Personality: Dr. Hollee Freeman

Spotlight on co-founder and co-curator of City Bees RVA

7/7/2022, 6 p.m.
Dr. Hollee Freeman is helping to keep a vital community of workers buzzing — all 90,000 of them.

Dr. Hollee Freeman is helping to keep a vital community of workers buzzing — all 90,000 of them.

As an admirer of nature, she’s long been fascinated by honeybees and their world. As an educator, however, she is concerned by the lack of understanding students have for bees, their importance to human life as pollinators, and their complex societies.

In 2019, Dr. Freeman’s interest in bees further developed after a meeting with beekeeper Nikiya Ellis Chavis. Seeing Mrs. Chavis’farm led Dr. Freeman to take up beekeeping in earnest. After three years of training and managing beehives, she and Ms. Chavis cofounded City Bees RVA, and they now manage their own apiary, with an estimated 90,000 bees, to bring greater understanding to the critical role of bees in everyday living.

“Nikiya and I started City Bees RVA through a yearning to introduce the sacred art of beekeeping to the community,” says Dr. Freeman, “and thus provide a direct line from the honeybee population to crop sustainability and the overall health of the community.”

Since City Bees RVA started in April 2022, Dr. Freeman and Ms. Chavis have brought about 40 people of all ages to get a close view of the bees and apiary they manage through tours at the farm. The goal of the program is that guests will better understand the labor involved in beekeeping, honeybee history and biology and more.

In addition to the City Bees tours, Dr. Freeman has published a book about honeybees and apiaries, and is developing a film that documents the public’s response to City Bees. Judging by the responses so far, Dr. Freeman is convinced their work is having a positive impact by creating greater awareness about the importance of honeybees.

“People email us, text us and send us messages all the time—‘Oh, I saw a bee on my chair and I didn’t squish it, I shooed it away’,” Dr. Freeman says. “When people are sending us those messages just out of interest, we can then have a conversation that opens up the door for them to have a deeper conversation.”

Dr. Freeman plans to expand City Bees by establishing it as a nonprofit organization, which will enable it to apply for grants and create partnerships with local school systems for after-school programs and similar initiatives.

Dr. Freeman knows that the obstacles facing honeybees aren’t confined to an under-informed public. With the impact of climate change growing every year, many beekeepers, including Mrs. Chavis, have lost multiple hives over the winter.

Nevertheless, Dr. Freeman is optimistic about City Bees’ future, as the program resonates with those who experience it firsthand and inspires others to learn how to become beekeepers themselves. Those who do catch the bug for the profession seek Dr. Freeman’s advice about how to get started, which she believes is a sign of better things to come — for City Bees and the honeybees themselves.

“Folks are thinking about the relationship of bees to their own survival,” says Dr. Freeman, recounting her experience at a recent honeybee festival. “I was happily surprised that so many people were asking me ‘how do I get started beekeeping? Is there something I can read? Will your book help me understand how to be a beekeeper?’”

For Dr. Freeman, such questions are akin to the sound of bees humming.

“That gave me even more optimism that City Bees is on the right path.”

Meet the teacher and beekeeper everyone’s buzzing about, Dr. Hollee Freeman:

Volunteer position: Co-curator for City Bees RVA.

Occupation: Educator.

Date and place of birth: Nov. 1 in Richmond.

Where I live now: Chesterfield County.

Education: Bachelor’s degree, psychology and elementary education, Columbia University; master’s degree, special education, Bank Street College of Education; Ph.D., educational leadership, Boston College.

Family: Daughter, Danielle Freeman-Jefferson.

City Bees RVA is: City Bees RVA is an engaging, ecological, educational program that allows community members to work alongside two local beekeepers as they inspect and manage their colonies.

Co-founder: Nikiya Ellis Chavis.

Mission: The mission of City Bees RVA is to demystify our collective understanding of honeybees and educate the community on the importance of bees in our ecosystem, crop production and our lives.

