The Bees is a strange and disturbing novel which anthropomorphises honeybees. It takes you deep inside an orchard hive, a palatial, hierarchical wax edifice commanded by the Queen and awash with coded scents of the Hive Mind. I couldn’t help drawing parallels with aspects of a Borg ship yet there is far more sensuality, pheremones and beauty here.
Born into the lowest class of her society, Flora 717 is a sanitation bee, only fit to clean and remove corpses. Living to accept, obey and serve, she is prepared to sacrifice everything for her beloved holy mother, the Queen. But Flora is a mutant bee, carrying the genes of a darker more southern species than her higher caste sisters and, despite her apparent ugliness, she has talents that are not typical of her kin. While mutant bees are usually instantly destroyed, in a world of pesticides, foul brood and electromagnetic radiation from phone masts, the bees are under threat and so healthy and strong Flora is removed from sanitation duty and is allowed to feed the newborns, before becoming a forager, collecting pollen on the wing. She also finds her way into the Queen’s inner sanctum, where she discovers secrets of the hive, both terrifying and sublime. This is a world of totalitarianism ruled by a Priestess class and their Queen. It is also a world in which drones do no work yet demand total servitude from their sterile maiden sisters, the workers. Both this and other factors creates disturbing undertones that the author fully exploits.
The author constructs an imaginative world with poetic license as it is a horizontal, not vertical world and the bees speak but it is well written and a well-constructed novel. It is of interest to anyone who likes a good fantasy thriller but it also appeals to those of us who are interested in honeybees and their lifecycle. Much of the plot is based on incidents that occur in a hive’s lifetime, like the Queen’s marital flight and the expulsion of the drones. So the reader inadvertently learns many details of bee biology and behaviour.
Maddy Harland is the editor and co-founder of Permaculture Magazine.