What do the bees symbolize in The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd?  

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Bees are powerful symbols in The Secret Life of Bees (Kidd), in addition to being part of the plot structure.  At the beginning of each chapter, a quotation from a book about bees features some aspect of beekeeping that states the theme of the chapter.  Overall, the bees are symbols of mothering and community. 

In the very first chapter, the beginning quote states,

The queen...is the unifying force of the community; if she is removed from the hive, the workers very quickly sense her absence (Kidd 1).

And as the chapter unfolds, we see that Lily's queen bee, her mother, is gone and that, despite the love of Rosaleen, she suffers greatly from the loss of her mother.  The bees seem to speak to her, swarming in her room to try to tell her something. By Chapter Two, after some dreadful encounters with her father and Rosaleen's problems in town with the police, Lily clutches a bee jar, emptied of bees that have flown away, and determines that she will fly away, too, taking Rosaleen with her. She hears a voice telling her "... your jar is open" (41). She decides that she will go on a quest to learn about her mother. 

When she and Rosaleen flee, they head for Tiburon, South Carolina, which is the name on the back of a memento Lily has from her mother.  There they meet and begin to live with the Boatwright sisters.  The oldest, August, is a beekeeper, and she is clearly the queen bee for the family. She becomes Lily's queen bee, too, as well as Rosaleen's, providing the love and support for the household and much of the larger community, able to answer questions for Lily about her mother's life, and putting Lily on a path to heal and be happy.

A beehive is a community that depends upon its queen bee to survive and to thrive, and throughout the entire story, Lily learns that she can thrive in a community with a wonderful queen bee, August Boatwright.      

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