The plot twist…that moment in a story when an event or experience dramatically shifts the future direction of the storyline and all the characters involved. I’ve always found these moments fascinating in real life, and so I started this new, recurring series—called “The Twist”—where I talk to entrepreneurs and explore the plot twist that led them to start their businesses.
Kate Franzman is the founder of Bee Public, an Indianapolis organization focused on building bee habitats around the city and educating kids and adults on the necessity of bees in sustaining our own. She’s an unabashed introvert who passionately finds her voice when speaking on behalf of her bees. Last month, we grabbed coffee and talked a bit about her journey from corporate life to urban-agrarian living.
Joe: So you’re a beekeeper. When you were a kid what did you think you would do for a living? How does being a beekeeper jive with that vision?
Kate: When I was little I loved animals. I’ve always loved animals. The first thing you jump to when you’re a kid is, “I love animals. Okay, I’ll be a veterinarian.” I thought I was going to be a veterinarian for a really long time. But at some point, and my mom really instilled this in me, I had this vision that I was going to be a modern woman who ran a magazine. An editor, like a Lois Lane kind of person. I really did follow that trajectory when I went to school for journalism and then pursued broadcast journalism. I then worked for NUVO, and I still freelance write for Indianapolis Monthly and other publications. That’s definitely part of it, but really she instilled in me, “You are a strong and independent woman.” She named me after Katharine Hepburn…
Joe: Oh, wow.
Kate: …and she just had this vision for me that really did pan out in a strange way. To that same effect, she and her mom—my Nana—were, and still are, gardeners. I grew up on a farm that was no longer functioning, so it was a big farmhouse with an empty chicken coop and an empty barn. I’m an only child, so I just roamed out in nature in the woods. I got mosquito bites and ticks. I came back all messy and made tree forts. I was a tomboy. We had six cats and three dogs. No farm animals, but I was just surrounded by nature and bugs and dirt.
That was how I grew up. I grew up with a mom who was gardening, growing our food and she cooked a lot. All of that—being surrounded by that—and my mom’s side of the family is crazy about food. (We have these incredible nine-course meals every time we get together.) Growing up that way made me really care about the things I care about now, even though I didn’t realize that I did until I got to the point where I could make some decisions.
Joe: Where was home? Indiana?
Kate: Yeah, I grew up in Auburn, Indiana. Just outside of Auburn. I went to school at DeKalb High School. I did show choir and theater in high school. It was a rural setting and a lot of the kids I went to school with, their parents were farmers. But the farming was so different from what I think of as farming now. Farming, to me at that time, seemed somehow unattractive. Growing up in the middle of a bunch of soybean fields didn’t seem like anything interesting to me. It’s funny that I grew up in that setting, and now I’m bringing that to the city.
Joe: What’s the attractive part about it now?
Kate: It’s the philosophy that everything is connected. It’s sustainable. The way that we farm is sustainable and paying attention to the setting—not only the people in the community, but also the land itself.
For example, a good sustainability practice is to plant things that flower in addition to your vegetable for a few reasons. We plant clover because it puts nutrients back into the soil. It blooms and provides food for pollinators. So you’re attracting pollinators to your vegetables, which is important. But also, it just makes sense. Why wouldn’t you do that? A lot of industrial agriculture has gotten away from that. In this country, we’re using machines, and we’re pillaging the soil.
I think it’s so attractive to me because I’m more than ever realizing how everything is connected to each other. That is something that I learned a lot about when I left advertising and started farming with Growing Places Indy. Realizing that, truly, everything is connected whether or not you want to admit it. It really is.
Joe: Tell me about the jump from corporation to cultivation. Was it just the time to do it? Was there some event that took place where you were just like, “I can’t do this anymore. I have to go do this.”
Kate: It was a confluence of things. It was a good time where everything lined up at the right moment, even though some of it was uncomfortable.
