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.
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 backgrounds. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 67, 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 🙂
** Note that I did not use the word promiscuous; promiscuity is a human trait, not an insect one.