Bees serve as Lily’s unspoken guides throughout the novel. In the beginning, they come to her room to relay the message that she should head out on her own and leave T. Ray’s house. Likewise, Lily follows the trail of the honey label to Tiburon—and to the truth about her mother. In Tiburon, she lives in the honey house, and tending bees becomes her occupation. Early on, when August asks Lily what she loves, she lists bees near the top of her list. Bees suggest rebirth, exploration, sexual maturation, and personal growth. They guide Lily, accompany her, and drive her forward. For every important action Lily takes in the novel, bees and their products play a role: from realizing she is in love with Zach (when she licks honey off his finger) to realizing she loves August (when she lets the bees rest on her body). Lily even finds the “secret life of bees” similar to her own life. Their industrious care for their mother, their continuous ability to keep going in work, and their ability to survive inspire Lily. Finally, their reliance on an all-female community resembles her own reliance, and the bees’ community helps Lily understand the power of the human community. For these reasons, bees are the central motif of The Secret Life of Bees.
An epigraph, or quotation, from a book about bees precedes each of the novel’s fourteen chapters, thereby stitching together the chapters of the novel and relating them back to the overarching motif of bees. These epigraphs give readers a preview of the chapter’s contents. For example, the epigraph to chapter 1 describes the importance of a queen bee to a community, and chapter 1 of the novel introduces readers to Lily, a determined young girl in search of a mother’s love. Similarly, the epigraph to chapter 7 wonders how bees became linked to sex, and chapter 7 of the novel deals with Lily’s burgeoning sexual desire and relationship to Zach. Significantly, the novel contains fourteen epigraphs and fourteen chapters; as the novel opens, Lily has just turned fourteen.
The lack of mothers, the search for mothers, and the importance of mothers appear throughout the novel and demonstrate the significance of mothers to adequate human development. Everyone, regardless of circumstance or color, needs a mother. As Lily discovers, a person does not need to share a biological connection with a mother figure. Ever since her mother died, she has longed for a maternal touch. Although Rosaleen loves Lily, Rosaleen’s somewhat insensitive, boisterous personality prevents her from providing Lily with the kind of compassion that Lily thinks a mother should provide. August, however, can and does provide Lily with what she considers to be “mother’s love”: total and complete understanding, firm guidance, and the ability to gently criticize. But August believes in a different kind of motherly love: that supplied by the mother of God, the Virgin Mary. For much of the novel, August teaches Lily about the kind of undying, universal, hidden love that exists everywhere in the world but which is actually manufactured by the Virgin Mary. According to August, in order to feel the completeness stolen from her when her mother died, Lily must realize that she is loved by this Great Universal Mother.