The film begins with Lily having a flashback to the day her mother died. Her stepmother is packing when T-Ray enters the room and grabs her. She grabs a gun but drops it. Lily appears to pick it up. Then, a gunshot is heard and Lily states that she accidentally killed her mother.
In the night, Lily sees many bees in her room and tells her father but T-Ray yells at her to go back to bed. The next night, Lily runs into their peach orchard and digs up a box containing several of her mother's possessions. Lily lies down, staring at the stars and talking to her mother's spirit, but she hears her father calling. He accosts her, and takes her home and punishes her.
The next morning, the housekeeper Rosaleen surprises Lily with a cake for her 14th birthday. As T-Ray enters, Rosaleen states that she is going to take Lily into town. Lily asks him to tell her about her mother as her birthday gift but he doesn't. When Rosaleen and Lily leave, they are confronted by three racist men who insult Rosaleen. She spits on them, gets beaten up, and is taken off to a hospital. After T-Ray and Lily get home, T-Ray punishes Lily by sending her to her bedroom and he and Lily argue. After he exits, Lily packs up, leaves and note, and leaves the house to save Rosaleen from the hospital she was put in.
After saving her, they run away to a town, Tiburon, that was written on one of her mother's items Lily had. They find a honey jar with the same picture as that item. When they ask who made the honey, they are led to the house of August Boatwright and her sisters, May and June. May has a condition that gives her emotional breakdowns any time something bad happens to someone. Lily lies and says that she is an orphan, that Rosaleen is a nanny, and that they have no place to stay. August offers to let them help with the honey in exchange for shelter.
Lily experiences growing up in their household. Lily questions August as to why she uses "black" Mary pictures. She claims that she was sent by God to help African Americans have peace and equality. She discovers a wall outside of the house that has little pieces of paper stuffed between the holes. It was built for May to help her deal with her emotions. She would write down all the things that troubled her and put them into the wall.
Lily becomes friends with Zach, a teenage beekeeper at August's. Soon after, Lily rides to town with Zach to deliver honey, she confides in him the truth of their situation and the reason why she came to August. He gives her a notebook because she claimed to want to be a writer. They decide to watch a movie together but Lily sits in the "colored" section. This incites a racist mob who kidnap Zach and call Lily names for choosing to associate with him. Zach's mother and the Boatwright family are very worried and concerned. June and August decide not to tell May of Zach's disappearance, for fear of what it would do to her fragile mental state.
Zach's mother comes to the house to pray before the statue of the Black Madonna in the living room and runs into May afterwards. She confides in an unknowing May who subsequently goes into shock. The others grow worried after May disappears to the wall for an unusual amount of time. They go out to look for her only to discover that May killed herself, by placing a large rock upon her chest and lying down in a shallow section of a river. She writes a suicide note to August and June, claiming that she was too tired of carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders and that she would be much happier with her sister and parents in Heaven. Soon after May's death, Zach returns. After May's funeral, August and June slowly begin to recover from their loss, with June even finally agreeing to marry Neil, her boyfriend, whom she had broken up with in a fit of anger. Realizing the sisterly bond they have formed with Rosaleen, August and June embrace her as their new sister and decide to call her "July".
Meanwhile, Lily shows August the picture of her mother and August admits that she knew all along. Lily confesses that she, while trying to help her mother, wound up killing her. She also confesses her belief that Zach's disappearance was all her fault, as well, so she needs to leave, convinced it is best for everyone that she leave since she is unlovable and destroys all that she comes across. Lily breaks down crying and runs to the honey house, where she breaks several jars. August finds her and gives over the things that her mother left, when she went back to get Lily, though Lily doesn't believe her. August give her more emotional items of Deborah's.
Later on, T-Ray comes to the Boatwright home looking for Lily. When he sees Lily wearing her mother's pin, he mistakes her for her mother for a second and proceeds to grab and drag her out of the house, all the while telling her she can't leave him. In a moment of panic, Lily calls him 'Daddy', causing him to come to himself. She tells him she's staying there and after August shows up to calm the scene and assure him they'll take care of her, he reluctantly gives August permission to take care of Lily, for as long as she wanted to stay there. As T-Ray drives off, he admits that the day Deborah left, she wasn't only coming back for her stuff, but coming back for Lily. He says he lied because she wasn't coming back for him.
Lily's voice-over states that she thought, as T-Ray drove off, saying "Good riddance", he was really saying "Lily, you'll be better off here with all of these mothers." Lily is shown writing the contents of the entire story into the notebook that Zach gave her and she puts it in May's wall and is shown wearing Zach's necklace. She walks off into the honey house as the scene fades to black.Dakota Fanning as Lily OwensJennifer Hudson as Rosaleen "July" DaiseQueen Latifah as August BoatwrightAlicia Keys as June BoatwrightSophie Okonedo as May BoatwrightPaul Bettany as T-Ray Owens, Lily's fatherHilarie Burton as Deborah Owens, Lily's motherTristan Wilds as Zach Taylor, friend of May & Lily'sNate Parker as Neil, June's boyfriendShondrella Avery as Greta Taylor, Zach's mother
Production began on January 7, 2008, in Lumberton, North Carolina, and Watha, North Carolina. and ended a few months later. The film was screened in September 2008 at the 33rd Annual Toronto International Film Festival, and had an October 17, 2008, theatrical release.
Original music for The Secret Life of Bees was produced by Mark Isham.
The movie features the following songs:
- "Baby, I Need Your Loving" by Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland and Edward Holland, Jr.
- "Come See About Me" by Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland and Edward Holland, Jr.
- "Prelude (From The Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 1 In G Major)" by Johann Sebastian Bach
- "Six Canonic Sonatas Op. 5" by Georg Philipp Telemann
- "Sonata No. 3 In a Minor For Cello & Continuo: Allegro" by Antonio Vivaldi
- "The Honey Song" by Sue Monk Kidd
- "Beautiful" by India.Arie
- "Breakaway" by Irma Thomas
- "Come See About Me" by The Supremes
- "Doncha Know (Sky Is Blue)" by Alicia Keys
- "Heaven's My Home" by Sam & Ruby
- "Hippy Hippy Shake" by Swinging Blue Jeans
- "I'm Alright" by Little Anthony and the Imperials
- "It's All Right" by The Impressions
- "Keep Marching" by Raphael Saadiq
- "Mary" by Joe Purdy
- "Song for Mia" by Lizz Wright
The soundtrack for the movie was not released as an album.
The Secret Life of Bees received mixed to positive reviews. Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 58% based on 136 reviews, with the consensus "The Secret Life of Bees has charm" Writing in The New York Times, reviewer A. O. Scott thought the film to be "a familiar and tired fable". Roger Ebert found it "enchanting".
The movie was No. 3 at the North American box office for its opening weekend with $10,527,799. As of December 13, 2008, the film has made $47,270,658 in the United States and Canada.
The movie won the awards for "Favorite Movie Drama" and "Favorite Independent Movie" at the 35th People's Choice Awards.
The film received seven NAACP Image Award nominations, which include Outstanding Motion Picture, Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture (Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning), Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture (Nate Parker), and Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture (Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson, and Sophie Okonedo). The movie won the Image Award for Outstanding Motion Picture.