“The priestesses surrounded her and flexed their abdomens high. Flora saw the tips of their bodies draw in to a hard point, and as they sung the Holy Chord together, their delicate barbed daggers slid out. The chamber filled with the scent of venom, then the priestesses stung the Clover from all sides. She cried out once—and then the sweet scent of her kin burst bright upon the foul air and was gone.”
Flora 717 is born into Sanitation, the lowest class of worker bees in the Hive in the orchard. But from the day she is hatched, Flora longs for more than her class allows her within the narrow confines of Hive society. Ashamed of her kin, she longs to be a bold forager like Lily 500, flying out into the world to collect pollen and nectar, where her unusual size and strength will be seen as an asset rather than a deformity. By bringing honour to the Hive, she may win the rare privilege of attending the Queen, and basking in her Love. But as her world expands, Flora dares to dream bigger still, a dream that may cost her her life. She longs to defy the greatest edict of all: only the Queen may breed.
Set almost entirely within the confines of a bee hive, and with bees as the primary characters, Laline Paull weaves the strict hierarchy and intricate choreography of the hive into a terrifying dystopian society that threatens to stifle its inhabitants. Flora 717 is born into a perilous season, where rain and cold prevent foraging, and many of the flowers are poisoned by smog or pesticide. Her unusual skill and flexibility win her a reprieve from the automatic death that would normally result from her variance. Though joined to the hive mind, and bound to worship the Queen, Flora’s shifting duties eventually permit her to figure out that something is amiss within the hive, a creeping sickness that the unusual weather cannot explain.
The bee hive as a dystopian society is an intriguing conceit that manages to stand up surprisingly well over more than three hundred pages. There is plenty of drama and tension inherent in the life cycle of a hive, from the perils of foraging, to risk of a wasp invasion, and the looming spectre of winter. The fertility police and the all-knowing Sage priestesses who attend the Queen make for credible villains within the hive, while wasps, spiders, and man-made horrors provide external threats. What is most difficult is striking the right balance between the bee’s perspective and human vocabulary. Word choices such as “lobby” and “door” occasionally jar within the context of the hive, and yet it is sometimes necessary to make clear what is happening.
It is anthropocentric to anthropomorphize bees to be sure, and yet fascinating, as it transforms easily into an allegory for religious hierarchies and strict caste and class systems. Taking their perspective is at once intriguing and horrifying—hive life can be brutal—and yet incites a deep empathy for their threatened existence. As much as it is a commentary on restrictive societies, it is also deeply concerned with the environment. You might finish feeling moved to plant a flower garden, or take up beekeeping. Paull has successfully transformed the life cycle of the hive into a dramatic narrative that artfully balances the biological conceit with deft storytelling.
You might also like Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.