Lily Owens remembers the summer of 1964, when she turned fourteen years old. She begins by describing the way she would wait in her bedroom each night for the arrival of bees. Though these bees are imagined, Lily's emotional attachment to them makes the reader wonder if they might be real. Lily's caretaker, Rosaleen, has told her that bees swarming are an omen of death. Lily is preoccupied with death, since her mother, Deborah, died when Lily was four. She thinks often of the day her mother died and shares the incident, as well as her own guilt, with the reader. She remembers sitting on the floor of the closet as her mother hurriedly packed a suitcase. She remembers her father, T. Ray, coming home and her parents arguing. Then T. Ray shoved Lily, and her mother grabbed a gun from the closet shelf. The gun ended up in T. Ray's hands, then on the floor, then in Lily's hands. Lily remembers the sound of the gun going off. Her mother was dead.
Unpopular in school and unloved by her father, Lily relies only on Rosaleen. She treasures a few objects connected to her mother: a photograph of Deborah, a pair of her white gloves, and a picture of a dark-skinned Virgin Mary mounted on wood, with "Tiburon, S.C." written on the back. She keeps these items buried in a tin box in her father's peach orchard, digging them up and imagining what sort of woman her mother was. Lily remembers that the day before she began first grade, T. Ray told her she had accidentally killed her mother.
On July 2, 1964, Rosaleen is overjoyed to learn President Lyndon Johnson has signed the Civil Rights Act into law. That night, needing to feel close to someone and something, Lily heads for the orchard to dig up her tin box. T. Ray catches her outside, assuming she is meeting a boy. He punishes her in a way Lily particularly hates: by making her kneel on the kitchen floor in a pile of Martha White grits, small grains that cut into her knees.
Lily accompanies Rosaleen to a Fourth of July voter-registration rally in Sylvan. Before she can register, however, Rosaleen attracts the attention of a group of men playing cards. They bait her with racial insults, and she responds by pouring tobacco juice on their shoes. A scuffle results, and Rosaleen is arrested for assault.
The Civil Rights Act has obviously not reached Sylvan, as policeman Avery Gaston allows the locals who attacked Rosaleen to attack her again. Lily is released into T. Ray's custody, but Rosaleen must stay behind. T. Ray tells Lily that Rosaleen will likely be killed by Franklin Posey, a notoriously vicious racist, who is one of the men she offended. Furious at his daughter's actions, T. Ray tells Lily that her devotion to her dead mother is misplaced. Deborah had run away and left her family and, on the day she died, had planned to pack her belongings and leave permanently. Distraught and disbelieving, Lily decides to break Rosaleen out of police custody. As her world crumbles, she needs to be needed and appreciated.
When Lily returns to town, she is told that Rosaleen has been taken to the hospital. She sneaks into Rosaleen's hospital room, where Rosaleen admits she was beaten by Posey and other men. Lily and Rosaleen slip past the guard posted in front of her room. The two hitch a ride with driver of a cantaloupe truck who happens to be traveling to a location near Tiburon, the town noted on the back of the Black Madonna portrait. Since the picture belonged to her mother, Lily decides she will find answers there. Rosaleen and Lily quarrel when Rosaleen realizes Lily left Sylvan to pursue her own interests as much as to save her. They separate briefly but reunite and apologize to each other in a nearby creek.
After spending the night sleeping in the open air, Lily and Rosaleen continue their walk into Tiburon. They come to a general store, where Lily goes to buy food. Behind the counter, she notices jars of Black Madonna Honey, decorated with the familiar image of the dark-skinned Virgin Mary. The store's proprietor tells her the honey is made by a local woman, August Boatwright, whose bright pink house is impossible to miss.
Lily and Rosaleen find August's house. A woman in the front yard is tending to boxes of bees. They are met at the door by August's sisters, June and May. Inside their house, Lily sees a carving of a woman that resembles a ship's masthead. Three feet tall, the woman is mostly black but has a faded red heart painted on her chest. Lily feels immediately drawn to the statue.
When August enters, Lily tells her that she and Rosaleen have run away from home and have no place to go. August immediately offers to let them stay. Lily continues to lie to August, pretending she is an orphan who, with her house-keeper Rosaleen as a chaperone, is headed to a relative's house in Virginia. August seems to accept their story and shows them around her honey-making operation. She offers them two cots in the "honey house" for them to use. The next morning, Lily rises early and surveys the Boatwright property. She discovers a rock wall with slips of paper stuck in its crevices.
A week passes at the Boatwright household. August buys new clothes for Rosaleen, and May and June clean her wounds from her beating. Lily describes the role honey plays in the Boatwrights' life: they eat it, bathe in it, take it as medicine, and make candles from it. Lily enjoys learning how to tend to August's honey-making machinery, and Rosaleen develops a special rapport with May. They learn May is acutely sensitive to the suffering of others. She even leads insects outside the house rather than killing them, which reminds Lily of a similar habit her mother had.
Lily's happiness with the Boatwrights is marred only by June's antipathy to her presence. Lily overhears June and August discussing her; for June, Lily's whiteness makes her particularly objectionable. Lily's self-consciousness is reinforced when she gathers around the television with Rosaleen and the Boatwrights to watch news reports of racially motivated violence. In the evening, the women say prayers in front of the black statue of Mary, which the Boatwright sisters call "Our Lady of Chains."
August lets Lily visit the hives she has stationed around nearby farms and swamps. She shows Lily the queen of one of the hives. One evening Lily asks August about the stone wall in the backyard. August explains that May built the wall as her own personal wailing wall. She tells Lily about their other sister, April, who was May's twin. April struggled with depression after being mistreated by a racist store owner and eventually killed herself at age fifteen. May's hypersensitivity to the misfortunes of the world resulted from the loss of her sister.
Neil, June's longtime suitor, visits the Boatwright household. June seems to love Neil, but because of an earlier disappointment in love, she cannot commit to him. The next day, a small group of Daughters of Mary arrive at the house for their Sunday religious service. August tells the story of Our Lady of Chains: originally a ship's masthead that washed up near a South Carolina plantation, it...
(The entire section is 2983 words.)