Issue #67, Starting Over
The Queen Signal
The Queen Signal
Of the tens of thousands of honeybees in a hive, the queen stands apart. Her body is longer and fuller than the other females’, her wings shorter. The workers and drones cluster and throb around her, their sun.
Usually, the queen lives longest; her lifespan can stretch more than three to five years past the average worker’s. But sometimes she does not. Sometimes the colony finds itself hollow, without its heartbeat.
Around 50,000 bees and one queen have invaded the roof of my childhood home in Uvalde, Texas, making their way through the uppermost eastern corner, humming between wall and cream-colored exterior siding. They’ve been there a while, according to my dad. He says he and Mom noticed them months ago, when they were out in the backyard gardening.
As we wait for the one-man removal crew to show up, we sit outside, eyeing the bees from the far end of the lawn: Dad, my sister, Lindsay, five cousins, and me. We are sprawled in lawn chairs, with koozies wrapped around beer cans and thermoses of Crown and Cokes. Dad wears a ball cap over his salt-and-pepper hair (more salt these days) and the Longhorns sweatshirt he bought when I was in undergrad at the University of Texas. He mentions how, the first time they saw the bees, he swatted at them, and Mom scolded him for it.
We laugh. She didn’t mind creeping things, not the way Lindsay and I do, flailing and squealing dramatically when they enter our orbit. She was the one who crushed scorpions on the kitchen floor with little fanfare, or pretended to pluck wolf spiders from the wall and throw them at us as we shrieked and she cackled. She had strong feet, callused from a lifetime of walking barefoot—on our tiled floor, our stubby grass, and before that the hot, damp gravel of Galveston, and before even that the provinces of Mindoro, the island in the Philippines where she was born.
I don’t know what kind of ground she walked on as a child. I have only visited her village on Mindoro once in all my thirty-one years. It has paved roads now, and convenience stores that sell beer and sodas and candy. But I imagine there were dirt roads in her day, and palm-strewn concrete sidewalks cracked and blistered from the humid earth. I think she walked barefoot. Perhaps she had shoes. I might be confusing the Philippines with any third-world island nation; I might be confusing my mother with any of the brown, thin-armed, dark-eyed children in UNICEF commercials.
She didn’t mind the bees. But they have to go now, Dad says. I nod, listening to their distant collective hum. Lindsay, two years younger than I, keeps an eye on her dog, who is watching the bees flit around the roof corner. They have to go because they have begun to sting us.
It first happened just yesterday. The three of us stole a quiet moment on the patio chairs while the rest of the family gathered in the kitchen, organizing the latest delivery—foil trays of brisket and tamales and fruit and sliced bread. Our days have been a stream of soups, cold cuts, and homemade pan dulce delivered around the clock by people from town, as if they’re afraid Dad, Lindsay, and I will waste away. As if they know we secretly want to.
A buzz in my ear, a dark shape flitting dangerously close to my eyes. I swatted at it, then felt the small starburst of pain on my bicep. I yelped, smacked my arm. The bee dropped to the ground. The three of us leaned in to examine it—a small, striped thing, curled up in the crescent of death that we now recognize.
Nine days ago, when the men from the funeral home arrived—patients of my father who called him “Dr. Garza” and wiped tears from their eyes as they mentioned “Ms. Rose”—Lindsay ran so fast in her rush to get up the stairs and away that she tripped over her socks. Dad and I watched her go. I stood by his side while they explained the next steps, and when he curled his shoulders inward to weep, I tried to straighten mine, tried to be strong. They handed me paperwork, which I tucked into a blue folder someone from hospice had left.
Later I went upstairs. Behind the closed doors of my parents’ room I found my sister curled on top of the covers. She wore our mother’s bathrobe, the purple one we had bought her for Christmas ages ago that she had only worn a few times (“It’s too hot, anak”). Lindsay’s long hair was loose and tumbling over her face. She lay sideways, her eyes wide and red and staring at me and at nothing.
I closed the door behind me and crawled into the bed beside her. We didn’t touch. She isn’t like that, my little sister. I kept my arms at my side while she made raw sounds in her throat and burrowed deeper into the robe, away from me. When she finally spoke, she said, “It doesn’t smell like her.”
A colony communicates through pheromones, chemical signals cast off through specific glands. At its most basic level, the queen’s mandibular pheromone—the “queen signal”—alerts the hive to her presence. It regulates colony functions, imposing order and calm.
The queen signal acts physiologically. Through this signal, the queen can trigger complex responses in her bees that last their entire lifespans, shaping their current and future behavior from within.
“Mija,” my dad says, “will you get me a Miller?”
I maneuver slowly in the shadow of the humming, making my way toward the cooler and back.
