The Bees

By Laline Paull

(HarperCollins/Ecco, $25.99, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

Laline Paull is not yet well-known, but “The Bees” may well change that. Paull, who is of Indian heritage, studied English at Oxford, screenwriting in Los Angeles and theater in London. After working in Los Angeles and New York, she now lives in England with her husband, photographer Adrian Peacock, and their three children.

On her website,, she talks about herself, and about bees:

“It takes twelve bees their entire lives to gather enough nectar to make one teaspoon of honey. It should be priced like gold.

“I live by the sea with my husband, daughter, two step-sons and two cats.

“As a child, books and animals were my best friends.

“I believe in nurture at least as much as nature.

What is this book about?

Its heroine is a lowly janitor, of the apian variety. That’s right: Flora 717 is a bee. But not your average bee, we soon learn. Flora, who does her work in a hive in an orchard, toils away like others of her station, but she is admired for her bravery and strength, though her curiosity worries the hive. Still, she is allowed to feed baby bees in the Queen’s nursery and later to forage for nectar and pollen for the threatened colony. Soon she discovers secret – and dangerous –  information about the hive and her maternal instincts lead her to challenge its hierarchy and the Queen herself.

Why you’ll like it:

There have been memorable books set in the world of animals – “Watership Down” and “Animal Farm” come to mind—as well as fables set in dystopian societies: think “1984” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.” In “The Bees,” Paull combines elements of each type, making the world of the bees vivid and realistic while also establishing parallels with humanity (and often they are frightening.) Flora is a feminist heroine and as brave as any warrior, whether she is taking on a stultifying bureaucracy or fighting for her life and the lives of others. She may float like a butterfly, but she stings like a you-know-what.

Here are some thoughts about the book and bees that Paull includes in her website:

“A beekeeper friend of mine died, far too young. In the immediate aftermath of her death, I began reading about the bees she loved so much. Very quickly, I realized I was exploring the most extraordinary ancient society that was like a hall of mirrors to our own: some things very similar, others a complete inversion, whilst more were fantastically alien and amazing. The more I read the more I wanted to find out, but when I learned about the phenomenon of the laying worker, I became incredibly excited by the huge dramatic potential of that situation. I also felt very agitated that someone else must surely have seen it before me and written the novel that I needed to write. I rushed to Google to check – and when I couldn’t find one, I rushed to write it myself! . . . I’m still fascinated by how honeybees exist in a strange and literally lawless gap between the wild and the domestic – we can buy and sell them, treat them as we will, kill them through neglect or massive industrial exploitation – and there is no penalty.”

What others are saying:

Says Booklist:  Imagine a story similar to Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale but told from the perspective of an insect. That’s exactly the premise of Paull’s debut novel. Flora 717, a lowly sanitation bee, is born with unusual features and abilities that allow her to move fluidly between the strict hierarchies of her hive. Through this ability, she witnesses the brutality and beauty that the various castes of bees exhibit to keep the hive productive, all in service and loyalty to the queen. But when Flora discovers she is fertile and can produce an offspring, she must betray her instincts to worship the queen bee and follow an untrodden path that leads her away from her kin. Paull’s plot brings to mind films like the 1998 hit Antz, but her deft storytelling and her nod to scientific literature allow the story to avoid the cutesy trappings that sometimes characterize novels featuring nonhuman characters. A surprisingly compelling tale.”

“It quickly became clear that in its basic facts, the novel sticks closely to real-world apian biology and behavior. That is fascinating enough, but Paull deftly wields this information to create an even more elaborately layered culture of beeness…Beautiful,” says The Washington Post.”

“Brilliantly imagined…Paull’s use of human language to describe this tiny, intricate world is classic storytelling at its finest…The Bees boasts a refreshingly feminist spin on fairy tale-style plots….A wildly creative book that resonates deeply for quite a long time,” says the Austin Chronicle.

The New York Times Book Review  says: “Laline Paull’s ambitious and bold first novel…is told with…rapturously attentive imagination…the tale zooms along with…propulsive and addictive prose…Forward-thinking teachers of high school environmental science and biology will add The Bees to their syllabuses in a flash. Not only is this novel a gripping story of a single bee’s life, it is also an impossibly well-observed guide to the important role bees play in our human lives. When I finished the book, I stepped outside my door and into a spring day, full of buzzing and pollen, and I wanted to thank each and every bee for its service. Few novels create such a singular reading experience. The buzz you will hear surrounding this book and its astonishing author is utterly deserved.”

Publishers Weekly says: “Dystopia meets the Discovery Channel in this audacious debut novel. Flora 717, a bee born to the lowest social strata at the orchard hive, is different than her kin. Her uncommon earnestness and skill lead her to various jobs—from child rearing to food gathering—and earn her the respect and admiration of her peers. But Flora’s advances also expose her to the hive’s questionable social order and attract negative attention from the elite group of bees closest to the queen. Like Animal Farm for the Hunger Games generation, Paull’s book features characters who are both anthropomorphized and not—insects scientifically programmed to “Accept, Obey and Serve,” but who also find themselves capable of questioning that programming. The result is at times comic—picture bees having an argument—but made less so by the all-too-real violent stakes involved in maintaining beehive status quo (sacrifices, massacres, the tearing of bee heads from bee bodies). Dystopian fiction so often highlights the human capacity for authoritarianism, but Paull investigates bees’ reliance on it: what is a hivemind, after all, if not evolutionarily beneficial thought control? And while Flora 717 may not be the next Katniss Everdeen, she symbolizes the power that knowledge has to engender change, even in nature.”

Library Journal gives it a starred review: “Accept, Obey, and Serve.” This is the first commandment within the hive. Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, the lowest of all the castes. Yet from the moment she emerges from her cell into a community where variance is destroyed, Flora shows herself different. As her uniqueness proves useful in a time when the hive is at risk, Flora finds herself feeding newborns in the royal nursery, then foraging alone beyond the hive to bring back pollen, and even meeting the Queen, who shows Flora the beauty and sadness that exists in the bees’ past and present. Each new job brings Flora more joy, and more questions, for while she knows that obedience and sacrifice are instinctive within the hive mind, her individual traits bring her under the purview of the high priestesses and fertility police, who are striving to maintain the strict hierarchy of their society. When Flora breaks the ultimate law of the hive, challenging the Queen’s role as mother to all, her desire to protect her egg will lead the hive toward a future none expected. VERDICT Paull’s debut presents the intricate world of the honeybee hive, where devotion and service are sacred, and caste, politics, and power are as present as in any human royal court. A powerful story reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which one original and independent thinker can change the course of a whole society.”

When is it available?

The buzz says it is now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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