The bees came the summer of 1964, the summer I turned fourteen and my life went spinning off into a whole new orbit, and I mean whole new orbit. Looking back on it now, I want to say the bees were sent to me. I want to say they showed up like the angel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary, setting events in motion I could never have guessed. Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees pages 1, 2
If you’ve read Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, The Secret Life of Bees, you know that bees are a metaphor for the flight Lily Melissa Owens takes to escape a mother-less house (except for nanny Rosaleen) and the domination of an angry father to find a true family and home. In the process, she learns the truth of her mother’s past, finds a hive of new mothers, and discovers her own identity. In other words, she discovers her true self, the whole point of a good coming-of-age novel.
Substitute a different date and a different age, and you have my story with major variations. Unlike Lily, I had a caring family with a highly functioning Mother, but I lived the life of a Lancaster County Mennonite girl, separate from mainstream culture. I envisioned a more colorful life that would offer excitement and surprise. Thus, the bees in my bonnet (literally, a bonnet) propelled me to explore life beyond what I believed was the sheltered, nurturing, but confining, boundaries of my Mennonite upbringing. “What would happen if I sampled the honey from a different hive?” I wondered.
No, I didn’t have a jar of bees on my dresser like Lily, but I did recognize an inner voice saying to me, “Marian, your jar is open.” And off I buzzed to a different state, a changed outward appearance, and eventually a new name.
In the process, I landed in another city (Charlotte, NC) in a house with two young women, who, like Lily’s three Boatwright sisters in the Pink House, groomed me for a different life. A life with bright colors, loose hair, fancy dresses but not jarring me away from deeply held values.
Like Lily Melissa Owens, I have sampled the honey of good experience along with the vinegar of trials. Of course, I like the honey better. Here are some life secrets from the “. . . Life of Bees.”
1. IT’S BETTER TO BE SWEET THAN SOUR!
“We lived for honey. We swallowed a spoonful in the morning to wake us up and one at night to put us to sleep. We took it with every meal to calm the mind, give us stamina, and prevent fatal disease. We swabbed ourselves in it to disinfect cuts or heal chapped lips. It went in our baths, our skin cream, our raspberry tea and biscuits. Nothing was safe from honey. . . . [It] was the ambrosia of the gods and the shampoo of the goddesses.” (84)
August [Boatwright] said beeswax “could make your fishing line float, your button thread stronger, your furniture shinier, your stuck window glide, and your irritated skin glow like a baby’s bottom. Beeswax was a miracle cure for everything.” (84)
2. OBSERVE ETIQUETTE.
What works in the bee yard works in the world. “Don’t be afraid, as no life-loving bee wants to sting you. Still, don’t be an idiot: wear long sleeves and long pants. Don’t swat . . . . If you feel angry, whistle. Anger agitates, while whistling melts a bees’s temper. Act like you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t. Above all, send the bees love. Every little thing wants to be loved.” (92)
3. USE YOUR SMARTS.
“People don’t realize how smart bees are, even smarter than dolphins. Bees know enough geometry to make row after row of perfect hexagons, angles so accurate you’d think they used rulers. They take plain flower juice and turn it into something everyone in the world loves to pour on biscuits.” (137)
4. NOTICE THAT OTHERS ALSO HAVE IMPORTANT ROLES TO PLAY; YOU’RE NOT ALWAYS THE QUEEN BEE! In the bee kingdom there are nest-builders, field bees with good navigation skills to gather nectar and pollen, nurse bees, and mortician bees. At the extreme ends: drones and, oh, yes, the Queen Bee with her attendants. (148-149)
“The whole fabric of honey bee society depends on communication—on an innate ability to send and receive messages, to encode and decode information.” Gould, James L. and Carol Grant Gould. The Honey Bee, quoted in The Secret Life of Bees (165)
6. YOU ARE CAPABLE OF MORE THAN YOU THINK.
The worker bee is just over a centimeter long and weighs only about sixty milligrams; nevertheless, she can fly with a load heavier than herself. Gould, James L. and Carol Grant Gould. The Honey Bee, quoted in The Secret Life of Bees, (256)
7. ENJOY BREATH-TAKING BEAUTY!
According to August, if you’ve never seen a cluster of beehives first thing in the morning, you’ve missed the eighth wonder of the world. Picture these white bees tucked under pine tees. The sun will slant through the branches, shining in the sprinkles of dew drying on the lids. There will be a few hundred bees doing laps around the hive boxes, just warming up, but mostly taking their bathroom break, as bees are so clean they will not soil the inside of their hives. From the distance it will look like a big painting . . . in a museum, but museums can’t capture the sound. Fifty feet away you will hear it, a humming that sounds like it came from a different planet. At thirty feet your skin will start to vibrate. The hair will lift on your neck. Your head will say, Don’t go any farther, but your heart will send you straight into the hum, where you will be swallowed by it. You will stand there and think, I am in the center of the universe, where everything is sung to life. (286)
Create a buzz!
