Elizabeth Downs is a skilled beekeeper. She has her own hive, lovingly dubbed “Eeez Beez,” that she tends to every other week. Even though Downs only started beekeeping in May, she already has an eye for healthy brood patterns, a knack for turning frames and a steely fearlessness in the face of stinging swarms.
Unlike most other beekeepers at her level, though, she is still in elementary school. At seven years old, Downs is also currently the youngest member of the Penobscot County Beekeepers Association.
“I’m the only person in my school doing this,” Downs said. “[My classmates at Holden Elementary School] think it’s cool.”
How did a 7-year-old start beekeeping?
Like most kids’ hobbies, a stray thought about bees suddenly turned into an obsession for Downs. For a few seasons now, she has gardened at her house in Eddington (her favorite crop is cucumbers, and she said her younger brother and older sister “barely help” in the garden) with her mother, Rachel Downs. Once Elizabeth Downs learned from her mother’s friend (and fellow gardener) Dave Oliver how important pollinators are to a healthy garden, she started asking her parents if she could get bees of her own.
As any good mother would do, Rachel Downs supported her daughter’s new interest.
“She wanted to do it so I supported her,” she said. “My children are all interested in different things and I support them all.”
Oliver introduced the Downs to beekeeper David Fiacco through. Fiacco, who is also the director of community standards, rights and responsibilities at the University of Maine, had been keeping bees for a few years and had a few hives in his backyard.
Rachel Downs asked Fiacco if her daughter could stop by and look at the bees. When they visited, Fiacco loaned Elizabeth Downs a beekeeping suit that was far too big (Downs has since acquired a child’s suit sized for her 7-year-old frame) and the two inspected his hives together.
“She was a natural,” Fiacco said. “She’s like a kid scientist. She has a really good understanding of the impact [bees] have on the environment as well.”
Soon after, he offered her a hive of her own.
“I was speechless,” she said.
“She is never speechless, and she was speechless that day,” her mother said with a laugh.
Elizabeth Downs’s hive, which is in Fiacco’s backyard alongside his own, is brightly color-blocked purple, yellow, green and blue. She painted it herself.
“I was going to do black and yellow, but I didn’t have any black paint,” she explained.
But it was Fiacco who added the cut-out letters that read “Eeez Beez.” He has happily stepped into the role as her beekeeping mentor, though he admitted that he learns about as much from her as she does from him.
“It’s hard to find people who want to do this,” he said. “Now, I feel like I have a partner I can chat with.”
Tending to a hive with Elizabeth
Away from the hive, Downs is a bashful, precocious 7-year-old. She answers questions about her beekeeping hobby with a shy simplicity.
“I like [beekeeping],” she said. “[My brother and sister] tease me. They say I’m weird because I like to do it.”
At the hive, though, Downs is dauntless and self-assured. She dons her bee suit, pulls a wagon full of equipment over to the hives and gets to work. Downs starts by smoking the bees to subdue them, squeezing the bellow of a stainless-steel smoker with her tiny hands. She orders her mother and “Mr. Fiacco” around as she removes frames to check the brood patterns (sometimes, the frames are too heavy for her to lift on her own).
“Holy smokes, this is covered in honey!” she shrieked, attempting to lift a comb-filled frame.
Downs explained that beekeepers usually harvest honey once a year, generally in the late summer. Because her hive is new, though, she did not harvest honey this year, but she hopes next year to have a bumper harvest. Downs deftly turned a frame in place — in an attempt, she explained, to coax more honey from her bees.
“She learned that in a meeting,” Rachel Downs said. Fiacco admitted that, while he is familiar with the turning technique, he has yet to use it on his own hives.
“She’s so attentive and precise about what she’s doing,” he said.
Elizabeth Downs also keeps a keen eye out for varroa mites, which attack bees broods and threaten the hive.
“They’re like ticks for bees,” Downs said. Then, she turned Fiacco, with bellicose urgency. “I see mites at the bottom, how do we get that out?”
The bees don’t scare Downs. She has been stung before — she forgot to wear long socks one day and a bee stung her exposed ankle — and the incident kept her away from beekeeping for a little while, she said, but that fear didn’t last long. Now, she giddily watches as bees attempt to sting through the protective clothing.
“I saw the stinger coming out,” she said, holding a bee up on her glove. “That was so cool.”
Fiacco believes that the often overblown fear of bee stings leads to missed opportunities for kids to get into beekeeping.
“[They’re] natural and appropriate fears, but there are always challenges and it’s easy enough to find solutions,” Fiacco said. ”[Bees] are misunderstood, but not by her.”
Kids in beekeeping
Downs doesn’t mind being the youngest member of the beekeeping club. She said it’s exciting, and she enjoys going to meetings. The next meeting of the Penobscot County Beekeepers Association is on Halloween, and Downs has already asked her mother if they can cut trick-or-treating short so she can attend.
“We are delighted to have Elizabeth in our club,” said Peter Cowin, president of the Penobscot County Beekeepers Association and a BDN columnist also known as the Bee Whisperer. “She has been attending club meetings and events for several months now. I was impressed with her knowledge and keen-eyed observations.”
Rachel Downs said that everyone in the club has been welcoming and supportive of the young beekeeper.
“I joke at meetings that she’s the beekeeper and I’m the driver,” Downs said.
“That’s technically true,” Elizabeth Downs said.
Through the Penobscot County Beekeepers Association, Downs has had the chance to hobnob with some of Maine’s beekeeping bigwigs.
Jennifer Lund, the state of Maine apiarist and bee inspector, met Downs at one of the Penobscot County Beekeepers Association’s “Open Hive Days.” She said that the club usually asks her to come once a year to do a demonstration at these events. The 7-year-old beekeeper volunteered to help out.
“She was my assistant the last time I went in August,” Lund said. “It was quite adorable. She knows quite a bit about beekeeping.”
Downs is not the only young beekeeper in Maine, though. For example, Lund said that there elementary school down in Georgetown where students aged kindergarten through third grade work in the hives, and she knows of several young beekeepers throughout the state who help with their parents’ hives.
Downs is still unique, though, in that she has her own hive that she maintains. Still, Lund said that there aren’t many young beekeepers around.
“This is really her endeavor,” Lund said. “There’s not very many that age.”
Experienced beekeepers who have interacted with the Downs are optimistic about her ability to inspire other young people to start beekeeping.
“I envisage Elizabeth having both an enjoyable time keeping bees, but also inspiring other young people to participate,” Cowin said. “It is great to see young people getting involved in such a fascinating and important activity.”
Downs has a similar — albeit, more nebulous — vision for her future. She said she wishes that more kids her age would start beekeeping so they could talk about their hobby together.
“I want to have a bee school so people can learn about bees and what you need to do,” Downs said.
How she would go about doing this, she isn’t quite sure. She’s only seven, after all. She has no idea what she wants to be when she grows up, though she is positive she’ll keep beekeeping through middle and high school. For now at least, she just wants more hives.