Lindsay holds her dog, Colt—a shepherd-retriever-Oreo-cookie mix nearly as big as she is—by the collar. He sees Dad standing by the trailer the beekeeper has brought, and he wants to run to him. But Lindsay snaps out in her authoritative voice, “Sit!” When he plops his butt down next to her chair she tells him firmly, “Stay.” He listens to her almost always; he considers her his mom.
The beekeeper pulls on his gloves. They are thick and brown, padded around the fingers. They are startlingly dark against the mottled white of his protective suit and helmet and the gray mesh screen over his face. “They look like gardening gloves,” my sister says. “Are they even going to protect his hands?”
“They do look like gardening gloves,” I agree and sip my beer. They resemble the ones Dad has in a blue plastic bin buried in the cabinet above the washing machine. Mom’s pair is still there, too. Her gloves are small, child-size, with pink textured beads on the palms to help her grip things like weeds or rosebushes or fallen fragments of honeycomb, if she were here. My hands have the shape of my mother’s—broad and fleshy, with thick fingers—but mine are larger. Lindsay has her size, though, even with the long, pianist fingers of the Garzas.
We watch the bees hum and flit around the opening in the roof. Smoke drifts up from the spray can the beekeeper is assembling, that he will squeeze periodically to calm them. We don’t know whether it will work.
And I don’t know if my sister will take the gloves that fit only her hands. She can’t bring herself to try them on.
Lindsay kept Mom’s prayer book, bound in green leather. We spotted it on her nightstand next to seven rosaries of varying colors and two glasses of water, unfinished. Dad gathered up her pills. Medrol. Amicar. Surfak. He would need to dispose of them at his office.
Lindsay put the prayer book in her giant purse, tucking it between a bag of makeup and Colt’s leash.
I took one rosary, winding it around the gearshift in my car during my six-hour drive north to Denton, and my mother’s watch. The watch slips and shifts on my wrist—even after the weight loss her wrists were thicker than mine. I still wear it every day.
In a few months Lindsay and I will take a trip to Rome, just as we promised Mom we would. My sister, the nervous flier, will rest the prayer book in her lap, and when the plane shudders with turbulence somewhere over the Atlantic, she will hold the book flat between her hands, like an offering.
I will touch my watch, smudging its clear face. I will press my fingers beneath the silver-and-gold links, feeling for my pulse point.
The beekeeper is not a professional; he is an amateur. More than that, he is our friend: a retired pilot and engineer, an amateur at many things. He has three hives already on his property, and he is doing this for free.
He eases his truck and hitched flatbed in place just beneath the roof, where his scaffold will rise to put him level with the hive. We watch him set up, gear up. We take videos on our phone that we will laugh about later.
We eight—the five cousins, Lindsay and Dad and I—are the only ones brave enough, foolish enough, to stay outside during the removal. The rest of the family, adults and small children alike, remain inside the house, peeking out the windows on occasion to see the beekeeper’s progress.
It has been almost three weeks with the house this full, and still I’m not sure I know the extent of which aunts, uncles, cousins, kids of cousins, and in-laws are here. They are a constant thrum, a knot of bodies and faces and hands that move busily around my parents’ house, push me down into chairs, set plates of food or cups of coffee in front of me. They don’t expect me to put on makeup or even wash my hair. When I want stillness in the middle of all that movement, there are twelve, thirteen, maybe twenty sets of shoulders and laps that I can put my cheek against.
The most common species of honeybee in Texas is not native. Colonists were responsible for bringing Apis mellifera, the European honeybee, to North America. But some scientists hypothesize that the bee is not truly European at all, that A. mellifera spread first from the Middle East or Africa before crossing the Atlantic. Bound for the west.
The Garza women were making tamales when they first met Rose Rivera. It was December, and the cold had finally arrived in Brownsville. They had picked a weekend and devoted it to the process of the season’s tamale-making: the grinding, kneading, and slapping of meat with masa harina. The shaping. The corn husks. The rolling, rolling, rolling. And, just as constant, the gossip—the chisme, chisme, chisme.
The women knew their brother Steve was bringing his new girlfriend. Some nurse he had met at the hospital in Mission—an Asian. An immigrant. My father’s mother, his grandmother, and his four sisters clucked with disapproval. Where was that other girl he had dated for a while? She was a Valley girl. They had liked her. They wouldn’t like this outsider.
Rose walked in, and even in high heels she was a foot shorter than the smallest of the sisters. She wore a flowy skirt and a blazer over her red blouse. Her hair was thick and black, falling straight around her shoulders, and her skin was much browner than theirs—Garzas run fair, Spanish conquistadors somewhere on the family tree.
