The Bees is one of the most beautiful and creative books I’ve read in some time. The premise is straightforward: it’s the story of Flora 717, one of thousands of sanitation worker bees tasked with cleaning up all the waste the hive generates. Flora isn’t a typical bee, though–she’s not quite content to “accept, obey, and serve” as the hive mind directs her. Her curiosity, stubbornness, and ingenuity get her into all sorts of scrapes and adventures.
I was completely enchanted and mesmerized by this book. I was never bored, not even for an instant, even though the plot was pretty much: “a year in the life of a bee”. There was nothing weird or quaint about it, nothing that felt contrived or gimmicky. It felt so authentic that I had a lot of trouble trying to place it inside a genre. It didn’t feel like fantasy or science fiction, although I guess it technically was, since it involved anthropomorphic bees. But the whole story was so seamless, the world building so detailed and complex, that it never felt like science fiction. It just felt like a story about bees.
Paull clearly based her imaginings of bee social structure off what we actually know about bees. But she also played with the facts, creating a bee mythology and culture all her own that was just fascinating. I loved everything about it, from the cult-like religion to the descriptions of foragers in the dance hall communicating the way to the best flowers. I loved the way she characterized drones, who sat around all day eating too much and whining for workers to come groom them. Everything about the life of the hive was rich and layered and completely fresh.
The writing was especially gorgeous, and I loved how deeply Paull wove scent into the prose. There were so many beautiful descriptions of scent, and all the ways bees use it, that I felt completely immersed in a totally different kind of communication, even though I was reading a novel in English. It’s been a long time since a novel felt so imaginative and also so successful. I drank this book up. Each new revelation about the hive and its inhabitants was utterly compelling. Though it was a book that wasn’t even remotely about humans, it reminded me of the astounding power and nimbleness of human creativity and imagination.
I also really loved that this was a book about bees. It was both refreshing and humbling to read a novel that was so not-human. Humans factored into the plot, but only as a dangerous presence, an outside force to be recounted with. The ways that humans have changed (and often broken) the world were important to the story, and Paull delved into many themes that have relevance to human lives. The Bees is about community and sisterhood and systems of government (both oppressive and democratic), about religion, about how and why we communicate, about purpose, about the meaning of kin and family. There is a lot of depth in this novel that isn’t, necessarily, about bees. But all of that is just a little extra honey: what really shines is the story of Flora 717 and her hive, and all the various wonders and dangers they face over the course of a year.
The audio is phenomenal. I highly, highly recommend it.