Aubrey just finished 8th grade and is moving on to high school. I taught him when he was but a young lad in 6th grade. Our middle school mascot is the eagle, and since he didn’t send me a photo, I went with the most UN-Aubrey-like eagle because, well, it made me laugh. Aubrey is not as fearsome or as serious as our feathered friend. Aubrey is a thoughtful, funny guy who was always willing and interested in talking to teachers. Some of you might think that’s bad, but we teachers often like that kind of thing (unless we’re rushing to set up for the next class or want to eat our lunch.) What I appreciated most was that Aubrey always had good things to say!
The Bees, by Laline Paull
In all honesty, I feel like the idea behind this book is genius. Taking a look into the lives of some of the most social animals on Earth is bound to turn up some interesting conclusions. Indeed, The Bees discusses some surprisingly human topics. Born into a strict caste system, Flora is at the bottom of the hexagon. Her class of bee, in comparison to the Nurses of Teasel or the guards of Thistle, work in Sanitation. Small, dark, and misshapen, Flora finds herself with a surprising ability for one of her kind: speech. She encounters a member of the esteemed Sage clan (who act as priestesses to the Queen), and is soon swept into the upper workings of the hive.
One aspect of the book I found most refreshing was how well-researched it was. While Paull obviously took some liberties with many parts of Flora’s world, many real bee behaviors and facts were deftly woven into the plot. From “the Queen’s Love” (pheromones), which periodically sends the entire hive into a state of bliss, to the culling of male drones, Paull made a story rich in detail. Other ideas, while not biological fact, simply work. The bees’ caste system, with groups named after flowers, is delightful while not being kitschy. The male drones, with their vanity and arrogance, are exactly what you would expect them to be. Surrounding the Queen is an influential group of priestesses, who pray to her, the Mother of the hive. True, the idea of all hives being equipped with a patisserie may seem a bit odd, but I for one was too swept up in Flora’s surroundings and epic tale to care for such discrepancies.
Further, the characters’ motives in the book are balanced, beautifully balanced. There is an internal battle throughout the book, raging inside of Flora. Should she follow the hive mind, and think like a bee, or think for herself in a way we can only say to be human? She is driven by both feelings of individuality and of wanting to fit in. Flora loves fiercely both her hive and her child. This juxtaposition brings the story together.
The beehive has hallmarks of many human institutions. The conspiracy of totalitarian government and the overtly religious fanaticism surrounding the Queen of the hive are both familiar while clearly belonging to the bees. The ideas of individuality in a society that condemns difference, and of working towards the greater good pervade both Flora’s story and the real human world.
The character of Flora is not very deeply built upon. Other than an insatiable curiosity and rebelliousness, she is a cookie cutter of all the other workers in the hive. However, this may not be such a bad thing, as it would be a more realistic representation of a bee’s mind. Further, we use Flora less as a character to relate to and more as a looking glass into the life of bees.
In conclusion, The Bees is a deftly spun novel, a gripping saga of one bee and her struggle find her place and purpose in the world.
(And might I add, the propaganda-poster-inspired cover is a plus.)