The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. Published in 2002.

"A queenless colony is a pitiful and melancholy community; there may never be a mournful wail or a lament from within...Without intervention, the colony will die. But introduce a new queen and the most extravagant change takes place."
- The Queen Must Die: And Other Affairs of Bees and Men

It is the year 1964. Lily Owens is 14 years old. She has no mother, a father whom she despises, and no friends that she can turn to when she needs a shoulder to cry on. Not only does Lily have to deal with feelings of loneliness and betrayal caused by her parents, but, in a time plagued by the negative feelings toward the Civil Rights Act, she is also faced with situations that force her to grow up very fast. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd is a wonderful novel about Lily's journey to find answers to her past and the the power of the the human spirit.

When Lily was just four years old, her mother died under mysterious circumstances. She despised her father, who only paid attention to her when he beat her. She refused to call her father "Daddy" and insisted on calling him by his name, T. Ray, instead. She was comforted by the old pictures that her mother once owned, one of a town called Tisburn and another of a bee honey jar. She kept these close to her heart and vowed to find answers to her mother's life, as well as death, someday. She was also comforted by her African American nanny, Rosaleen, who had raised her since her mother had died. One day when Lily is about 14 years old, she decides to walk into town with Rosaleen, who wanted to register to vote. On their way to town they are confronted by three white men who taunt Rosaleen with racial slurs. When Rosaleen retaliates by pouring snuff juice on the mens' shoes she is arrested and Lily is sent home to face her father. When she arrived at home, T. Ray beat her and told her that her mother left her when she was young because Lily was so unloveable. Not only does he torture her with that, he also accuses Lily of beng the reason her mother is dead, that she found a gun and pulled the trigger on her mother. Distraught by the allegations of her father, Lily runs away from home and breaks Rosaleen out of jail. Holding the picture of Tisburn, South Carolina, that her mother had once had, she vows to find answers to her mother's life and death and heads off to Tisburn with Rosaleen.

Once in Tisburn, Lily and Rosaleen find their way to a huge house that she recognizes from a picture on the honey jar that her mother owned. Knocking on the front door she is greeted by three African American sisters named August, June and May. She asks the sisters if she and Rosaleen could stay there for a while on their bee farm until they "continute on their journey". Despite protests from the other sisters August welcomes them in.

While staying with the sisters Lily helps August with the bees. She learns about the ways of the hive, how they cannot function with out the Queen Bee. She starts to realize how much she needs her mother, just as the bees need their Queen. During her time at the bee farm, Lily gains a deeper understanding of her world. Her journey is one full of loss, betrayal, and pain, but in the end she comes across an understanding that she never imagined she could have. She finally understands the secret to the life of bees and finds a peace within herself that she knows her mother would have been proud of.

A Note to Teachers:

The Secret Life of Bees is from the voice of protagonist Lilly Owens, a Southern adolescent, and it shows the journey of her character's acceptance and understanding of what true family really is. Although the novel's focus is on the development of the adolescent character, it is important to note that the content of this novel should be closely examined by teachers and determined to be age-appropriate before assigning the reading of it to a class. Within the novel, there is some crude language and the use of racial terms that can be viewed as adult content.

In order to cater to an adolescent audience a classroom setting, it may be beneficial to direct students' attention to themes that run throughout the novel. These themes reveal insights into life that they can relate to. Through controlled classroom discussion and talking about how the these ideas develop throughout the text, themes that can be explored include, but are not limited to:

  • coming of age
  • the search for truth
  • the comfort of family (biological or created)
  • the comfort of home/ creating "home"
  • the damage of racism
  • inter-racial relationships
  • understanding love
  • the balance of holding onto and letting go of the past
  • choosing the things in life that matter

Additional Student and Teacher Resources:

Reading Group Guides for The Secret Life of Bees
Sparknotes on The Secret LIfe of Bees
Sue Monk Kidd's Official Website
The Runaway
Directory of Michigan Honey Farms
All About Bees (YouTube!)

All About Bees on YouTube!

Example of student reenactment of scenes from The Secret Life of Bees

About Sue Monk Kidd

Sue Monk Kidd, who was born in Sylvester, Georgia on August 12, 1948, graduated from Texas Christian University in 1970. With a B.S. in nursing, she went on to work as a registered nurse and nursing instructor at the college level. Her career in writing began with Guideposts, as she wrote personal essays. Eventually she took on a position as Contributing Editor with Guideposts.
As a writer, she acknowledges Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Merton, Kate Chopin, and Carl Jung as influencing her work. Currently, Sue Monk Kidd holds the position of Writer in Residence at Phoebe Pember House in Charleston. She resides with her husband Sanford Kidd, their two children, Bob and Ann, and their dog, Lily.

Click here to go to the official Sue Monk Kidd Website.

Other books by Sue Monk Kidd:

God’s Joyful Surprise (1998)
When the Heart Waits (1990)
The Dance of the Dissident Daughter (1996)
The Mermaid Chair (2005)

Awards and Nominations:**

*The Secret Life of Bees is a New York Times Bestseller
*It has been selected by Good Morning America's "Read This" Book Club
*2003 SEBA (Southeastern Book Seller's Association) Award for Best Fiction Novel
*The Secret Life of Bees is in the works to become a major motion picture directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood