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Just as the bees live a secret life inside the hive, a life that people on the outside cannot see, many of the characters in "Secret Life of Bees" live their own secret lives. When Lily first meets the Boatwright sisters, she is surprised that they are intelligent and cultured, because they are black. She says,
“T. Ray did not think colored women were smart. Since I want to tell the whole truth, which means the worst parts, I thought they could be smart, but not as smart as me, me being white. Lying on the cot in the honey house, though, all I could think was August is so intelligent, so cultured, and I was surprised by this. That’s what let me know I had some prejudice buried inside me” (pg 78).
She is prejudiced against them, even though she tries not to be. Once she can see into their lives by being a part of it, she realizes the complexities of who they are. Lily, as the protagonist, has many secrets. She hides the reason she has come to the Boatwright's house, not telling August about her mother. Lily is lost through most of the novel, and is searching for answers to secrets about her mother and what happened to her in the months before she died and leading up to her death. It is a personal quest for Lily, to come to terms with her mother's death and accept that there are those who love her. She keeps secrets -- secrets of her past, of her thoughts, and of her feelings -- from everyone, but until she can talk about these things, and bring them out in the open, she is unable to grow and learn the truth.
I think this question would be best answered by looking at who are the "bees" - and then answering it metaphorically.
Bees, in this novel, are symbolic of a living thing that lives, works, survives and thrives by being surrounded by other bees. The hive is a symbol for the community which keeps the bees safe and healthy. In turn, they then naturally take care of something in nature (polination) and produce something sweet that blesses others.
In the beginning of th book - Lily is not living, working, thriving - she is barely surviving, and this is because she is alone. It is when she and Rosaline find August (and the others) and learn to live as part of a community, that Lily discovers a sense of self - something she never before understood.
I think the "secret life" is simply living as an individual - performing a specific task - like a bee - but doing so within a community. Notice that August is never pushy, never intrusive, she even comes across as somewhat impersonal. But this is because August knows what her role is and she knows the others' roles as well. Just as in a beehive - the queen does not "govern" anyone, but simply performs a job like everyone else - August allows there to be a natural order to things in her house. As a result, the women (and men) who are lucky enough to find themselves a part (even a small part) of her "hive" find protection, love, and purpose.
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