The Secret Life of Bees | Study Guide

Sue Monk Kidd

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The Secret Life of Bees | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Setting the Stage

It is the summer of 1964, and the novel's main character, Lily Owens, is a 14-year-old white girl living with her cruel father, T. Ray Owens, on a peach farm outside the small town of Sylvan, South Carolina. Ever since Lily's mother, Deborah Fontanel Owens, died 10 years ago, a black woman named Rosaleen Daise has been Lily's caregiver and sole source of emotional support. Lily's mother was killed during an altercation with Lily's father. When a gun appeared, four-year-old Lily picked up the weapon. According to T. Ray, the gun went off in Lily's hands, killing her mother. Because of this, Lily lives with a profound sense of loss and guilt. She treasures a few items of her mother's; most significant among these is a picture of a black Mary, on which someone had written "Tiburon, SC."

In July 1964 the bees living within the walls of Lily's house begin to swarm in her bedroom. Looking back, Lily realizes that the appearance of the bees was a sign, beckoning her to leave behind the unhappiness of her childhood and undertake the journey that will lead her to a new and better life.


When the Civil Rights Act passes on July 2, 1964, Lily accompanies Rosaleen as she walks to town to register to vote. However, Rosaleen reacts to the insults of three white men hurling racial insults at her by emptying her container of snuff juice over their shoes, and she is thrown in jail before she can register.

Because she believes her father doesn't love her, Lily decides she must leave her home. She sets out for Tiburon, South Carolina—the place written on the back of her mother's black Mary picture. On the way, Lily sneaks Rosaleen out of the hospital, where she is recuperating from being violently assaulted by the arresting police officers. Lily hopes their escape from Sylvan will save Rosaleen from being killed by violent racists and will lead to a greater understanding of the mother Lily has lost.

Arriving in Tiburon, Lily goes into a general store where she is shocked to see jars of honey all bearing the same picture of the black Mary she carries with her. The shopkeeper gives her directions to the house of the beekeeper, a black woman named August Boatwright.

The Boatwrights

When they arrive at the Boatwrights' house, Lily and Rosaleen are immediately taken in by the three Boatwright sisters, August, June, and May. Lily lies about the reason for her arrival. She also keeps secret Rosaleen's escape from the police. August accepts Lily as her beekeeping apprentice. May is eccentric and fragile, and suffers from feeling the world's pain as her own. June is a cello player and teacher, and is the only one of the sisters who does not wholeheartedly accept white Lily.

Despite some feelings of discomfort because of her whiteness, Lily loves living at the Boatwrights'. August mentors her not only in beekeeping but also in spiritual matters. The sisters have their own religion—a mixture of Catholicism and "their own ingredients"—which centers on the worship of a statue of a black Madonna, whom they call Our Lady of Chains. According to their legend, Our Lady of Chains was given by God to a slave community in nearby Charleston. The slaves worshipped the statue, which miraculously reappeared back in their prayer house each time their master took it away and locked it up in chains. The statue inspired the slaves to break free of their oppression, just as it inspires strength in the Boatwrights and the Daughters of Mary, a group of black women who come to the Boatwrights' house for worship. Part of their ritual is to touch the heart painted on the statue while June Boatwright plays cello. When Lily goes to touch the black Mary's heart, she faints.

Lily and Zach

Another of August's beekeeping apprentices is a black teenager named Zachary Taylor. Lily and Zach fall in love, but they are unable to pursue their romance because it would be dangerous for Zach to be with a white girl. Zach wants to be a lawyer; Lily wants to be a writer. Zach gives Lily a notebook to record her stories.

A Discovery about the Past

One day while August is explaining the mysteries of beekeeping to Lily, the bees cover Lily's body and she relives the memory of her mother's death. After calling her father and realizing that he knows nothing about the things she cares about, Lily finds the strength to touch black Mary's heart. She is still not ready to confess to August her lies and reasons for being there, nor to ask August about her mother.

Soon after, Lily finds the strength to ask May whether her mother ever stayed at the house. May confirms that Deborah Fontanel Owens did indeed stay there. Lily decides she must now talk to August. Before this happens, however, Zach is wrongly thrown in jail when one of the black boys he is standing with throws a bottle at a white man.

Commemorating Mary

When May learns of Zach's incarceration, her despair drives her to commit suicide in the river. In her suicide note, she expresses her weariness with bearing the world's pain and urges her sisters to live life as fully as possible. Released from jail, Zach comes to the house during the four-day vigil for May.

After the period of mourning, the Boatwrights and the Daughters of Mary celebrate Mary Day, their version of the Catholic Feast of the Assumption (commemorating the day the Virgin Mary ascended into Heaven following her death). They reenact the chaining and liberation of Our Lady of Chains. Lily finds it hard to see Our Lady bound up; she goes out to the river, and Zach follows. He promises her that he will be with her once he becomes a lawyer.

Further Discoveries about the Past

That night, Lily decides to have the talk with August that she has been putting off. August tells Lily that she cared for Deborah, Lily's mother, when Deborah was a child. Deborah's unhappiness in her marriage compelled her to leave Lily behind and come to stay at the Boatwrights' house while she healed from her depression. When she returned to Sylvan to get Lilly, she was accidentally killed. Lily is overcome with hatred for the mother who abandoned her.

After learning this, Lily stays at the honey house, where the honey is processed and jarred. She works out her grief by smashing jars of honey. The following day is the second part of Mary Day, and Lily participates in the ritual of rubbing honey all over the now-unchained statue of Our Lady of Chains. August gives Lily some things that belonged to Deborah, including a picture showing baby Lily and Deborah smiling at her lovingly. Lily accepts this photograph as the proof of her mother's love she has been seeking.

Lily enters her own period of mourning and solitude as she seeks to process all she has learned. When she rejoins the life of the house, August explains that the power and love of Mother Mary lives inside Lily; it is up to Lily to find a mother inside herself.

Facing Her Father and the Past

T. Ray arrives at the house, determined to take Lily back with him. A violent altercation ensues between the two of them, reminiscent of the incident that led to Deborah's death. Lily refuses to go with her father, and she is supported by the Boatwrights and the Daughters of Mary. T. Ray leaves, consenting to Lily living there. Lily realizes she'll never know if T. Ray is telling the truth when he claims that Lily accidentally killed her mother.

Lily continues to live and thrive at the Boatwrights'. As Zach courageously integrates the white high school that year, Lily stands by him. She becomes a prolific writer. At last, Lily is at peace, having realized that she has many mothers—the strength inside her, as well as the Boatwright sisters and the Daughters of Mary.

The Secret Life of Bees Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Lily Owens's mother dies.

Rising Action

2 Bees appear in Lily's room. Rosaleen Daise is jailed.

3 Lily frees Rosaleen. They hitchhike toward Tiburon.

4 Lily and Rosaleen go to the Boatwrights'.

5 Lily and August Boatwright grow close over beekeeping.

6 Lily faints during worship, unable to touch Mary's heart.

7 After calling her father, Lily touches Mary's heart.

8 Lily learns that her mother stayed with the Boatwrights.

9 May drowns herself after Zachary Taylor is unjustly jailed.

10 August tells Lily the truth about her mother.


11 A photograph reassures Lily her mother loved her.

Falling Action

12 Rosaleen registers to vote. Lily forgives her mother.

13 T. Ray tries and fails to take Lily away.

14 June Boatwright marries Neil. Lily moves into her old room.


15 Lily becomes strong. She knows she has many mothers.

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