I’d just gone to Europe for the first time. I felt like it was a transitional time. I was 27, 28. That’s when you look up and say, “Okay. I’m here. I did it. Got a job. I’m working it, I’m doing it.” Then, you look around and you’re like, “Okay. What am I going to do? What is my personal mark going to be?” People get that urge earlier; some people get it much later. I got that urge to really find purpose right then.
Joe: What was that transition like? Did you have one foot in each place for a while?
Kate: Sort of. I was mentally in two places at once because I really wanted to pursue that. Bee Public was something that came to me a few years before I stopped working in advertising. The only way that it was planned was that I said it out loud and then it happened.
I didn’t know one thing about beekeeping except that bees were important to us because they provide pollination, which provides us our food. I just knew this, but a lot of people don’t realize that connection. It always seemed important to me. I had always been fascinated by this urban homesteading—sustain yourself, grow your own food, have chickens, whatever. And I was having lunch with a friend and was sort of like having a crisis. “I don’t know what to do. I did was I was supposed to do. I went to college. I got a degree. I got a job. I got another job and I moved my way up. Now, I have this great job. It pays a lot. I have benefits and health insurance but I feel something….” I didn’t feel that I was fulfilling my purpose.
I didn’t know what to do, but over lunch with that friend I said, “Everyone in the city’s getting chicken coops. Why isn’t anyone doing this with bees? We depend on bees for our food. Why isn’t anybody doing that with beehives?”
And of course, my instinct as a journalist is to tell everybody about something I know in whatever means possible. And because my background is in marketing and advertising and journalism, I started where I was at. I came up with this idea for this project. Named it. And I’m not a designer, but I made a logo in PowerPoint.
Joe: Somewhere a designer just started crying.
Kate: Exactly. I had a couple friends help me make it look better, more recently. But that’s how I started. Just slapped a bunch of stuff up there on a Tumblr and did what I knew how to do. I know how to do social media so I did that.
Then, at that same time, Jeb Banner had just started doing Nice Grants at SmallBox. I applied for one and got it. And I was like, “Oh, my God. Someone believes in me.” I got a thousand bucks to buy some beehives.
Joe: So then tell me about your segue into farming.
Kate: I applied for an apprenticeship with Growing Places Indy, who does an apprenticeship program every summer, and I felt, “What a great way to transition into something.” Because of Bee Public, I was already starting to create these relationships with urban farmers. We have, within the city, four or five different farms, and I wanted to put beehives on their farms. I didn’t have a yard or a balcony, and it made sense to me to put a beehive where your food is so they can help pollinate it. The connection’s clear.
Joe: Did the farmers get the connection?
Kate: Some did. A lot of farmers are way too busy to even think about that. Planting flowers is an easy way to attract pollinators that are already in the area. So that was how I approached it. “Let me manage the bees. It’s free for you. I really believe in providing this service for free to you. I don’t want to charge you to put a beehive here.”
And that was the first time I realized I’m a terrible business person.
Joe: Yeah, how do you make money off this?
Kate: There are other beekeepers, obviously, who make their living off of selling honey. I got into it and was like, “I don’t want to charge people to set up the beehive. I don’t want to harvest and sell honey. How am I going to maintain this project?” I had all kinds of people telling me, “You’re a dummy. You need to harvest and sell honey. How else are you going to maintain what you’re doing?” I just kept thinking, “No. It doesn’t feel right to me.”
Bees make honey for themselves. Not everybody knows that fact…that bees eat honey. They actually work themselves to death to make this honey for their hive, which is a super organism. Eighty-thousand bees in a hive are working to make honey to get through a winter that none of them have ever experienced because they live about 30 to 40 days. How would they know what’s coming? But they know.
And once you’re in it, it’s hard to be like, “Okay, now I’m going to really mess up your world here and take out some honey.” It just never felt right to me, so I made a decision not to do it.
Joe: And do you feel good about that decision?
