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Lessons from Queen Catherine

It’s mostly the weather that dictates the end of the season for the beekeeper. Once the daytime temperatures remain below about fifty degrees, our beloved friends form a cluster within the hive, working through the winter months to stay warm while keeping their precious queen safe. It’s too late to go in the hives anymore this season. At the end of last week, I put a sugar board on each of my seven colonies for extra food, in case they eat through their honey stores before the first blooms of spring. A box of pine shavings was placed under the lid of each hive to absorb moisture, and each was wrapped in tar paper to hold a bit of sun to help with keeping the cluster warm. Ratchet-strapped and buttoned up for the weather, the bees are on their own to face the depths of winter. 

He doesn’t want to go to school. He says he doesn’t like school anymore. The bus comes, though, and takes him away. I wonder if I’ll hear from the school as I have so many mornings before. I wonder if I will hear of all of the things that he did or didn’t do; I wonder if I will feel all the ways that I have come up short and all of the things I should have done better.

Spring, as is often the case, held great promise far beyond the warming sun and fresh blooms. We had harvested gallons of honey from the Catherine hive, named after my apple-dumpling making grandmother, the previous two seasons. None of the other three hives, though all had made it through the winter, came close to Catherine. At first peek, Catherine appeared robust, bursting with bees. I had hoped to divide this hive again, hoping, too, that they wouldn’t swarm to divide themselves before the weather allowed me to attempt the split. 

From time to time, it seemed things were going better at school. Not easy, not even well, but it had been a few weeks since I had been called to pick up my son when things had spun out of control. Maybe I got complacent with the hives and with the children.

The dandelion bloom heralds the spring nectar flow. The foragers have been working for a while with maple pollen and maybe some fruit tree blossoms, but the gold-filled pollen baskets on the legs of the worker bees making their way back to the hive is a sure sign that the heart of bee season has arrived. The time has come when the beekeeper can safely inspect her colonies. 

I could tell right away that something was wrong. Catherine’s frames were full of brood, but not the suede-looking worker bee brood that signals a healthy laying queen. Rather, the brood resembled bubble wrap, puffy, spotty, and a telltale sign that there was a problem with Queen Catherine. It took some late-night YouTube sessions, questions to my wise beekeeping mentor, and lots of time spent in my online support group to figure out that I had a drone-laying queen. This is not good; I had to find her in a colony of perhaps 50,000 bees. I had to capture Queen Catherine. I had to kill her in order to try to save the Catherine hive. Sometimes we have to make hard decisions for the good of the colony.

This has been a year of strength and sadness, of richness and defeat. A year of great loss, but also one of great promise. This has been a year of realizing that sometimes what we think is enough may just be too much. It’s hard to let go of what we know–what we believe to be the right path. Maybe we could have changed the course had we known. But we didn’t. 

Despite the hard work of those who understood and the best attempts by those who really didn’t, it wasn’t enough. It was all too much. Sometimes I wonder how he made it as far as he did, but we knew, as perhaps we had for a while, that the time had come. It was hard to leave it all behind, to hold a brave shield to the fears and to all that had brought us to this day. We hold our breath and wonder where he fits–where we fit.

I couldn’t split Catherine this year. I did, though, find the queen. Twice, because she flew from my shaking hands the first time I had her. Two weeks later, determined and resigned, I finally got her. That was the end of the original Queen Catherine. I was able to give the colony a frame of eggs from another hive, so they set to work making a new queen. In the meantime, I got a nucleus colony from my trusted beekeeper supplier,”just in case.” This became Kera, my resource colony, which I planned to use to support my other hives.

It turns out I made a mistake with Kera. I had used the wrong size hive body on this resource colony, and by the time I realized this, the bees had begun drawing comb that extended beyond the frames. I ordered the right size, but by the time I had the box in hand, Queen Kera had packed the fresh comb with worker bee eggs and, suede-looking brood. It was too late to change out the box; all those future bees would be lost if I did. I closed the hive, hoping–trusting–that the bees would be just fine. I knew that there was nothing more for me to do. 


The bus comes early for the long ride to the new school. We wonder if this year will be any different. We wonder if this is where he belongs–where we belong.

There was only a frame or two of honey to harvest from Catherine this year. I like to think, though, that she gave us much more during the season than a few 12-ounce bear-shaped bottles of gold. When the time comes for me 

to open the hives again in the new year, I’ll remember the work I did–and didn’t do–this past season. All the little things I wondered about and worried over were closed up and sealed with duct tape. I’ll hold my breath each winter morning as I press my ear to the hives, listening for the buzz that tells me, “right now, in this moment, we’re okay.” 

That, for now, is enough.

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