“The Bees” by Laline Paull

There’s a new novel out that’s climbing the bestseller charts, The Bees by Laline Paull, with worker bee Flora 717 as its main character and a fast-moving plot that reads like a Stephen King thriller.

Paull’s book is reminiscent of Watership Down, the classic 1972 novel that follows the lives of rabbits that talk and exhibit human feelings. As a novel The Bees isn’t bad; it’s an enjoyable read although the plot becomes increasingly unlikely as the author struggles towards the end to find her way out of the book.

Beekeepers might have a harder time with The Bees than civilians reading the book, partly because from the bees’ point of view we’re seen as the enemy. And Paull’s writing exhibits a blend of fact and fantasy that gets in the way of a knowledgeable reader’s experience.

She makes extensive use of poetic license, defined as the “freedom to depart from the facts of a matter when speaking or writing in order to create an effect,” certainly legitimate practice for a novelist. Still, her depiction of bees has the annoying tendency of being based in a sophisticated understanding of bee biology, but then her novelist’s license unnecessarily warps the biology to fit the plot.

Take caste, for example. Flora 717 herself is a sanitation worker, and in real life most bees do clean the hive or dump trash out the door early in their lives. But in Paull’s book the lowly regarded caste of “Flora” bees do nothing but clean for their entire lives, and other higher-ranked castes are similarly locked into a single task for life.

I doubt any task ranks as higher or lower for colony survival; the word “caste” is commonly used by beekeepers when talking about worker tasks, but not in the ranked way that it’s often applied to human societies. Further, Flora 717 herself is depicted as an oddity in that she also spends time as a nurse bee and later a forager, a typical pattern in honeybee division of labor but not usual in Paull’s imaginary hive.

Another intriguing aspect of honeybee biology that Paull gets partly right is that colonies are made up of genetic subgroups, since the queen mates with many drones. Each subgroup or patriline has subtly different probabilities of performing particular tasks, so there is indeed some genetic specialization, but in The Bees an individual bee’s genetics is her destiny whereas in real colonies worker bees exhibit considerable task flexibility depending on what work the hive needs performed at any given time.

Paull also writes in a partly knowledgeable way about laying workers, indicating correctly that they occasionally arise in the hive and lay male eggs that if detected are destroyed. She also writes accurately about how laying workers can be identified and attacked if recognized by their distinctive odor. But then she commits the error of having a laying worker produce a female egg that she herself hides from the other bees and rears into a queen, an event far outside honeybee reality.

There are two segments of the book that depict human impact on bees. One, that I appreciated, was her description of the grey film her bees encountered in the field and brought back to the hive, obviously referring to pesticides.

It was particularly tragic to read of bees I had come to know dying in the book. Like most beekeepers, I’ve lost many bees and entire hives to pesticides, and it was easy to empathize with the panic and grief depicted from the bees’ point of view.

But I balked at her hive’s perception of beekeepers as marauders robbing the bees of their hard-earned honey. Perhaps Paull’s description of the emotions bees would have when we remove honey would be accurate if bees do indeed have emotions, but she neglects the part where we take only surplus honey, leaving the bees enough to survive and thrive.

And if bees had conscious awareness like those in The Bees, they would understand that we beekeepers provide housing, medical care and other services in exchange for honey, a pretty even deal.

Paull isn’t a beekeeper, and her book was intended to portray the foibles of human societies using honeybees as a lens more than as an accurate biology text. And she is following a long tradition in which writers impart moral values to honey bees that we desire to emulate. Hard work, collaboration and valuing the collective over the individual come to mind.

I just wish she had let her imaginary bees be just a bit more like real bees, and that her grains of truth had been expanded to pebbles or even large nuggets of honeybee reality.

Now that would have been a book honeybees would have appreciated, if they could read, that is.