Written by Soinbhe Lally
Illustrated by Patience Brewster
Published: 1996

For two days the hive had sung the song of the swarm. The brood combs were filled with young and the honeycombs were brimming with honey. In the orchard outside, nettles ran to flower in the neglected grass. Brambles grew riotously in the corners, their pale blossoms heavy with the weight of nectar and black pollen.

The bees were restless. They idled at the entrance of the hive, ignoring the few field bees who still came and went with the harvest. They bustled about without actually doing anything, and fed freely on the carefully hoarded stores of honey. When a perfect day dawned, and the early sun shone warm on the threshold of the hive, excitement rose to fever pitch. It was time to leave.

I picked A Hive for the Honeybee for my final entry of the Obscure Books From Childhood series back in the end of 2019, and yet it seems like a presciently perfect choice to end 2020. It’s oddly lyrical, filled with characters who work hard and others who only pretend to do so, and leaves a very bittersweet taste in your mind at the end.

The story switches back and forth between a few characters, namely the worker bee Thora and her two drone friends, Alfred the poet and Mo the skeptic. Thora’s best friend Belle is a fellow worker bee with no nonsense about her. But Thora is a little different after several conversations with Alfred and Mo who, being drones, have little to do around the hive except drink honey and think. They encourage her to explore new ideas, have dreams, or even seek to change her lot, since the life of a worker bee is brutal and short. She doesn’t become part of a revolution, but does have some dreams and thinks about things. Alfred composes poems about love, loss, and life, and Mo, who fancies himself a bit of a rebel, spends a lot of time questioning the status quo of the hive. The time frame is short, only covering a single season from early summer to the beginning of winter. But in that time, you see a great deal of the sacrifices made by the worker bees and the pompous indolence of the drones, even the ones with the best of intentions.

I think this book came from a Scholastic Book Club order and I’d chosen it back then because of it being compared to Watership Down (which I already loved) only about bees instead of rabbits. And yet the artwork on the cover and within showed the characters to be more like fairies, which appealed to my increasing interest in reading fantasy. At the time, I still thought that book illustrations were supposed to be accurate depictions of the characters, so you can imagine my confusion when I read lines about compound eyes or long tongues being used to pick chitin clean. This strange juxtaposition I think contributed to my confusion about how I felt about A Hive for the Honeybee when I read it at age 11, but also to the impact it left on me.

A Hive for the Honeybee is not a feel-good or comfortable book. There is no grand revolution to free the worker bees from servitude, because that’s not how bees work. The grandiose but mostly harmless drones may think great thoughts, but ultimately their lives and those thoughts come to nothing. After reading so many books with grand victories or happily ever afters, A Hive for the Honeybee offers a very different perspective on life, and humans particularly, through the lens of the honeybees. It is a short life filled with hard work and sacrifice that rewards you only with a bittersweet ending. As a child, I found this disturbing. As an adult… I see it more as inevitable. I still cried, but I was also able to appreciate the message more, to recognize the moments of profound beauty that the characters glimpsed here and there, despite the unalterable facts of their existence. It is bittersweet… but not without purpose or meaning.

And so, despite my mixed feelings, I do recommend reading this hidden, obscure gem called A Hive for the Honeybee.

 

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Thank you for joining me on this trip in 2020 through this nostalgic retrospective on obscure books from my childhood. I hope that you have enjoyed it, and maybe found a few books you’d like to read. While I may add other obscure books at a later date, this entry concludes the formal series.
Here’s to a better 2021!