Kate: I feel really good about it. I get asked once a week, “Where can I get your honey?” It’s a great conversation starter to just talk about the bigger issues: why bees are in trouble, why I decided not to harvest their honey, and what other things they provide to us. I tell people all the time, “I didn’t get into beekeeping because I love honey. I’m indifferent toward honey. I got into it because I love vegetables and fruits and all these other great things that bees provide to us.
So the way that I’ve been sustaining Bee Public is through grants, donations, and sponsorships and just trying to come up with creative ways. I approach it more like a nonprofit versus a product that I’m making a profit off of.
Actually, the product is me. I get paid to do speaking engagements. I’ve made some strategic partnerships with organizations like the IMA, the Patachou Foundation, and Public Greens. Martha Hoover has been very supportive of what I’m doing. She has bees at home, and I’ve got a beehive across from Public Greens at that farm site. I give talks there a lot. I’ve also done some things with the Children’s Museum.
Joe: And how would you say business is going?
Kate: I’m at this point now where I’m like, “Oh, shit. I have a thing here that I have to grow now and pay attention to.” I’m at that moment where I have to really make some big decisions. It’s becoming a business—or possibly a nonprofit in the future—and I have no idea what I’m doing. None. I’m trying to find mentors and people who can help me navigate that because I’m not business minded necessarily.
Joe: Walk me through a week in your world.
Kate: I have like seven jobs. I do Bee Public all the time, but my other main gig right now is farming for Growing Places. I manage a third of an acre on the Near Eastside and handle all our restaurant sales. We sell to about 30 different local restaurants, and we do harvests every Monday and Thursday. I also manage a “U-Pick” and farm stand during the summer, as well as a farm site along the Monon Trail across from Public Greens. All the veggies grown there go straight into the restaurant.
During the winter, farm work tapers off a bit, but we still sell produce at the Indy Winter Farmers Market. I also do classroom visits, talking to kids and anybody about the importance of bees. I teach beekeeping 101 to adults. Oh, and I also I still do freelance writing, and pick up serving and catering shifts when I can.
Joe: Do you feel stretched too much? Like do you wish you just wore one hat?
Kate: Sometimes I feel that way and sometimes I like the variety and flexibility. It’s hard to be a freelancer and a contractor. Right now, I’m a contractor, pretty much, for every one of those positions. That’s a little bit hard to navigate, but I’m always busy. I like being busy. It’s a little bit like being pulled in 10 different directions. Sometimes I’ll be at one job and getting texts from someone about my other job, so there’s a lot of balancing. It takes a certain kind of person to like being pulled in different directions.
Joe: You mentioned you still write. Tell me more about that.
Kate: I write mostly for Indianapolis Monthly and occasionally other publications. I’ve been writing for Indy Monthly for five years—just once a month or so. Very sporadic, and they understand that I am busy in the summer. They give me more assignments in the winter. It’s just been an awesome relationship to keep going.
Joe: Do you have a particular subject matter that you cover?
Kate: Usually local businesses or neighborhoods or highlighting someone in the community. The one I’m writing about now is a small business in Brookside. They make seed bombs, but they also create nicely designed packaging. It’s a cool product that’s locally made.
Joe: How have all your new endeavors—the farming, beekeeping, etc.—affected your writing? Have you seen it transfer into that world?
Kate: That’s an interesting question. I haven’t even thought about that. I’m not sure. I was asked to write about my experience as a beekeeper. I think that what actually affected my writing—and my outlook on life—was more the transitioning from one world into another world and realizing that, for me personally, any kind of big life decision that you execute, successfully or unsuccessfully, is going to change your perspective.
That affected everything, really. It affected my ability to communicate. I feel like I’m better at communicating in general now. I don’t necessarily know if it helped my writing, but talking about one topic over and over again helped me refine my pitch. If you want to get better at communicating, just pick a topic and then start telling everybody. Then, it’s great because hopefully you’re not annoying anybody. They want to hear you talk about bees. They ask you about bees, and you’re there to talk about bees.