Steve introduced her. “Rose,” she said, laughing, a small woman with a big voice that said she knew how to make herself heard in a large family. “Can I join you?”
I’ve heard this story many times: how she took off her blazer and rolled up her sleeves to dig her hands into the meat. How she charmed the chisme out of them. How that was the night they fell in love with her, weeks after my father already had. It doesn’t seem true, anymore—surely she had flaws, acted awkward, felt threatened. Just as my sister and I, years later, now feel clumsy and brash and speak too sharply around the families of new boyfriends. Didn’t we get this from her?
No, my relatives insist. That is how it was: that flawless, that quick.
Our friend sprays smoke and we watch. It’s boring, for a while. He alternates between spraying and reaching into the gaping mouth he has pried open in the siding to pull out chunks of sticky-looking orange matter. He drops them unceremoniously onto the ground from his height. Dad, down below, peers at them. “Honeycomb,” he shouts to us from across the lawn.
Lindsay’s dog gallops over to a piece of the fallen comb and nibbles on it despite the bees still crawling across it. We see Colt sneeze, then sneeze again. He yelps. Then he paws frantically at his snout. Then he takes off, running circles around our lawn, snorting and pawing, Lindsay yelling and chasing after him with the water hose, the rest of us doubled over with laughter, spilling Coke onto our jeans.
A hum sounds, too close to my ear. Something buzzes past and brushes my hair. I scream.
Bees—only workers, females—sting when they sense a threat. Simultaneously, they cast off alarm pheromones to call in their kin.
Through the cruelty, or perhaps kindness, of biology, a honeybee is permitted only one sting. When she stings a mammal, she cannot remove the barbed stinger again. After she jabs, she instinctively wrenches herself free, and in so doing she leaves behind the stinger, part of her abdomen, digestive tract, muscles, and nerves. She tears herself apart.
A few weeks after the bees are gone, Lindsay and I will gather the courage to go through my mother’s closet. We will sort through her clothes, the piles of souvenir T-shirts and patterned hospital scrubs that she stockpiled. We will finally empty the oversized Brighton purse that holds her wallet, makeup bag, crumpled receipts with the print of her mouth where she blotted her plum-red lipstick, the case of perfumed powder she carried around to dry and cool her skin. Her work ID with her titles—Rosemarie R. Garza, PhD, M.Ed., RN—and an old picture from before she lost weight. Her cheeks are plumper, her hair streaked with blond highlights. There’s the small smile she always used in poses, and the tilt of her head to make her round face look slimmer, a trick I have learned too.
Here is the smell. Lindsay will put her face in the purse as if trying to wear it. She will not only let me hold her, she will sink into me.
Suddenly, more bees are zipping past us, buzzing in our ears, tangling in our hair. We eight rise up as one and split, scatter, run. Swat at our hair and around our faces, shrieking. Colt barks and chases after us, weaves in between our legs so we stumble.
Somewhere in the melee Norman gets stung when a bee alights on his forehead and zaps between his eyes. Same with Dad, but on his cheek. Lisa runs past me, recording with her phone’s camera. The footage shows her laughing in place, spinning to catch all of our frantic movements before she squeals and drops the phone. “It bit me! It fucking bit me!”
One by one we dash around the length of the house to the front door. Dad waves us in as if he were a fireman leading an evacuation. “Go, go, go! Move, move, move!”
We collapse: on the carpet, on the couch, in each other’s arms. The rest of the family, watching us chase and run, has been hooting with delight. We join in now, howling with laughter. We are crying from it.
We will realize later, long after the bees have gone, how the strangest part was the laughing—how funny it all was. How, despite the pain, we not only had found something to laugh at, but were powerless against it, only days—days—after the men from the funeral home came and after her hospital bed was removed from the living room where she once sat on the couch and pretended to throw spiders at me. The lightness of it, after all that weight.
Worker bees, the females, perform all colony maintenance tasks. Though they tend to be the smallest bees, they clean and remove debris from the hive, build wax combs, distribute any incoming nectar, forage for pollen, guard the entrance, and feed and rear the brood of wriggling young. Each worker performs specific tasks based on her age. But they all care for the queen. She calls to them, her retinue.
Four years ago, in our living room, she rolled her eyes when I asked her if she was disappointed. She did that loud, gentle smack of her hand against my thigh. “Anak, you’re being silly,” she said aloud.
“But you don’t have grandkids yet,” I reminded her. I don’t say that her best friend had told me she was upset about it, that she was lamenting not yet having grandchildren to snuggle and spoil, despite being fifty-eight, with two grown daughters.
