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.