If our family is a hive, I like to think of myself as the Queen Bee. As if I’m not disabused of that notion on a daily basis by my teenage daughters, I’ve recently been reminded by a terrific new novel how wrong that metaphor is. Our family more closely resembles Question Hour in the British House of Commons.
The Bees imagines hive life in all its sweetness and ferocity, and its heroine – no queen – is one for the ages. Flora 717 is born into the caste of Sanitation Workers who do the dirtiest work of the hive and do not have the power of speech. Flora comes to discover that she is not like the others, and through luck and bravery she has a chance to transcend her lot. First she cares for larvae among the nurse bees in the sacred space of the nursery, and later she works among the highest caste of bees, the Foragers, who bring pollen and nectar back to the hive.
Because of her lowly birth – and her unusual talents – Flora is able to move among all of the groups in the hive and observe how they work together in order and harmony. A brutally enforced hierarchy lies at the very heart of things. The Queen controls the hive mind and all within it, who crave the sometimes ecstatic, sometimes calming rapture of her Mother Love. The mystical, beautiful Sage priestesses serve her and consolidate their own power. When threats from within and without endanger the hive – wasps, sickness, pesticide, internecine struggle over succession – Flora finds herself a reluctant leader as the hive faces imminent demise.
In a book that is often dramatic, poignant, and suspenseful, the drones serve largely as comic relief. The sight and scent of them (each addressed as “Your Maleness”) send all of the females into a swooning delight. Pompous, swaggering, attended to by all in the hive, they’re living the good life:
“Honey is our want, so honey we must have.” The drone threw a big, muscular arm around Sister Prunus and his scent drifted across her face. “Think now of those foreign princesses waiting for us. How fatigued, how impatient for love must they be? Would you bind them in chastity a single moment longer? Or shall we fill our bellies with the strength of this hive, then free them with our swords?”
Sister Prunus gasped at his lewd gesture, her antennae waving wildly. The big drone laughed and released her, and all the sisters laughed too, avid for more of his scent. Sister Prunus quickly groomed herself to hide her shining face. Then she stepped forward and clapped all her hands.
Laline Paull has imagined very human conflicts and desires within widely recognized bee behavior. From this starting point, she tells a story as beautiful and rich as any fairy tale – full of good and evil, lessons learned, and truths conveyed. The eternal story of power is told: the Queen is dead; long live the Queen! Perhaps I should be grateful for the Parliamentary model in my own house.