When and how I got into bees: I have always been “knee-deep” in nature and interested in the complex world of bees. As an educator, I have always been disconcerted by the sound bites that students usually learn in school related to discrete facts such as the waggle dance that bees use to communicate the direction and distance of nectar and pollen—this is often taught to the exclusion of the importance bees (and other pollinators) bring to our lives and the complex colonies in which they live.

It wasn’t until I visited Nikiya at a farm in 2019 and noticed that she was a beekeeper. This hit me like a lightning bolt and I realized that with Nikiya’s support, that I too, could be a beekeeper and help the community understand the critical need of bees in our lives.

My beekeeping mentor is: Rick McCormick, master gardener and apprentice master beekeeper.

Why there is more to bees than just honey and avoiding being stung: Honeybees are one of the most efficient crop pollinators in our ecosystem. Over 250,000 species of flowering plants depend on the transfer of pollen, which honeybees do well. The environmental importance of bees cannot be understated. In addition to crop pollination, honeybees produce honey, pollen, royal jelly, beeswax, propolis and venom, which are all used for various nutritional and medical purposes.

Being Black and beekeeping: The cultural significance of beekeeping is one in which I am particularly interested. I have reached out and I am in contact with several Black beekeepers locally and around the world. The explicit through-line of each of these Black beekeepers is the solid connection to the land. There is also a gentleness, a reverence, if you will, to the art of beekeeping and interacting with bees. Perhaps it is the vibrational energy that bees emit that reaches into our soul and activates this symbiotic relationship. When we are beekeeping, a homage being offered to our ancestors in Africa, as well as those enslaved Africans dispersed throughout the Caribbean and the Americas who also participated in this sacred task.

Black women and beekeeping: We know that there are Black women beekeepers out there but Nikiya and I are not connected with any of them at the moment. Black women are caretakers, protectors, and sustainers—in my experience. Nikiya and I bring these ways of being to our work as beekeepers.

Beekeeping scene in Richmond: I am a member of the Rockwood Park Backyard Beekeepers Association. It is through this bee club that I have learned from hands-on experiences in the bee yards of other beekeepers in the Metro Richmond region.

Brief origin of beekeeping: Beekeeping has its origins in ancient Egypt, as early as 3500 B.C., where hives were maintained for crop pollination and honey extraction. Ancient Egyptians fashioned cylindrical hives out of mud and clay and stacked them for use by honeybees. Egyptians then put the hives on barges and sailed up and down the Nile River. When they found a field that needed pollination, they would place the hives in that location. They would then move the hives as needed to pollinate other areas along the Nile.

Historical symbolism of bees: There are important cultural, religious, and spiritual significance to honeybees dating back to the ancient Egyptians. Egyptians used honey as medicine, food sweetener, and as currency to pay fees. On hieroglyphics, you can see images of bees and beekeeping. The hieroglyphs also show that honey was placed in the mouths of statues and used in sacred ceremonies. The honeybee was the sacred symbol of the King of Lower Egypt and thought to the tears of the Sun God Ra. When Ra wept, the story goes, the tears fell to Earth as honeybees and pollinated the flowering crops that were found here.

Environmental advocacy and beekeeping: Bees are an important part of our ecosystem. Scientists suspect that bees are dying from many factors including, pesticides, habitat destruction, climate change, air pollution, nutrition deficit, proliferation of pests, and more. According to a nationwide study conducted by the nonprofit, Bee Informed Partnership, it is estimated that between April 2020 and April 2021, beekeepers lost nearly half of their managed honeybee colonies. Without bees, the availability of food and food-related products will drastically decline, and humans will undoubtedly suffer. Lower floral and fruit yields also mean less biodiversity which will impact the entire food chain down to the lowest, most minute levels.