Joe: Do you feel like you can write from a deeper level? Have you found more mental space working in the garden than in previous gigs?
Kate: I know what you mean and I think that that is something that I have been remiss in working on. I’d like to improve that. But my brain grew a lot learning all these new skills, and I feel I filled it to the brim immediately. I have so much more information in my head now because I’ve learned two completely new skills: farming and bees.
My goal was to be like, “I have all this time. I’ll be better at writing because I’ll be able to do it when and where I want. I’ll have all this luxury associated with it.” That doesn’t happen because somewhere along the line I’ve developed this personality that wants to fill every part of the day with learning something new.
It’s actually become a bit of a detriment because I reached this incredible high where I was engulfed in all this new information. Now, I’m constantly trying to get back there. I can’t stop reading and learning new things and taking on new projects. I think that’s good, but it’s also not what I think I intended it to be. I just have learned to accept that. I’m never going to be that person who takes a lot of time to mentally recharge the way that I probably I should. It doesn’t happen and it probably will never happen.
Joe: You told a great story on your blog about a guy who wanted to spray some chemicals on your urban garden, and you basically went…
Kate: How I went after him?
Joe: Exactly. It made me think of the friends we all have who have their own soapbox they always talk about. You can’t see them without them bringing it up. Is that you? Do you bring up the topic of bees first or wait to be asked? Where do you fall on the crazy spectrum, if you will…with all due respect? Haha.
Kate: Oh, God. Sometimes, I get that way. I totally understand when you really feel passionate about something, and you don’t care how annoying you are. You have to let people know. Sometimes, I can tell that the person on the receiving end doesn’t want to hear it, but it’s important.
It started with talking to adults who were interested. Now, I branch out to people who are not at all interested. “You know what? You’re going to hear from me because it’s important to everybody.” Now, I’ve been doing classroom visits and kids have come to the Public Greens farm on tours and stuff. I’ve been working more and more with kids, which is not something I have a lot of experience with it, and it was so intimidating at first.
Joe: More so than the adults?
Kate: Oh my, way more than adults. I have a quick wit sometimes. I can make people laugh. Kids are different. Kids are like, “You have three seconds to impress me, and if you don’t I’m going to tune out or misbehave or whatever.” I just haven’t had a lot of experience. I’m not a natural clown, I guess. I’ve had to learn how to be silly. But this is who we need to be talking to. Kids are the future and they need to be armed with this information at an early age.
Very recently, I teamed up with Jim Poyser. He and I worked at NUVO together and have been friends for almost a decade. He now runs Earth Charter Indiana, educating kids about climate change. He runs a Climate Camp. The kids go to all these different places that have to do with sustainability in some way. He talks a lot about climate change. It’s a really heavy topic for kids, but he’s figured out a way to distill it down to something kids can understand. And he isn’t all doom and gloom. He’s found the light side to it.
He’s really taught me a lot about how to do that with the topic of bees and Colony Collapse Disorder. Sometimes, I’ll be teaching a beekeeping class and look around to see: “Oh, my God. I am depressing these people.” It’s depressing to talk about the pesticides we use, how climate change is affecting the bees, and how we’re losing species of native bees left and right.
Joe: You’re right. These are heavy topics…for kids and adults. It’s such a big challenge. How do you stay sane? How do you not let the problem paralyze you and just go, “it’s too big”?
Kate: I think being specific is what’s kept me from giving up. Being specific about what is my little, tiny slice that I’m going to take on. This whole topic of bees is just one, little, tiny slice of a huge, huge pie. Think about our water and our air and all these things. If you think about the environment as a whole, you will become cynical or you will become paralyzed. You’re absolutely right. Coming up with the idea for Bee Public and staying focused on that, I think, is how I don’t get overwhelmed. And looking around and seeing nobody else is talking about this, especially with kids. There are not a lot of people going from school to school talking about the environment. Just putting all of my focus into that, I think, has helped.
Joe: What are some simple things we can do?
