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Understanding the ‘power and majesty’ of bees with Hollee Freeman

Hollee Freeman standing between two beehives
Courtesy of Hollee Freeman
City Bees RVA
City Bees RVA "helps educate the community on the importance of bees in our lives."

Richmond Native Hollee Freeman is an award-winning educator, author and filmmaker. She’s written a series of children’s books called Muddy Ballerinas. Her latest venture, City Bees RVA, helps educate the community — especially people of color — on the importance of honeybees.

VPM News Morning Edition host Phil Liles recently spoke to Freeman.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Liles: Let's first talk about the children's books you've written. Why did you decide to write for children? And what are the messages you hope that they convey?

Freeman: Yeah, my first set of books are about a multicultural group of children based on my daughter, Danielle, and her friends. And I wanted to write that book to show the power of young kids from diverse backgrounds coming together to play, to plan parties, to do all of those things.

I feel like there was a dearth of those kinds of books out there. So, I wrote the book that I wanted to read.

Did you always want to be an author?
I've always journaled and I kept a little book in my backpack, and I would write notes. Then one day, probably 2017 or so, I tried to write children's books. I've written professionally; I'm an educator — so I've written lots of books, lots of articles and book chapters. And it just came to me that I wanted to read this book that I had inside of me.

We've got to talk about the bees. How did you get involved with beekeeping?
I was having a tough time in my job, and I kind of lost my soul. And it became an unsafe place for me professionally, personally, psychologically, emotionally. And I wanted to write a book about a colleague that I had who was a farmer. And I thought, ‘Who sees a Black woman farmer anymore?’ That really reminded me of my grandmother.

I went to visit her to write a book about farming, and she had beehives. I always wanted to have bees, but I just didn't know how to get into it. And when I saw her with her bees I asked, ‘Can I be your apprentice?’ I apprenticed with her for a season, and then became a tried-and-true beekeeper myself.

Why is it so important that Black people know about beekeeping?
We're living in a world where there's lots of trauma happening in the world, lots of stuff happening that's hard to figure out. And for me, beekeeping offers a sanctuary where I can kind of block out some of those experiences I'm having in the world walking around as a Black woman, and really find calm reverence in bees.

I think for Black, indigenous, people of color in particular who have connections to the land — not that other folks don't, but who have traditional cultural connection to the land — beekeeping is a way to reconnect culturally with a profession that's been going on for ages.

You also offer tours for folks who want to learn more about bees.
Yes. I bring folks to my apiary, my bee yard, and they can don the suits. I give them all the equipment and help them understand the power and majesty of bees, the cultural significance of bees, and the ecological significance of honeybees in particular. And folks can come and inspect the hive with me and learn firsthand about these amazing creatures.

Is there another book on the horizon?
I have another book called Bee Happy Nature Journal, which I'm waiting for the proof to come back. It's a 129-page book about the power of observation, writing, drawing and witnessing what happens in nature in order to strengthen our connection with nature. The book is going to be engaging for adults and children alike.

Phil Liles is VPM's morning news host.
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