Importance of teaching beekeeping to children: Children may be our greatest hope in mitigating the issue of climate change, use of pesticides and designating protected spaces for pollinators. Nikiya and I started City Bees RVA to bring the importance of beekeeping right to the doorstep (or the nearest garden) of children and their families. To date, we have provided hands-on experiences for a Girl Scout troop, school districts, afterschool programs, and community members interested in learning more about honeybees and beekeeping. To reach children in a different manner, I wrote “Beekeeping Besties: An Apiary Adventure” to share the experience from my first season of beekeeping with Nikiya. The book is full of mystery, particularly around finding the queen! Along with our beekeeping season in narra- tive form, “Beekeeping Besties,” provides readers a history of beekeeping, a glossary and other bee-related information. The book is on my website https:// www.holleefreeman.com/.

Where would our world be without bees: Nikiya and I repeat this often: No bees, no food. No food, no us (collec- tive us).

What it takes to be a beekeeper: To be a beekeeper you need to know why you are engaging in this activity. Beekeeping seems cool, and it is BUT it is also A LOT of work. One can easily spend hours inspecting and managing hives in the hot sun while friends are at a festival or the beach. If you decide to engage in beekeeping you must commit to provide the best pos- sible experience for bees and for yourself. This includes being present, consistent, organized and most importantly, you must be always in a learning mode. Bees will teach you a lot about themselves and about yourself.

Equipment needed: To work as a beekeeper you need to have access to one or more hives of honeybees. Hives consist of bees, frames, foundations and boxes. You don’t necessarily need a beehive in your own backyard. Beehives can be in a community garden, a neighbor’s yard, rooftop, etc. You will need a hive tool to remove propolis which will allow you to examine the frames in the colony. It is strongly encouraged that you have a smoker (to mask the pheromones of the guard bees), and a full bee suit with veil and gloves.

Money and beekeeping: City Bees RVA does not prioritize extracting honey from our hives for commerce. Our goal is to increase the honeybee population, first and foremost. However, beekeeping is a lucra- tive industry. Regionally, local honey can be purchased from local beekeepers for $12 per pound depending on the type of honey and location. Esti- mates differ, however a recent study from the University of California Agricultural Issues Center estimates that the U.S. honey industry’s total economic output is $4.74 billion.

Biggest takeaway since I started beekeeping: When beekeeping, I must be calm, focused, organized and in a posture of gratitude. I must be completely focused on what I am doing, alert to what is happening in the hive, in much the same way as when reading a book. In many ways, beekeeping is exactly like reading a book where the bee boxes are the covers, the frames are the chapters and the bees are the characters in the books.

How to get involved with City Bees RVA: To get involved with City Bees RVA, contact Nikiya Ellis Chavis or myself through social media (Instagram: City_ Bees_RVA) or send a message through my website.

Upcoming events: The honey flow season is coming to a close and we will be preparing for winter. There are two more opportunities to have a City Bees RVA experience on July 16 and Aug. 20.

A perfect day for me is: Riding my bicycle on the Capital Trail while witnessing the beauty of the landscape and the breeze that I experience when cycling.

What I am learning about myself during the pandemic: I have learned that even as a highly social and outgoing person, I also love and NEED to be still and quiet.

Something I love to do that most people would never imagine: I absolutely love NASCAR. The math and science of motor sports is amazing!

A quote that inspires me: “It’s not the critic that counts not the woman who points out how the strong she stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the woman who is actually in the arena...if she fails, at least she fails daring greatly, so that her place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory or defeat” (adapted from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech: “Citizenship of the Republic.”

My friends describe me as: Empathic and outgoing.

At the top of my “to-do” list is: What needs to be at the top of my to do list is to swim more regularly.

Best late-night snack: Popcorn.

The best thing my parents ever taught me: It’s not the load that breaks you, it’s how you carry the load.

The person who influenced me the most: My maternal grandmother was such a loving, kind-hearted person. She laughed often and a lot. Always quick to tell a joke and make folks feel comfortable and seen. She was the hit of the doctor’s office. I would like to be that old lady.

Book that influenced me the most: “Island of the Blue Dol- phins” by Scott O’Dell.

What I’m reading now: “Across Many Mountains” by Yangzom Brauen.

Next goal: My next goal is to publish my book about sea turtles based on an experience I had as part of a science delegation to Mexico more than 30 years ago.