Tag Archives: insect fiction

Buzzing with invention and intrigue – The Bees by Laline Paull

Laline Paulll, The Bees, Harper Collins (2014) ISBN 978-0-00-755774-5

Having suffered the trauma of watching Antz and the Bee Movie, I’m always a tad reluctant to embark on books that feature insects as their main protagonists. Maya Leonard’s Beetle Boy trilogy, which I thoroughly enjoyed, is different, as the insects play a supporting role.  It is probably this prejudice that has allowed this wonderful book to have been unread by me for six long years 🙂

I can’t remember who recommended this book, but I’m glad I took them up on it.  Despite the glowing recommendation and the numerous blurbs inside and out (after all Stephen Heard has recently revealed the truth about book blurbs) I began reading Laline Paull’s debut novel with some trepidation. I was pleasantly surprised, despite the inevitable anthropomorphisation of the heroine*, (I don’t think the novel would have worked without it), I engaged wholeheartedly with the story.

I was a bit dubious at first about the kin group theme, the heroine is a Flora (717 to be exact), and there are Teasels, Clovers and the evil Sages, as I, erroneously as it turned out, had this idea that all the members of a hive were full sisters.  I had, however, misremembered, honey bee queens, unlike many other Hymenoptera, are no strangers to multiple mating**(polyandry), having, in fact, the highest levels of this trait of all the social insects (Strassman, 2001). Biologically, the Queen having access to multiple sperm-donors is highly advantageous, as when disease strikes, as it does in the novel, not all the inhabitants of the colony are equally vulnerable (Tarpy, 2003). British elms would not have been all but exterminated by Dutch Elm Disease, if they had not all been members of a single clone.

The other characteristic of bees that some might feel that Laline Paull plays a little fast and loose with is temporal polyethism (age based division of labour). I had slight misgivings about the rigidity of the division of labour within the hive. It has long been known that honeybee workers exhibit temporal polyethism (age-based division of labour) (Pérez, 1889). Young workers perform brood-nest associated tasks such as brood-cell cleaning and larval feeding, graduating on to food processing, nest construction, and guarding and finally as they enter old age, become foragers (Seeley and Kolmes 1991). Flora 717 does indeed go through these phases, but the rest of her kin group seem to be sanitation workers throughout their lives and the scheming Sage priestesses seem to have no other function than to spread their mantra of “Accept, Obey, Serve” and to direct the action of the sinister police bees. In case you think that police bees are a bit too detached from reality, worker bees do ‘police’ other workers when it comes to ‘unauthorised’ egg laying (Ratnieks & Visscher, 1989). Although it has been shown that different genotypes of bees within a hive do show some variation in the timing of their move from one task to another (Siegel et al., 2013), there is, as far, as I can find, no evidence of genotypes that remain fixed in one job their whole lives.

I guess the biggest issue, without giving the climax of the story away, is the production of a Queen from an egg laid by a worker bee. Worker bees can, and do lay unfertilised eggs, but, with one exception, they are invariably males.  Workers of the Cape honeybees (Apis mellifera capensis), however, can produce female eggs parthenogenetically (Hepburn, 1994), a phenomenon known as thelytoky. If fed the right food during the first 72 hours of their larval life, these eggs, could in theory, develop into Queens, (Pérez, 1889). Although the story is not set in South Africa, I am willing to give this a pass and assume that one of the drones that impregnated the Queen of Flora’s hive was a Cape honeybee.

The many issues facing honeybees are brought to life in this dramatic and believable story.  Experience the effects of pesticides, pollution and ‘phone masts on our heroine and her hive mates at first hand.  Cower as the wasps attack, and when a starving mouse gains entry to the hive in mid-winter, wince as the surplus drones are disposed of by the workers and cheer as our heroine saves the day.  This is a gripping story, and despite my reservations about the ‘hive mind’ Laline has taken the advice of her entomological advisors to heart and made a hugely successful foray into depicting the life style and ecology of the honeybee.

Definitely worth reading, a tour de force.

 

References

Hepburn, H.R. (1994) Reproductive cycling and hierarchical competition in Cape honeybees, Apis mellifera capensis Esch. Apidologie, 25, 38-48.

Pérez J. (1889) Les Abeilles. Paris, France: Hachette et Cie.

