Autumn Schoen is a new beekeeper from the Philadelphia area. Autumn works with young children both professionally, and as mother of two and a half year old Catherine, so she is no stranger to navigating the often sticky relationship between kids and bees. But this past April, she and Catherine took their mother-daughter relationship with bees to the next level, hiving their first colony together with their friends at Brooklyn Grange; not too many mothers can say they are teaching their kids the art of beekeeping, especially at such a young age! Autumn, along with her devilishly handsome husband John, are looking to establish a gentleman's farm in Maine with the hope of having five hives on their blueberry barrens. In celebration of Mother's Day, we've asked Autumn what it is that drew her to beekeeping, and why she felt compelled to share that passion with her daughter.
Did you learn the art of beekeeping from someone?
I took a one day class led by a master beekeeper. It was a wonderful start to this adventure, but mostly it has been trial by sting.
What part of the hive's operations do you find most fascinating, brutal, and/or beautiful?
I find the communication between bees so fascinating. Waggles to pheromones... Amazing.
The crowing of a new queen is by far the most brutal, with a fight to the death and the last standing virgin queen taking her throne.
For me, the most beautiful aspect of a hive is a very selfish and personal one. My grandmother, Baba, was Ukrainian and taught me the wonderful art of Pysanky which is much like batiking an egg. Bees' wax is the only kind of wax that can be used, as it takes on an elastic like element when heated that allows you to pull it along the shell, leaving your design behind. When I was about 12 years old, Baba looked at my egg and said, "Huh, your eggs are better than mine. I guess I can die now." Lucky for our family, our peanut-sized spitfire of a matriarch stayed with us for another decade and a half. To this day, the smell of beeswax transports me to Baba's kitchen.
When was the first time you and Catherine talked about bees? Was she afraid of them?
My first bee discussion with Catherine was prompted by her first bee sting. We were in my parents' backyard and she plucked a bee off of a flower. After lots of kisses and a hug from Dad, we chatted about bees being bees and all the beeing they do. We walked to the apple tree and had a discussion about pollination and she thanked the bees for her apple juice.
Amazingly enough, Catherine is fearless of bees. I have found teaching respect is key to keeping fears at bay. Teaching Catherine that bees sting for very specific reasons as well as the importance of bees in our world has allowed her to appreciate bees and never see them as a threat. When her friends exhibit fear, she tells them they should just stay calm, take a deep breath and let them be bees.
Were you nervous to have Catherine around so many stinging insects on hiving day? Did she enjoy it?
I must admit, there was a moment when we were hiving that I looked over at Catherine with 20,000 bees buzzing around her and I needed to catch my breath. I quickly reminded myself that I just had to let them be bees and find their queen. The moment passed and I was able to watch the wonder and awe my daughter had when she welcomed the bees to their new home.
Do you have any advice for the parents of kids who are afraid of bees?
From dentists to spiders, heights to bees, one of the hardest parts of parenting is not placing our fears on our children. Stay calm, take a deep breath and let them be bees.
What lessons do you think bees and beekeeping can teach young kids?
Teaching the importance of the place bees have in this world has allowed me to show children that there are no small beings. It has also allowed me to show children the amazing power of communication and cooperative work.
What's your favorite way to use honey? What's Catherine's favorite way to eat honey?
Lately, I have been pushing my honey limits and infusing. I am enjoying pulling honey out of the sweeting and baking world and incorporating it onto my stovetop to enhance entrees; my favorite two thus far have been ginger and cayenne. This being said, honey drizzled over homemade pear ice cream is one of the most incredible treats ever.
Catherine prefers her honey straight-up, using her finger as the go between.