Anyone familiar with honey bees will understand that they exhibit age or temporal polyethism, which means that the tasks they perform are generally determined by their age. The youngest honey bee workers are likely to clean cells, and then tend brood. Once the workers are a bit older they maintain the nest, as needed. Finally the workers process food, and the very oldest honey bees go outside the nest and forage for nectar and pollen. Thus, ironically, Flora 717 is not an unusual bee as she is described in the novel, but actually is the only bee in the hive that is exhibiting more or less normal honey bee behavior. Trying to avoid spoilers, it should also be noted that an event in the end will seem (to those that understand haplodiploidy) rather like those children's cartoons that show male cows with udders.
The New York Times Review reveals some of the foibles of reading a work of fiction that is built on a foundation of reality. Emma Straub, the reviewer, suggests high school environmental science and biology teachers add the book to their syllabuses. In all due respect, I think they'd be better off with more authoritative text. How about Sue Hubbell's A Book of Bees, or something similar and newer?
Many of the reviewers (who understand the novel is fiction) try to tie The Bees to other classic novels, such as Watership Down, The Handmaid’s Tale, or even The Hunger Games. It is as if the readers need to put a tag on the novel to understand it more fully. In my view, The Bees is actually as individualistic as its main character Flora 717. If it needs a tag, then I would say "magical realism" might be the best choice.
If you read The Bees, keeping in mind that it is novel and suspending a bit of disbelief, then you are likely to find it entertaining and maybe even thought provoking. What more can a reader ask of a novel?
Have you read it? What do you think?
A Book of Bees: And How to Keep Them by Sue Hubbell
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