Honey is thicker than blood | Book Review: The Bees by Laline Paull

Let me start this off by saying I never, ever, in-a-million-year would have expected to read and enjoy a book about bees.

You see, I've always been kinda timid terrified of bees. I've never been stung (really) and I think I have this underlying fear that I'm allergic without knowing it. Plus, there's that traumatizing bee scene from My Girl and all those awful, bees-invading-houses, made-for-TV movies that aired on the SyFy channel when I was a kid. If there's a bee, I run. I know, I know... "Jess, you're supposed to stay calm and it'll leave you alone." But grown woman that I am, I run away.

So you can imagine my horror this past spring when bees decided to scout out our chimney and in doing so, buzzed their way all the way down to the woodburner before flopping out onto the tile and then making a beeline for the bay window in my office. They were honey bees. And while by then I'd come to appreciate and fret for their future, they still scared me. We tried to relocate them to the outdoors, but there were a few casualties. Eventually, we safely smoked them out of the chimney and they must have found a more welcoming spot to start a hive.

Because of the honey bee's chimney plight and the occasional bumble bee that bumps into my office window, my heart has softened ever-so-slightly for the bees. I also really appreciate honey and the good things bees do for the world. (Wasps, however, are a whole 'nother story. They strike fear in my heart and I'm afraid that'll never not be the case.)

So anyway, a couple weeks ago I stumbled upon a book review (or rather, really brief review blurb) about The Bees, the debut novel of Laline Paull. It piqued my interest. And since I've been in a bit of a reading funk lately, I decided to take a rare step away from my usual historical fiction TBR pile and read something new, something different, something unexpected.

I'm so glad I did. I read The Bees in a week... squeezing chapters into my lunch break, spending evening hours curled up in the corner of the couch, and reading a huge chunk of it on Saturday while blissfully ignoring all the housework I needed to do.

Other reviewers said that this novel is like The Hunger Games meets The Handmaiden's Tale meets 1984 meets Animal Farm meets Watership Down. And I totally get why they say that. Flora 717 has a bold "I volunteer as tribute!" kinda personality. The hive has some oppression and reproductive laws that, although quite different, may call to mind Gilead. There's mind control, mind reading, and a general "Big Brother's watching" feeling that's reminiscent of 1984. And then, you have the whole story being completely from the point-of-view of bees. Humans exist, of course, but they exist in the background while honeybees take the spotlight and crows, wasps, spiders, and mice share the stage.

Flora 717 is born into the lowly kin of sanitation workers, bees who basically clean the hive and do things like dispose of dead bodies. She's big, hairy, and maybe even ugly. That's not the problem. It's her curiosity, boldness, and ability to think and feel for herself that poses a risk to not only herself, but eventually the hive. The hive thrives and survives on a fanatical devotion to their Queen, lead by strict priestesses, enforced by "fertility police," and structured with a very specific set of laws. Accept, obey, serve. 

The peek into the inner workings of a hive was fascinating, especially as Flora does the unprecedented... playing out different roles beyond that of a sanitation worker. She feeds baby bees Flow (or royal jelly) in the nursery, where she first experiences the pang of motherhood. She gets to meet the Queen, a religiously intoxicating experience. She earns the privilege of foraging... going out into the vast world and braving all its dangers to find flowers, nectar, and pollen. She learns to make wax. And most shocking of all, she has an egg. But Only the Queen the may breed. It's forbidden for a worker bee to lay eggs. And while the consequences may break Flora's heart, it doesn't break her spirit.

An illustration of bee casts from The Bees by Naline Paull.

This novel is science. Paull constructs Flora 717's world based on the real world of the honeybee. It's captivating and believable. 

The novel is religion. Our Mother who art in labor, hallowed be thy womb. It's a devout, fanatical, intoxicating type of creed that is not only a source of strength and survival for the hive, but also a potential for their demise.

The novel is an adventure. Oh, how I loved following Flora around as she buzzed from adventure to adventure. There's so much action! Combat with evil wasps. Chaos when a mouse intrudes. Swift, hungry crows. Conniving spiders. Insect-eating plants. Life-threatening rain drops. 

And finally, the novel is a fairy tale. Flora 717 is a heroine you can't help but cheer for as she struggles with the conflicting urges of motherhood and serving her holy Mother. She's strong, brave, and intelligent despite her lowly birth. The truths she comes to know and the experiences she goes through build up to climax that's thrilling and satisfying. 

I couldn't put it down. The short, exciting chapters made it all too easy to say "Just one more chapter." And the ending... that ending! It's one of those perfect endings that's happy and sad, triumphant and heartbreaking, the stuff of legends and yet a raw reality. 

This is a book that I can totally see being read in classrooms in the future. It could raise so many interesting discussions. And bonus: It's highly entertaining and imaginative. It's also the perfect novel pick for a book club. Imagine all the honey-themed treats you could munch on while discussing Flora 717's life and the drones, priestesses, and fellow workers who occupy it.

After reading this book, I feel like I now really know honeybees. That if, when springtime comes, a busy little honeybee comes down my chimney and into my office, I won't be so scared or on edge. I'll understand her plight... her search for a home and for food. And I'll probably gently lure her into a container with a drop of honey and return her to the back yard. 

But one thing definitely hasn't changed: Wasps are evil. And after finishing the final chapters of this book before bed last night, I definitely had nightmares about them flying around my bedroom.

You can buy The Bees online here. I highly recommend the soft cover, which has honeycomb-like cutouts in the front with bees peeking through from the page underneath. It's beautifully designed and has that really nice, flexible feel in the hands. Plus, it's currently only $9.99.

If you read it, let me know what you think!

Disclaimer: This review is not sponsored and I received no compensation. There are affiliate links in this post, so I may receive some compensation if you use my links to purchase a copy of The Bees.


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