The Secret Life of Bees is one of few books that my mom, sisters, and I all really love. We don’t often read the same things. My mom and I overlap quite a bit—Jane Austen, Louise Erdrich, Emily St. John Mandel—but this book managed to get at us all. It’s hard not to love that book as a woman, I think. It’s all about beautiful, strong female relationships, and how they conjure up family wherever they go. And of course, it uses that wonderful metaphor of a beehive: an almost exclusively female family unit, social and productive, giving off sweetness and sustenance. (My friend Amanda loves the bee metaphor dearly, and she’s always who I think of when I encounter it from time to time.) I love the idea of bees.
And I am terrified of the reality of them. For mostly no reason. I’m just a spaz. This is well known. I pass my neighbors’ dog and turn into a Mexican jumping bean. The squirrels in Farragut? They are my overlords, and I accept that. Listen, animals are to be respected. And feared. And experienced only from a distance if at all possible. Prominent exceptions include sparrows, fireflies, and penguins. And, as it turns out, butterflies.
When I came across this post about how monarch butterflies migrate around a mountain that’s not there anymore, I thought: maybe monarch butterflies can be my bees. I’m a Christian, okay? We like tradition, and history, and following the paths of our ancestors because we trust that it makes sense even if that is not immediately evident. And some of us like monarchs. Not me though. I cannot help the name.
Now, it turns out that particular migration pattern is a myth. But wouldn’t it have been cool? Wouldn’t it have been an epic phenomenon of historical memory, a ridiculous reminder of The Grand Scheme of Things?
Yes. But actual monarch migration is also stupidly cool. North American monarch butterflies migrate from southern Canada and the U.S. to Mexico every fall, and come back every spring. At least, the eastern/northeastern ones do. Y’know, mine. But no individual butterfly actually completes that entire trip. At least five generations of butterflies are involved in making the annual cycle. It’s physically beautiful to see—lots of tourists and nature-lovers go to watch the kaleidoscopes fly. (Yes, a group of butterflies is called a kaleidoscope. God is good, people.) It’s also just a beautiful, if kind of sad, idea. Generations doing their little part to move the family forward, even knowing they aren’t going to make it to the promised land themselves. Doing what their forebears have done because instinctively they know it got them this far.
And it fits the bee metaphor in a way: in their winter communities down south, they cluster onto trees, forming forests of wings, like the butterfly equivalent of beehives. Up north, they feed on Virginia silkweed—pollinated by honeybees.
See? If you want a story bad enough…