Like this? Read that. Thoughts on Bees by Laline Paull

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Did I like Laline Paull’s Bees? I liked the concept a whole heck of a lot. Is that enough? It made me think of some other things that I like a great deal. So that’s positive. But the text of Bees itself? Meh. It was ok.

Bees, for those who don’t know is a novel about bees. That is, it is a novel about a female character that rises above her caste, a novel about a totalitarian state, about imposed gender roles and rebellion. But all the characters happen to be bees and the setting their hive. Cool concept, huh? The social structures of insects have always held a fascination for the world and the blend of research and fiction to imagine the world of bees in service of their queen makes this a must read. I just wish the book were better realized.

I think the thing that prevented this from being a great book for me is that Paull seemed to feel responsible to deliver a social message. So the book is about caste, and gender roles, and the environment, in a way that is too on the nose for my taste. I have no objection to a book with social themes but would prefer that books not try to deliver all the social themes at once. But hey, if you’re arguing for a just world I suppose that means environmental awareness, gender equality and no class system so you do need all of the messages in there. Perhaps they could have been more artfully or subtly delivered.

This post was meant to be about read-a-likes and not how to gracefully deliver social commentary so let’s move on shall we?

The first thing this book brought to mind was an excellent article I read in the New Yorker a while ago about the social systems of animals. In trying to find the article to share with you I realized it was written by Jonah Lehrer and the magazine seems to have expunged it and his other work from their site in light of his plagiarism scandal. It’s titled “Kind and Kind” from the March 5, 2012 issue (pp. 36-42) and someone has posted a scan online here. Please note that link may stop working at any time but if you’re interested in reading it you can use the page reference above to find it at your library.

Here’s the section that stuck out for me:

Hamilton showed that the cooperative nature of many insect societies could be explained by a genetic quirk known as haplodiploidy. In some insect species, females emerge from a fertilized egg, while males develop from unfertilized eggs. Once haplodiploidy was taken into account, the extreme solidarity among sisters in, say, colonies of leaf cutter ants ceased to be a mystery. Normally, siblings share fifty per cent of their genes, but female worker ants share three-quarters of theirs – all of their father’s genes and half of their mother’s. Crucially, sister ants are more closely related to one another than to their own offspring.

The other “read-a-like” if you will (though not really at all because it’s a video) is a YouTube video posted recently. A gentleman noticed in his home that a group of wasps (though someone in the comments claims they’re bees) has built a nest against his window. The nest is essentially split by the window allowing us to see right in and understand the work of these fascinating insects. Pretty cool stuff.

This is all to say – you should read Bees. I didn’t love it but the concept is strong enough that it warrants your attention and if nothing else it will make you think twice about the awful stories we’ve heard over the last couple of years of mass deaths of bee populations.


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