As ever, seduced by a spine, I swooped on The Bees while passing its shelf in the bookshop, solely because of the gorgeous yellow cover. Imagine my delight when I find that this was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, and is a science fictional fantasy novel about a beehive. What could go wrong?
And really, nothing did. This is a stupendous novel, emotionally satisfying and also very persuasive on the science. There is so MUCH invention in this wonderful novel, all of it based on bee zoology, and beautifully embroidered to create a fantasy world. It’s in the anthropomorphising tradition of Watership Down, Duncton Wood, and so on, in a profoundly female version of the genre. The political possibilities of an insect community have been explored before, in the last, posthumous, book in T H White’s The Once and Future King, The Book of Merlyn (1977), in which Arthur is magicked into an ant by Merlyn and experiences the loss of identity, volition and agency by being one helpless unit in a community identity. (This episode was, I think, modelled on 1930s fascist politics, and originally intended for The Sword in the Stone (1938) but was edited out.) Earlier than this, Kipling’s short story ‘The Mother Hive’ (1908) made a political parable of the dangers of hive infection, and attack by external forces. The Bees takes insect science in a different direction, as a terrific thriller, with drama, tension, pathos, sacrifice and triumph.
Flora 717 is the epic hero of The Bees, and our way into the hive’s story as we follow her from birth to death. She doesn’t rise to power, since that isn’t her interest: she is a passionate supporter of the Queen, and a devoted and loyal servant of the Hive, but she has individuality, and strengths that keep her alive in the political maze in which she finds herself. She works her way through the bee’s functions in a hive, pursuing a mystery and keeping a secret, while struggling to help save the hive from extinction.
Obviously I’ll swallow all the fantastical elements – that the Queen of a hive is a quasi-mystical figure who communicates with her people telepathically, that the Hive has its own identity as an expression of the community, that the Queen’s attendants include a scheming cabal of Sage priestesses who plot to raise their clan’s own Princess to take over the hive when the old Queen dies, that the Teasel clan who run the nurseries are doing likewise because they alone know best how to raise and nurture a Princess from a larva, and that a freshly laid egg inspires powerful maternal feelings in the lowly worker bees detailed to help out in the nurseries, and that the drones are a hard-drinking, sex-crazed bunch of aristocratic dandies.
If the novel rested on these alone, it would be a thin fantasy, but the science gives it authority – the well-known bee dances to pass on pollen sources, parthenogenesis, Royal Jelly, hive architecture, larval adaptation and the extraordinary internal circulation of a hibernating swarm. And from the science comes the science fiction – coded data embedded in wax floors panels, data dumps by antennae, encoded Hive memory released by pheromonal triggers, plot detection at molecular levels. The Bees is deeply satisfying, on every level: plot, characterisation, moral weight, heroic heights and villainous depths.