I used to do my lunchtime-reading in the office pantry and would occasionally get asked, “What’s the book about?” Now this question frustrates me on two levels. First, don’t engage in a conversation with someone who’s reading. Second, I find it painfully difficult to answer that question from people who are only asking to make conversation. Don’t ask me that if you are not genuinely interested. Because how can I condense the plot of a book in 140-characters or less (which is how I am expected to answer that question, it seems.) This tiny rant has a point. My point is that this book will suffer so much when condensed to that sort of elevator talk. “It’s a literary thriller about bees.” It sounds slightly absurd and shallow, doesn’t it?
When in fact, The Bees covers multiple layers of themes, rich in parallels with the human experience. This is one of the most highly original and compelling books I have ever read. In fact, I like that it is likened to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale because it captures the same sort of chilling reality.
Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, the lowest level in The Hive class. She was born different in a society where different means dysfunction and leads to immediate death. But Flora was saved from immediate death to experiment how The Hive can benefit from her abnormality. From feeding the newborns to doing sanitation work with her kin to becoming a forager, we journey with Flora as she slowly discovers the different facets of The Hive life. Fiercely loyal to The Queen (Accept.Obey.Serve.), until Flora breaks the sacred law of The Hive.
The Hive symbolizes power politics. Ruled by The Queen, it is a totalitarian government, chosen because of her ability to breed. But when Flora spends time with Queen Mother, we see someone who rules more on a ceremonial level. She was almost a prisoner and a victim. The real power belongs to The Hive Mind which controls and relays all the messages.
The Hive symbolizes religion. The Queen Mother as a ruler is treated as divine and her role to breed a divine right. It is through Devotions that the Sage class (who really are running the show behind the scenes) can control and sway the Sister Bees.
The Hive symbolizes the class struggle. Flora’s kin being the sanitation workers, the lowest class, they are without the ability of speech and exist only to clean. The foragers have probably the most physically demanding and dangerous task. They leave the safety of The Hive to collect pollen from all the flowers in the orchard. They face many potential dangers in the form of wasps, crows and spiders and the elements – rain, wind and snow. More than the class within The Hive, I think there is a bigger discussion in terms of Nature’s class/power struggle. Man hardly figures in the story, but when he does “visit” The Hive, it forces you to think about man’s (being at the top of food chain) nature of self-entitlement and disrespect for other creatures.
Another aspect of Flora’s struggle that resonated with me was how lonely she is. Because she keeps a terrible secret, Flora constantly has to keep her antennae closed off to keep her secret safe. When she develops a friendship with Sir Linden, it was both heartbreaking and beautiful to see.
One last thing that I want to bring up is the respect I have gained for the honeybees. We should realize how much hard work there is to produce honey and how they struggle with violence and danger everyday of their lives. No spoilers here but there’s one section that tackles how the bees handle the droughts of winter and it was the most chilling section of the book.
I was also awed at the complexity of the bees as an organism. The sections about Flora going to the garden to forage shows their physical strength. In an interview with Laline Paull, she mentions how signals are transmitted via the honeycombs through the bees’ feet and legs which have sensors like our ears that can hear these signals. Very interesting creatures.