Lily Owens is unhappy living with her father, T. Ray Owens, in Sylvan, South Carolina. He abuses and belittles her and has made her believe that she accidentally killed her mother, Deborah Fontanel Owens. When bees swarm Lily's room, Lily realizes she must leave her father's house. Lily helps her caregiver, Rosaleen Daise, escape from police custody. The two head for Tiburon, South Carolina, in search of information about Lily's mother. As the only white person at the Boatwrights' house, Lily at first feels uncomfortable. She is finally accepted by the community of black women there, and finds the strength to tell August Boatwright the truth about why she has come to Tiburon. When August confirms that Lily's mother did, in fact, leave her behind when she left home, Lily is quite angry. She finally accepts her mother's imperfect love for her, realizing that she has within her the "mother" she always sought. By the novel's end, Lily has healed her inner wounds to emerge as a strong young woman with a deep spiritual connection to the Divine Mother, which she worships in the form of Our Lady of Chains. She becomes a writer and stands by her friend and love interest, Zachary Taylor, as he integrates the white school. Her full name, Lily Melissa, is filled with symbolism: the lily is the flower given by the archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary to announce the impending birth of Jesus Christ, and "Melissa" is derived from the Latin word for honey.
August Boatwright took care of Lily Owens's mother, Deborah Fontanel Owens, when Deborah was young. She learned the art of beekeeping from her grandmother, Big Mama. August welcomes Lily and Rosaleen into her home and begins to teach Lily about beekeeping as well as about spirituality. Even though Lily has lied to her about who she is and why she has come, August knows the truth. But she does not press Lily to open up to her until Lily is ready to do so. When August tells Lily that she loves her and gives her a photograph of a very young Lily and her mother, Lily's healing begins. When Lily's father, T. Ray Owens, comes to the house to drag Lily back to Sylvan with him, August intercedes and promises to take good care of Lily if she is allowed to remain living there. The name August Boatwright is full of symbolism: August is the month when the honey harvest begins, and Boatwright alludes to her connection to Our Lady of Chains, which is said to be a piece of the mast of an ancient boat.
Rosaleen Daise is a strong black woman and Lily Owens's loving caretaker. She jumps at the chance to register to vote as soon as the Civil Rights Act is passed on July 2, 1964. She is an independent thinker who has rejected traditional religion in favor of her own blend of nature and ancestor worship. Her boldness gets her into trouble when she is jailed for pouring snuff juice on the shoes of three white men hurling racist insults at her. She endures violence as a result of her challenge of white supremacy, and she accompanies Lily to Tiburon in search of Lily's mother. Rosaleen becomes fast friends with May Boatwright. She helps Lily clean up the honey house when Lily wrecks it in anger after learning the truth about her mother. Toward the end of the novel, Rosaleen finally gets to register to vote. Being a registered voter makes her extremely proud.
June Boatwright is the only one in the Boatwright household who doesn't accept Lily Owens right away. June at first believes that Lily doesn't deserve their help because she is white. She still bears a grudge against the Owens family, going back to the time her sister August worked as a housekeeper and caretaker in the household of Deborah Fontanel Owens, Lily's mother, when Deborah was a child. June has a longtime suitor, Neil, whom she refuses to marry, having been abandoned by a previous fiancé. June plays the cello to accompany the worship ceremonies of the Daughters of Mary. When it is Lily's turn to touch Our Lady's heart, June stops playing, indicating that Lily does not rightfully belong in their spiritual community. June finally accepts Lily some weeks after her arrival, when Lily turns the garden hose on June during a water fight. After May Boatwright's suicide, June finally accepts Neil's marriage proposal in an attempt to live life as fully as possible to honor her sister's memory. When June and Neil are married that fall, June moves out of the house and Lily moves into her old bedroom.
When May Boatwright's twin sister, April, committed suicide as a teenager, May lost the ability to protect herself from the pain of others. Since then, she has borne the tremendous weight of all the world's pain. She is an eccentric, delightful, childlike person, but she is often crippled by her empathy. She deals with this pain by maintaining a "wailing wall" at the edge of the woods, where she deals with her grief by writing her feelings on bits of paper and then sticking them into the wall's crevices. When Lily Owens sees May making a trail of sweets to lead bugs out of the house rather than kill them, she remembers being told her mother, Deborah Fontanel Owens, did the same thing, and she asks May if she knew her mother. May is the one who reveals to Lily that her mother did, in fact, live in the Boatwright house for a time. When May learns of Zachary Taylor's incarceration, her grief drives her to drown herself in the river. Her suicide note says she can no longer bear the burden of so much pain and urges those she leaves behind to live life as fully as possible.
Zachary Taylor is a spirited and courageous young black man who apprentices to August Boatwright, learning the art of beekeeping. When he and Lily Owens meet, friendship soon blossoms into romantic love, but Zach knows that to pursue Lily, a white female, would be dangerous for him. He plans to be a lawyer, and receives encouragement and education from a local lawyer, Clayton Forrest. Zach tells Lily that as soon as he achieves his goal of becoming a lawyer, they can be together. He encourages Lily to become a writer and gives her a notebook, which she fills with her thoughts. During the Mary Day celebration, he gives Lily the dogtag necklace that bears his name. Zach is unjustly jailed when he is standing with a group of black boys and one of them throws a bottle at a racist white man. His incarceration drives May Boatwright to commit suicide. Zach channels the anger he feels into positive action and makes the courageous decision to integrate the white school. He is supported in this action by Lily and Becca Forrest, Clayton's daughter.
T. Ray Owens
T. Ray Owens became a cruel, bitter man after his wife, Deborah Fontanel Owens, left him. He adored Deborah, but she was unhappy with him, having married him only because she was pregnant with Lily Owens. She left, deeply depressed, when Lily was four, to stay with the Boatwrights in Tiburon. When she returned to Sylvan to get Lily and take her away, a physical fight between T. Ray and Deborah ended with Deborah dying by gunshot. T. Ray has always told Lily that she is the one who accidentally shot her mother. The truth of this is never decisively revealed, but T. Ray maintains this story until the end of the novel. T. Ray attends a Baptist church, but doesn't seem to love Lily at all. He makes Lily work in the peach stand at his orchard and punishes her by making her kneel on piles of grits for hours. The only affection he seems able to feel is for his dog. When Lily disappears, T. Ray searches all over for her—just as he searched for Deborah years earlier. A collect call that Lily places from Tiburon leads T. Ray to Lily's location at the Boatwrights' house. He goes there to drag Lily back to Sylvan and becomes violent toward her, imagining that she is her deceased mother. When the Boatwright sisters and the Daughters of Mary all come to Lily's aid, T. Ray grudgingly consents to let Lily stay at the Boatwrights' for good.