The Bees by Laline Paull. Published 2014. Harper Collins 340 pp
An Alternate Universe
When Flora 717 emerges from her cell in Arrival Hall, she begins her life as a female worker bee. Claimed by older female worker bees known as Sister Sage and Sister Thistle–the “police” of the hive–Flora and other worker bees are condemned to a life of performing duties as assigned from the Sisters. Considered lowly and ugly by Sister Sage, Flora evolves into a worker bee with strong survival skills and independent thinking. Worker bees usually live 12 weeks but Flora’s story takes her beyond that span. The Bees transports the reader inside the hive, recalling memories of images we’ve seen in those television nature documentaries.
Paull gives praise to biologists and beekeepers who shared their knowledge that enabled her to bring us this incredible journey into an alternate universe. We follow Flora through her various stages of development beginning with discarding her own cell casing and other casings, on to the removal of dead bees, then transferring nectar to the nursery from returning foragers, and guarding the hive’s Flying Platform. When Flora transcends into a forager, she scopes and dives into meadows and gardens rich with flowers. Paull sprinkles her narrative with the common names of flowers and trees that become Flora’s feast of banquets. Flora is also exposed to the dangers of the outside world: wasps, birds, ants, spiders and in a near tragic episode, almost dies when she mistakenly drops into a meadow littered with dead bees, flies and mice amongst soil and flowers gray from the application of pesticides.
In between this busy beehive are characters to love: the lazy drone Sir Linden who with other males languish in Drones’ Hall where they flash their maleness and spray their scent on the workers bringing food to them.
There is Lily 500, a forager who returns each time to the hive with her sacs filled with nectar and elaborately dances those nectar locations across the Dance Hall. Flora is mesmerized by Lily’s skills and emulates her when it becomes her time to forage.
The Sisters Sage and Sisters Thistle are the baddies in this tale, always pushing the workers to their limits.
And whenever the alarm “Visitor!” is sounded throughout the hive, panic is everywhere because puffs of smoke (from the beekeeper!) drift into the hive’s opening, threatening their livelihood.
A rite of passage during Flora’s early stage is when she and other worker bees spend a few days tending to the needs of The Queen–She who is not able to care for herself. Flora is mesmerized by the exhilarating scent oozing from the Queen. It is the Queen’s fragrance that brings comfort and security to the hive’s inhabitants and draws the foragers back to the hive each and every time.
Female worker bees are known to hatch eggs but in any hive there is only One to Lay the Eggs. Yet Flora experiences two separate hatchings. To keep them a secret from others she hides the eggs. Both times she agonizes because she’s not able to satisfy her strong maternal instincts to care and feed them. The first egg is produced while she is still inside the hive performing worker bee duties. Failing to reach the egg, it dies. The second egg is produced while she is a forager. After delivering her nectar in the Dancing Hall, Flora holds back a small amount of nectar in her sacs in order to feed this second egg. She is exhilarated to nurse her egg but it too dies.
I won’t give up any more of this wonderful tale of Flora 717 the worker bee. You must read The Bees to discover what happens after Flora hatches a third egg.
Days after finishing The Bees, emails were and continue to land in my inbox from various environmental organizations asking for my signature on petitions to stop the proliferation of neonicotinoid, a chemical found in many pesticides. Most garden pesticides on the shelves of garden and hardware stores contain Neonicotinoid. This chemical kills bees and is a major cause of collapsed bee hives.
Once upon a short time ago, a friend of mine nurtured a bee hive in her backyard. It produced honey and brought spiritual wealth to her being, She was a Backyard Hobbyist–one of hundreds upon hundreds of citizens who either tend bee hives, or care for a flock of free range livestock, or till a vegetable garden. My friend’s bee hive collapsed because her next door neighbor’s lawn was sprayed with pesticides by a ‘lawn care’ company. The deadly chemical traveled across and into my friend’s backyard. Now she is conflicted about establishing another bee hive in her back yard.
Flora the worker bee is one of the most important tiny insects to ensure survival of Planet Earth’s human race.
Read The Bees. You too will become passionate about Saving The Bees.