Kate: Plant flowers. It’s food for bees. One of the things that is hard on bees—and I’m talking about honeybees and native pollinators—is their sources for food are now limited. The diversity of food is limited as well. They like to have a diverse diet. If we go and plant flowers that are native and that do well in our Indiana climate, it provides nectar to the pollinators. They then take the nectar and make it into honey.
So the more flowers that exist—especially in the early spring and in the late fall when there’s not a lot blooming—the more bee food that’s available. And the better they’re going to do. It’s when they don’t have a lot of access to food that they do poorly. So plant flowers and then don’t contaminate them with bee-killing pesticides.
Also, put money toward sustainable, organic agriculture. Go to the farmers market and buy your produce from someone who’s using sustainable practices. Support smaller farms. Support local beekeepers. Don’t go to Costco and buy all of your honey there. Go to the farmers market. Talk to your farmers, and talk to your beekeepers. Dollars speak more than anything so putting your money into those places. It’s better for the local economy anyway.
Joe: When will you be satisfied? What does success look like?
Kate: That’s a really good question because I think about it a lot. I feel like success for me, with Bee Public, would be when I see change. When Indianapolis changes its practices surrounding pesticides. I’d like to see us doing what Europe is doing…banning these pesticides. I feel like legislation is the only tangible thing that I can go for at this moment.
Also, I’d like to see a cultural shift where people understand this relationship that we have with these little, bitty bugs and are aware that bees are not something to be scared of and killed. And getting people to think about the greater good. If we can learn anything from bees, it’s to think about the greater good. And if we can think about future generations. People have a really difficult time seeing beyond their own, everyday life.
I feel like I’m not really influential. I’m not a great orator of our time. I’m not a politician. I’m not an extrovert. We applaud extroverts for having all these qualities of being influential. I don’t feel like that’s necessarily for my role, but I am that person quietly handing out pamphlets on the street corner.
Joe: Thank God you’re not a politician because that means there’s a realness to you. You’re not a mouthpiece for somebody else who just pulled your strings. You’re saying this because it’s personal to you, and it means something to you. You speaking it makes it a much louder message in my ears than anybody who was voted into office.
Joe: You say that you’re a voice of the bees. What are you saying for them?
Kate: That more people should be saying “thank you.” A lot of people don’t realize that we rely on bees and pollinators for a third of our food. One in every three bites of food that we eat. They’re in such big trouble because of stupid things that we do every day. Human beings are to blame for losing so many bees. Not only are we unaware of the fact that we are a detriment to them, but we don’t realize how thankful we should be to them. It’s a parable for humankind. Just coming to these realizations and paying more attention to what we do and the choices we make every day is a big deal.
Also, that people think that bees just make honey, we take it, and that’s the deal. The deal is that’s not the deal that we made with bees. Bees have been around so much longer than human beings have, and we don’t give them enough credit.
Joe: Do you feel like you have a relationship with the bees? Maybe more so than humans?
Kate: I don’t want to get too hippy dippy, but since I’ve been doing this I do feel more of a connection…not only to bees but to nature in general. I feel like bees seek me out in unexpected places. Wherever I go, they’ll just be there.
It’s also happened three times now where a swarm of bees has found me. Ok first, bees swarm when they’re looking for a new home. That’s when we see those big balls of bees hanging out in a tree or even floating in the air. It just looks like a black cloud. It’s incredible to see.
And now three times, I’ve just been doing my thing and a swarm of bees will just show up. It’s almost like they’re showing up to say, “Hey, we heard that you provide homes to bees. Could we get in on that?” I mean it’s like a miracle for them to show up and be in this huge cloud, and then form into this small, little ball of bees. It’s 40-50,000 bees…a lot of bees. To hear it and to experience it and to stand in the middle of a cloud of bees that are just buzzing and knowing that they’re not going to hurt me. They have no interest in trying to sting me right now.
I think that’s also part of why I’m so fascinated by them. There is a tiny element of danger, right? And there’s also this element of trust.