“When it’s time, it will be time,” she said, patting instead of smacking my leg. “God is good and knows all things.” She knew I tuned out when she got particularly in-your-face Catholic. She always sensed when I was doing it and turned up the dial on her clichés just to aggravate me. “We are in His hands. Everything will happen for a reason. Trust in the Lord, anak.”
“Okay, okay, Mom.”
She saw the annoyance on my face and grinned, then poked me in the side until I laughed.
“Finish your schooling first.”
I had my master’s; I didn’t plan on a PhD. I also didn’t have the heart to tell her that.
“I’m not in a rush to be a grandma. We have plenty of time.”
When we get the nerve to open the window shades, we call out to the beekeeper to check his progress. “I’ve got almost all of it,” he shouts down. He’s going to finish gathering what he can from our roof, then he’ll drive off with the boxes filled with bees and comb. “I’m pretty sure I got the queen.”
“How will you know?” we ask.
“If they clear out once I’m gone, it means I’ve got her. The rest will scatter.
Without her, they won’t know what to do.”
When the queen dies, the queen signal dies, too.
The worker bees grow frantic. They immediately attempt to rear an emergency queen from among the young brood. They renovate breeding cells into so-called queen cups—roughly the size of a peanut shell, suspended vertically on the hive—to mature successor eggs or larvae. They guard the heirs apparent; they wait for close to two weeks to see if, within the comfort of the cups, another queen is growing.
If they are successful, the new queen is the first to leave her cup. She kills the other pretenders, mates with the drones, lays eggs.
If they are unsuccessful, the colony unravels. The workers’ ovaries, long kept inactive by the queen pheromone, suddenly burst with fertility. They lay eggs upon eggs upon eggs that mature into useless drones, males whose only role is to mate with the absent queen. They are unable or unwilling to perform any foraging or honey-producing or hive-defense. Preoccupied with eggs, the worker bees shirk their own duties. The hive grows disorganized and dirty, vulnerable to threats, ravenous. The colony pulses with activity and new life for a short time before it withers away.
A colony has only one queen.
Before the beekeeper leaves, my family sends me out with a wide-mouthed mason jar, and he drops in two pieces of golden comb, swollen with honey, guarded by three bees who won’t abandon post.
I clamp the lid down and bring the jar inside, placing it on the kitchen table. We take turns crowding around, turning it in circles. The three bees crawl over the wax slowly, stumbling, dipping their feet in honey, smearing it across the glass, dropping into the pools collecting at the base of the jar. They look drunk. At sea.
Worker bees are innately hardwired for their jobs, usually as brood nurses caring for the larvae and the queen. But as they mature, many nurses switch roles—they become foragers, required to venture out from the hive in search of pollen. When brood caregivers are required again, some foragers can revert back to being nurses. They physically change their chemistry through epigenetics, a biological process. Chemical markers attached to genes regulate how those genes are expressed; epigenetic processes can turn a gene on or off. Nurses become foragers become nurses: gene pattern shift gene pattern shift gene pattern. Reset. Restart.
In the months to come, when we are no longer under the same roof, I will call my dad to check on him and tell him about my day. He will do the same. Little changes. We will feel stuck. We will not talk about that.
One day we will discuss his trip to Houston, to the cemetery. He will describe the flowers he is gathering, the arrangements he will place around her temporary marker. The whole family will be there with him. Lindsay, too; she’s off that weekend.
But I can’t spare the ten hours it would take to drive to Houston and back. So, my voice will catch in my throat. Just once, but he will hear it. And in one beat my father’s voice—so steady all my life —will tremble and choke, too. I will hear him sob into the phone. It will scare me. It will never stop scaring me.
I will snap to attention. My tears will dry up as if they were not there, and my voice will become confident, firm. I will say not to worry about me. I will tell him she would be so happy that he is thinking of her, bringing flowers. I will say I love him I love him I love him. My father will cry, but I will suddenly know the ways to comfort him.
Our friend drives off with most of the hive in his crates, and we watch from inside the house. Queenless, the remaining bees are lost.
They take wing, flying separately in no pattern at all. Roaming, circling, frantic. They fill the sky above our patio, and the air around our live oak trees, like starlings. So many do we see, so thick do they black out the blue, that it seems impossible that any portion of them has been taken away.
They can’t settle on a place to land; they swirl and swerve and crash into each other like blown leaves. I imagine the signals they shared, scattered. I imagine their queen’s pheromones fading away, as new, threatening scents the bees don’t recognize take over.
Dad stands beside me and Lindsay, looking out the window. The beekeeper has told us it will take a few hours, but they will eventually swarm. They will collect onto a spot, like a tree branch or a shrub, and call to one another to gather. It looks like they won’t, but they will. Just wait.
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