Bee Friendly

Kate Franzman educates the public about pollinators

By Robin Winzenread Fritz

»From her humble beginnings on an abandoned DeKalb County farm to her present status as a full-on honeybee advocate and urban farmer, Kate Franzman, founder of Bee Public, is on a mission. And it’s not about the honey. For Franzman, saving bees, a vital aspect of Indiana’s food chain, starts by raising awareness. Through her organization, Bee Public, she’s doing it one school, one hive and one city at a time.

IMG_7787Growing up on a farm in Indiana in the 1970s, I remember honeybees were everywhere, but we just don’t seem to have them like we used to. Do you have memories of encountering bees as a child? Yes, that’s how my childhood was, but how soon we forget, right, that the world used to literally be crawling with bees, and to be stung as you were running through the clover was just something that happened? It wasn’t a big deal, because bees were everywhere. Where I grew up, we had fruit trees, the fruit would fall to the ground and begin to rot and attract all kind of bugs, including bees, and it’s just something I grew up being around. I was totally a free-range child, running around on this abandoned farm.

But when I do presentations at schools, from talking to kids today, that’s just not the case. Even, I think, for their parents, maybe my age or older, it’s a big fear for them that their child is going to be stung where, not that long ago, 20-, 30-plus years ago, bees were everywhere here in Indiana.

Your organization, Bee Public, aims to make Indianapolis a more bee-friendly city. Where does Indiana as a state and Indianapolis as a city stack up in terms of their bee friendliness factor? It’s kind of this strange juxtaposition in that Indiana is an agricultural state, that is our heritage, that is our identity, and yet there’s such a difference between what is sustainable for pollinators and what is, sort of, unsustainable. And this is a whole other conversation as farming and the agricultural industry have changed so much just in the last 50 years.

I think Indianapolis has the opportunity, because we have this agricultural identity, to really step it up and say we want to be a friend to pollinators, and hopefully, other cities in our state will follow suit.

What is the current state of colony collapse in Indiana? Is anyone out there keeping track on whether it’s getting better or worse? Colony collapse disorder is specific to honeybees because they live in this colony, this society, very different from the way other species of bees and pollinators live. And it’s definitely not subsiding. But all of our data is coming from commercial beekeepers. So it’s difficult to say because a beekeeper can, let’s say, have two hives, and if one dies, they can take the other hive and split it and still have two beehives. So it’s difficult to say.

And as much as I’m sure commercial beekeepers are trying to recoup their losses, at a 44 percent die-off rate from colony collapse and other factors, imagine if a beekeeper is making his or her living off of honey or selling their pollination services. They don’t want them to die, they want them to survive. But much as they’re trying to preserve their commodity, they’re losing 44 percent of their bees a year.

I can’t think of any other segment of the agricultural industry where, if they were dealing with a 44 percent average annual die-off rate, producers wouldn’t immediately be vocal about eliminating the causes. Exactly. If 44 percent of your cows died, that would be a big deal, right? I don’t know if this is the cause for that, but maybe people see bees as expendable. Maybe they just don’t look at bees in the same way they look at other creatures. Maybe they just have less reverence for bees than other creatures. I take the opposite view.

Commercial beekeepers aren’t the only ones impacted by colony collapse, though, are they? How does this disorder affect the average Hoosier?

»I manage two urban farm sites for a nonprofit, and we have a farm stand. And the number one question I get from people who may be new to gardening is, why didn’t I get any squash this year? And then I have to explain to them it’s because, for whatever reason, maybe you treat the heck out of your lawn, but for whatever reason, maybe there were no pollinators in your backyard. There’s just like a two-day window for pollination. Well, if you don’t have a lot of pollinators visiting your plants, then there’s a good chance you won’t get any fruit from your squash plants.

And that’s a glimpse into our future. If we lose all of our pollinators, we’ll have to do it by hand.

And it’s not just squash we would have to hand pollinate, right? What other fruits and vegetables are most dependent upon bees as pollinators? Honeybees definitely visit all kinds of flowers that are on fruiting crops. So squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, even things that we tend to harvest in small batches like herbs and lettuces and mustards, eventually they shoot out a flower because plants want to reproduce, and if left to their own devices, they will go to seed or bolt or flower and that’s when they are pollinated and can reproduce.

I like to offer this perspective when I’m talking to kids or adults, to really point out that we think that we are running the world, but really plants are running the world. They can’t get up and walk across the yard to pollinate so they have developed, over thousands and thousands and thousands of years, attractive flowers and tantalizing smells and shapes and colors to attract the pollinators, and they’ve developed this incredible relationship with pollinators.

Bee Public was launched in 2012 with the objective of making Indianapolis a more bee-friendly city. How are you achieving this?

»This year I helped set up five beehives at schools, and the schools will then take those beehives on as their own projects. But most of my energy with the public is speaking about bees to kids and adults. Originally, it was going to be about placing hives. But it really morphed from that into recognizing my mission is to use the skills I have to tell as many people as I possibly can about bees, and that’s what I’ve been doing.