Was there a time in your life when the jar of your life opened, and you flew out of it into a different orbit?
Like Lily Owens in the novel, have you found a hive of friends to nurture you?
Who is the queen bee in your life story? Well, it could be a king or a prince too, I guess.
All quotes: Kidd, Sue Monk. The Secret Life of Bees. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.
Your best yet! So happy to be one of your attendants, Queen Marian.
I\’m not sure I\’d go that far. (Maybe a princess–ha!) You are always so encouraging, Carolyn.
Love that book and the realization that Lily has in the end that family can reside in more than just traditional roles and in more than just one person. She learns to let go and to embrace at the same time.
I agree. The push – pull of the plot/characters creates the tension in the novel and makes it absolutely sing!
I love your metaphor about bees and what we can learn from them in our daily lives, thank you Marian. It was a wonderful book which I would like to re-read now that you have used these excerpts.
Spring is just around the beehive in this corner of the world .. what a joy to see a few bees buzzing about.
Lovely to hear buzzing from another continent. Thank you, Susan.
Love this metaphor applied to plain and fancy living.
Good connection to sweet and sour. I have a chapter in my book called sweet and sour, but no bees! Wish I had time to elaborate. Later. . .
Everytime I read your delightful stories, I make connections to my own story. Amazing.
The literary connects are inspiring also. in addition to Sue Monk Kidd, Wordsworth and Sylvia Plath used bees in their poetry.
Thanks for noting all the dualities you observe in the \”Bees\” post. And thanks too for the references to Wordsworth and Plath. As to the \”Sweet and Sour\” chapter — I\’ll probably be reading it in less than a month. Can you believe it!
You don\’t have to explain about wishing for more time to elaborate. If you are still with the grand-children, enough said. : – )
Stellar post, Marian! Bringing together the life of bees and your life as a \”plain and fancy\” girl. I really enjoyed this post and am so glad you mentioned it in a comment on my own blog today. I love Sue Monk Kidd, as you mentioned earlier. 🙂
Marian, I love your writing and somehow I feel that I was a witness of this part of your life.
We were both somehow in a time when our lives were changing, You meeting Cliff and I
marrying Paul and leaving my Country, a very beautiful time, love, Betty.
You, more than any one else, witnessed my momentous transition to a new life. But you made the biggest change of all geographically, leaving family in Guatemala to embrace a new culture, a new land, and new friends in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. I\’m happy to be included among your closest friends. You are very special, Betty. Thanks for the comment.
Hi Marian such a wonderful post . I have read your replies to Laurie on her weekly post ( so thank you Laurie for putting me in touch )
i too have read \’The Secret Life of Bee\’s \’ by Sue Monk Kid \’ and put it up there with my favorite books of all time …I am constantly passing it on to others .
I would have loved to have found a pink house and met the Boatwright sisters when I was fourteen .
Welcome, Cherry! I love when that happens – readers meeting on a blog. At the moment, I am reading Sue Monk Kid\’s The Invention of Wings – historical fiction, brilliant writing.
Do visit my blog again; I post on a variety of topics from my early life as a Mennonite to literary topics and current events. Thanks so much, Cherry, for reading and commenting today.
Somehow I missed reading this post… I\’m glad I found it now! I had a friend who was a beekeeper, he traveled all over Michigan taking care of the bees! He died a couple of years ago and I wonder who\’s taking care of the bees now. I\’d like to read the book too by Sue Monk Kidd. I\’ll look for it! Thanks for sharing this!
The Secret Life of Bees is a page turner. I\’m now reading her most recent book \”The Invention of Wings.\” The conflict in her books usually centers around a young woman overcoming odds to find her identity.
You mentioned your friend in Michigan who took care of bees. I guess you\’ll have to trust someone was there to carry on the torch. As you can tell from this post, my dad was a beekeeper as is our son Joel. I love the honey and use it daily in tea. Thanks for going back in the archives for this post, Anita. Always glad to see you wherever you turn up!
I checked on the date of this post and see it was about the time I was going to Colorado to be with my mother before her death. I knew there had to be a reason!
I\’m wondering, did Sue Monk Kidd used to write for Guideposts magazine? I know I\’ve read stories by her.
Yes, I first read Sue Monk Kidd\’s stories in Guideposts years ago. She is now a prize-winning author. I so admire her work, stories with graphic descriptions and spiritual depth.
And I appreciate your interest in my stories, even going back to earlier ones. Thank you, Anita.
Amazing and informative post, Marian. I knew nothing of these groups, so thank you for educating me.
This is a post for away back. Now you\’ve given me the chance to review it. Thank you for commenting, Carole!
See, you have been an amazing writer since the very beginning. Look how far you’ve come! And you aren’t done yet, are you, my friend!!