In the novel, beehives serves as a symbolic parallel to the community August has created in the pink house. Bees live, work, and produce honey in beehives. As in August’s community, female bees dominate the beehive, and the queen bee rules over everything. The queen bee is the mother of every single other bee, just as, according to August, the Virgin Mary is the mother of all the women she is close to, whom she calls the Daughters of Mary. Because the beehive is a very sensitive organism, the bees have developed many mechanisms to protect their home. Likewise, August and her community have certain rituals—including prayer, celebration, and mourning—that help keep the members healthy. These rituals become especially important when something bad happens in the community, as when May kills herself. The beehive has a symbolic function in the novel because as Lily learns about August’s community, and is welcomed into it, she also learns about the mechanics of the beehive and becomes familiar with it. By the end of the novel, Lily has become an accomplished beekeeper.
Photographs symbolize the power of relationships in The Secret Life of Bees. Lily only has one photograph of her mother, but when she looks at this photograph she sees her mother’s lost potential and her own possible potential, which may or may not be fulfilled over the course of her life. Lily assumes that she will inherit the beauty of her mother. And when she looks at the future, she also sees her beautiful future. In addition, she handles the photograph carefully, as carefully as one would handle a baby; in this way, the photograph represents the hope and desire that she might someday find and feel maternal love. Lily also feels closer to Rosaleen when she discovers that Rosaleen also has a single photograph of her mother. Later, when August shows Lily other photographs of her mother, one of which is of her mother and Lily as a baby, Lily struggles to forgive her mother for being a flawed and complicated person. But, once again, seeing a photograph of her mother makes Lily feel tangibly closer to the deceased woman. In many ways, photographs are the only tangible manifestation of Lily’s powerful love for her mother. Deborah died when Lily was too young to have formed many memories of her, and thus the photograph stands as Lily’s only access to the woman she will never know.
The Black Mary
The black Mary serves several functions in the novel. As the picture, it symbolizes mothers and mother surrogates. Lily carries around a wooden picture of the black Mary, which she found among some objects that once belonged to her mother. This picture literally symbolizes Deborah to Lily, and eventually the picture leads Lily to August, a black woman who will become a surrogate mother. Through August, Lily will learn about Mary, whom August considers to be the mother of all of humanity. Significantly, Lily finds the wooden statue of Mary just seconds before she meets August, another instance of foreshadowing the relationship that will develop between August and Lily. August, along with the members of her group, the Daughters of Mary, worship at the statue every night. As a statue, the black Mary symbolizes the importance of having faith and believing in something larger than one’s self. The black Mary statue also reinforces the importance of storytelling: before meeting August, Lily learned stories from books. But August tells stories, including stories about the origin of the black Mary, to teach Lily important lessons about life.