You can interpret the title on many levels. From a literal perspective, the story does teach us a lot about bees. We learn how their hive functions, how to care for them, and the many...
Bees play a significant role in the novel, both symbolically and literally nurturing the characters.
You can interpret the title on many levels. From a literal perspective, the story does teach us a lot about bees. We learn how their hive functions, how to care for them, and the many uses of honey. The book is actually pretty informative on the real secret life of bees.
Of course, the book is not an apiary handbook. It is not just literally about the bees, but about what they present to Lily and the Boatwright sisters. It is also about Lily's secret life. Lily seeks sanctuary in the bees even before she runs away to the Boatwright house. She sees them in her bedroom, and seeks solace from them. She is a sensitive girl with a vivid imagination.
Bees are communal, and led by a mother bee in a sense. Lily desperately wants a mother, and she finds several. August Boatwright surely fills that role, but in some ways so do the bees. In learning about the bees, and caring for them, Lily finds a purpose. The Boatwright sisters are strong and nurturing, and Lily learns through them that she can be anything.
The symbolic nature of bees as mother is a repeated theme in the story.
“Nobody around here had ever seen a lady beekeeper till her. She liked to tell everybody that women made the best beekeepers, 'cause they have a special ability built into them to love creatures that sting. It comes from years of loving children and husbands.” (Ch. 8)
Women are complex, and so are mothers. This is one of the things Lily learns. Her story is tragic and defies simple definition. She has to learn to give up her past, so that she can have a future. Through her stay with the beekeepers, Lily is able to do that. She eventually shares her secret with them, and a weight is lifted off of her.
Lily also experiences the bees as a metaphor for life, both in how to live life and how to live with people. August explains to Lily how bees are like life.
“She reminded me that the world was really one bee yard, and the same rules work fine in both places. Don't be afraid, as no life-loving bee wants to sting you. Still, don't be an idiot; wear long sleeves and pants….” (Ch. 5)
Again, she learns this from August, but also from May and June. Each Boatwright sister has something different to teach her. From August she learns compassion, and from June she learns resilience. May teaches her to approach the world with whimsy to hide her pain.
Life is not easy for Lily. She has been hurt so often that she has trouble coping. Through the bees and the lessons from the Boatwright sisters, Lily learns how to have friends and even how to fall in love. She is surrounded for the first time in her life by people who care. Lily went looking for her mother, but she found her family.