You’ve had some interesting partnerships such as with the Indiana School for the Deaf, but also with the Indianapolis Museum of Art and Sidney and Lois Eskenazi Hospital. How do you work with these organizations to further your mission? With the IMA, I have ongoing programming with them. They have their own beehives already, and last year I participated as a camp counselor in their grownup summer camp. So I took all of these grownups on a tour and showed them the beehives and talked to them about bees. And this year I’m going to do the same thing, and I’m going to do another family day and talk to kids about bees and do an activity with them.

They (IMA personnel) haven’t really talked a lot about the beehives there. They’re kind of tucked away where you can’t find them easily, and they’re just there. So I’m partnering with the IMA to not only come up with some programming, but to be the amplifier of what they’re already doing there. They’ve got such beautiful grounds there, all kinds of flowers, it’s really a pollinator haven.

If organizations want to follow in the IMA’s footsteps, how do they sponsor or host a hive? Sometimes I get contacted by an individual or someone with lots of land who asks, “Can you put a beehive on my property?” And again, originally that’s what I thought I was going to do. But then I realized that I can make the most impact by placing beehives where they’re going to be seen. For instance, the one at Public Greens is along the Monon Trail, and thousands of people are going by and seeing it.

If I should partner with an organization, it has to meet those parameters. For instance, will there be programming surrounding it or will the hive be seen? I would love to have a hive at the racetrack or a hive on Monument Circle, for instance. I’m thinking really high impact. That’s where the public in Bee Public comes from.

So Bee Public’s primary focus really is on educating the public, particularly young people, about bees. Tell me about your education programming. Talking to kids, especially third, fourth and fifth grade, has become my absolute favorite thing to do, and this is not where I thought I was going with this at all. I thought I could only connect with adults because these are such big, complex subjects, but it turns out that kids get it, maybe even more so than adults do. I see the light bulb turning on, and I get thank-you letters from kids, these handmade letters, and they say things like, “I’m scared of bees and I will protect them. You changed my mind.”

A teacher dropped off a bunch of handmade notes at my house, and I was just sitting in my dining room crying because they are so sweet and so incredibly heartfelt and genuine and honest. To see this change happen right before your eyes, well, that’s what life’s about.

In the fall of 2015, you received a Nice Grant from Smallbox, a marketing firm in Broad Ripple, to help support your Save the Bees Indiana project. Tell me more about this project and how it enables you to spread the word about honeybees. Save the Bees Indiana is a collaboration between myself and Jim Poyser of Earth Charter Indiana and the Arts Council (of Indianapolis). What we did is we took part of what Jim had done a year ago — he did Save the Monarchs — so he suggested this year, why don’t we do Save the Bees? And naturally I was like, “Yes!” So getting that grant really helped to get what I was doing and what he had done and put it on steroids.

So we got the grant in the fall of 2015, and since then I’ve visited nearly 30 schools and given my presentation — and I’ve had a few schools come to me at one of the farms — and that’s about 1,800 kids. I’ve talked to all ages, preschool through high school. In some instances I talked to the entire student body all at once.

Jim really helped coordinate with the Arts Council the art exhibit we did. About 20 schools participated. They made 3-D sculptures; we hung them in the Arts Garden in April and May — they’re down now — but they were so cute and creative.

But we’re really partnering with art teachers and getting the students involved and displaying their art in a real gallery. I think art is an important component of any cause, so we really combined activism with education and art.

As part of that activism, you’ve taken a rather different stance than most beekeepers in that you don’t collect honey from your hives. What led to that decision? As I got into beekeeping, the more I became fascinated and invested, the less I really wanted to harvest the honey from the bees. Also, as the projects started to develop, I realized that, really, I want to put all of my energy into the education aspect, and, of course, I need to keep beehives, but really my energy is spent as an educator.

I also felt like I needed to approach it differently because of what I was reading about and seeing. For example, like the flow hives where you just basically have a faucet on the side of a beehive and you never have to open it or do anything; the honey just comes out, and that bothers me so much because that puts you so out of touch with the bees. And you really need to be incredibly in touch with these creatures.

So I decided that I wasn’t going to take the honey; I wasn’t going to sell the honey; it was just about pollination. Their odds are basically 50/50 anyway. I didn’t want to contribute to their demise. But it’s been so hard to explain that philosophy to a lot of people.

I have found, since making that decision, when people ask me, hey, where can I buy your honey, I can say, actually, I don’t take it. And they’re like, well, why? Why wouldn’t you? Well, I say, that’s the bees’ food. That’s what the bees eat. But a lot of people don’t realize that that’s what bees eat.

And I’ve heard all of these stories from casual beekeepers, professional beekeepers about how people are taking all of the honey and the bees will die, and I just don’t want to be associated with any of that, really, that greediness.

I support beekeepers who do it in a healthy way, but there are plenty of them who don’t. I like to be an example of another way to do things.

So, as that example, part of your mission is to educate people that it’s not just about the honey? We should know that there’s this ugly side of beekeeping, both in industrial and in hobby beekeeping. People are very greedy when it comes to honey. And it’s become this commodity and it’s really ugly, and so I’m taking the opposite philosophy and then sharing that philosophy when people ask about the honey. I use it as an ice breaker to say, well, actually, I don’t, and here are all of the other ways bees benefit us beyond honey.

And did you know that the reason we have food — one in three bites of food you eat — is made possible by bees? Most people don’t know that.

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