The Bees is a very weird and cool book that’s a third-person narrative of a literal bee, navigating the dystopian politics of her hive. There are a lot of tropes in here that are not exactly unique to this book among the glut of other dystopian fiction, but the framing of the insect colony is novel. While, naturally, some liberties are taken with facts, the structure and major events of the novel are based on known entomology of bees and how hives operate. All that Paull really needed to do to turn reality into fiction was to choose a point of entry character, give her a narrative voice, and, true to the genre, give her a gift for rebellion and a cause. Paull chooses a worker bee, the lowest “class” of the hive, and a type of bee that is usually sterile. However, Flora 717 finds soon after hatching that she’s a statistical anomaly: she can speak to other bees outside of her class and, dangerously for her, she can lay eggs. In reality, and so in The Bees, any bee other than the Queen laying eggs is strictly forbidden, so Flora’s anomaly makes her and her eggs vulnerable to discovery and certain death.
Egg-laying turns out not to be her only gift, however, and, to avoid disobeying the Queen and laying too many eggs, Flora finds herself learning the tasks usually performed by other classes of bees in the hive and is even able to excel at them. Born and bred with the physicality of a manual laborer, she has greater strength than other bees, which serves her well on pollen-gathering missions, as she has the energy to stay out longer and collect more food. Flora’s participation in these diverse activities in the hive is really a thinly-veiled excuse for Paull to work in the different aspects of how a functioning bee colony works, but despite being a flimsy narrative device, it’s interesting enough that as a curious reader, I wasn’t terribly bothered by the obviousness of Flora hopping from place to place looking for new tasks to do.
Of course, Flora’s obvious uniqueness has earned her the careful attention of the Sage bees, who are the priestesses to the Queen and oversee the practical functioning of the hive. They direct the spiritual worship of the Queen and command the enforcement class of bees, and they can literally sniff out the thoughts of the other bees by being particularly sensitive to everyone’s chemical signatures and pheromone signals. They pose the most of a threat to Flora, who has a lot to hide, and so the main thread of the story involves her ongoing evasion of the Sage and her inevitable discovery. The book builds the suspense behind that concept quite well. The conclusion is a bit fantastical, drawing inspiration from every story about the proletariat rising behind a champion, but there’s a reason that’s such a popular and satisfying trope, and it works here.