Ratnieks, F.L.W. & Visscher, P.K. (1989) Worker policing in the honeybee. Nature, 342, 796-797.

Seeley, T.D. & Kolmes, S.A. (1991) Age polyethism for hive duties in honey bees — illusion or reality? Ethology, 87, 284-297.

Siegel, A. J., Fondrk, M. K., Amdam, G. V., & Page, R. E., Jr (2013). In-hive patterns of temporal polyethism in strains of honey bees (Apis mellifera) with distinct genetic backgroundsBehavioral Ecology and Sociobiology67, 1623–1632.

Strassmann, J. E. (2001) The rarity of multiple mating by females in the social Hymenoptera. Insectes Sociaux, 48, 1–13.

Tarpy, D.R. (2003) Genetic diversity within honeybee colonies prevents severe infections and promotes colony growth. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 270, 99-103.

*Unlike makers of The Bee Movie, Laline knows what sex worker bees are J

** Note that I did not use the word promiscuous; promiscuity is a human trait, not an insect one.

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It’s never too early to get it right – children’s books can be accurate as well as fun

Making insects more appealing to children, (and adults), by making them look cute, cuddly and more like humans, is not a bad thing in itself, there is however, a line that should not be crossed.

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These two books for children written almost a century apart, are exact opposites. In Sibylle von Olfers’ Etwas von den Wurzelkindern published in 1906, we see the most incredibly detailed and accurate biological drawings.  The insects are pretty much recognizable to

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The Wurzelkindern getting the beetles spruced up for spring

species as are the flowering plants; the grasses are so accurately portrayed that the following conversation occurred on Twitter.

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Two plant scientists are able to discuss the grasses, so accurately are they drawn.

Contrast this with Birgitta Nicolas’ 2009 Der kleine Marienkäfer und seine Freunde.

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Here the insects have four legs*, humanised faces and hands and feet, although to be fair, the bumblebee does have pollen collectors (or is perhaps wearing leg warmers). The plants are heavily stylised and although one can guess at their families, I could not for example decide if the member of the Rosaceae pictured was Prunus, Malus or Pyrus, although being pink. it is most likely meant to be a Prunus.  The language used, despite the Gothic characters in von Olfer’s book, is at the same level, so meant to be read aloud by a parent or puzzled through by a beginner, yet the treatment of the wildlife is so different.  Von Olfers’ charming and accurate illustrations provide a visual treat of exploration and learning, while Nicolas’ heavily stylised daubs rely on the texturing present, i.e. fake fur for the squirrel, fuzzy felt for the bumble bee etc.  What harm would it have done to have at least given the insects the right number of legs and in the right place, all on the thorax.  The bee might also have liked to have had the right number of wings**, I might then have been able to forgive her the humanised faces, it is a story after all 🙂

As Aristotle said “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.” Early habits die hard and if you learn that insects have four legs as a young child, confusion must ensue and make it harder to learn and retain the truth later on. First perceptions and impressions have a habit of sticking with us in later life, best to get the facts right at the beginning.

So if looking for an insect or natural history themed book for a young relative, I would recommend that you buy Sibylle von Olfer’s book and if your German or Google Translate is not up the job, you can get it in English https://www.amazon.co.uk/Tale-Root-Children-Etwas-Wurzelkindern/dp/3946190146/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&qid=1462291724&sr=8-7&keywords=etwas+von+den+wurzelkindern

Post script

Whilst clearing the attic in our new house*** in the Languedoc area of France, I came across this edition of Pinocchio published in 1959,

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which as well as bringing back nostalgic memories, I had the same edition as a child, but in English, is a great example of getting the insects right. The keen-eyed of you will notice it has a cricket on the front cover, but unlike the Walt Disney version in which Jiminy is definitely not a cricket, Libico Maraja, the illustrator, had obviously looked at crickets closely and carefully before putting pen to paper.

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Pinocchio meets the talking cricket – he does not have a name in the original version of the story.

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Even when anthropomorphised he still retains essential features such as legs joined to the thorax and complete with tarsi.

*although if you look closely, this insect, which I think is meant to be an aphid, does seem to have six legs 🙂

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**at least the ladybird has elytra and wings 

***our retirement dream house and where I hope to write all the books that I have planned to write over the last twenty-odd years and never got round to doing 

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