A beehive is a place of order, control, maybe even oppression. In Laline Paull’s debut novel, The Bees, Flora 717 is a sterile worker bee from the lowest caste of an orchard hive. Like her sisters, she is bound by the motto to accept, obey and serve. But during a period of famine and environmental crisis, Flora is asked to take on new tasks: first, feeding the newborns in the hive’s nursery and then becoming a forager, flying freely in search of pollen and nectar. Her size and strength make her a formidable worker, and she proves to be a quick learner. But each change in role brings Flora access to new wisdom about the hive—and eventually puts her in conflict with the Queen, as well as the fertility police and the priestesses, an elite group of bees closest to the queen who keep the hive in order. Soon, Flora must decide where her loyalties lie and whether blind obedience to the rules is really in the best interest of her community.
Dystopian fiction only works when there is a character who is able to see the cracks in the system, and Flora is the perfect heroine: resourceful, brave and able to take the kinds of chances that her sisters cannot, a reminder that even nature is ever-changing. Paull has created a credible version of the complex world of the bee: the stunningly complicated hive—part palace, part convent—the countryside, filled with flowers aching to be pollinated, and the Myriad, or foes of the bee, including crows, spiders, wasps and, of course, people. Most impressive of all, even the most extreme actions and concepts in the novel—the expulsion of the drones, the fertility police, the hive mind—are true to known bee behavior, with some poetic license, of course.
Readers may recognize elements drawn from the work of Atwood, Orwell and even The Hunger Games, but The Bees is very much its own creation: a dystopian thriller, a love story and a plea for the plight of the honeybees. The Bees is a tremendous work of literature, told with suspense and passion. You will never look at the activity in your flower garden the same way again.
This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Laline Paull about The Bees.