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Meet Maine’s 9-Year-Old Beekeeper

In Eddington, fourth-grader Elizabeth Downs tends to some 180,000 resident bees in her backyard.

Elizabeth Downs Maine’s 9-year-old beekeeper
By Joel Crabtree
Photographed by Michael D. Wilson
From our October 2021 issue

More often than not, kids aspire to professions with airs of valor or glamor about them — astronaut, athlete, firefighter. Elizabeth Downs, though, has her heart set on something else entirely: becoming the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry’s state apiarist and bee inspector, a position whose duties include apprising beekeepers of threats from diseases and pests and advising on best practices for hive care. Elizabeth is nine years old and started keeping bees in her backyard three years ago. Now, she has six hive boxes, colorfully painted, each with some 30,000 resident bees.

Outside her family’s home, in Eddington, Elizabeth pulls on pint-size protective gear — a long-sleeve shirt made of thick canvas, a screened hood that zips around the neckline, and heavy-duty leather gloves. As she trots over to the perimeter of the electrified fence that keeps intrusive wildlife away from the bees, she rattles off trivia. For instance, contrary to what one sees in television cartoons, bears seek out hives in order to eat larvae, not honey. This fact, she observes, is sort of gross. Elizabeth didn’t catch the beekeeping bug from her non-apiarist parents, but from watching the neighbor of a family friend manage hives. She says she was initially hooked by the rituals and rhythms of monitoring hive health and, a few times a year, harvesting honey, but she also understands her work in the broader context of a world with dwindling numbers of wild bees. “They pollinate,” she says, “and if we don’t have pollination, we would die.”

fourth-grader Elizabeth Downs tending to some 180,000 resident bees in her backyard
The only beekeeping work Elizabeth Downs has her mom do is lighting a handheld smoker

Fourth-grader Elizabeth Downs is old enough to keep bees but too young to play with matches — the only beekeeping work she has her mom do is lighting a handheld smoker that helps sedate the bees.

Elizabeth’s hives yield more than 120 pounds of honey per year, and she sells it to family and friends through a private Facebook group. Proceeds go toward hive upkeep — and any leftover cash goes to charities through her family’s church. “I’m very excited and proud,” says her mom, Rachel, a finance clerk for the city of Old Town. “She’s doing something different, something that makes a difference, and she’s not just sitting inside on a game.” Although Elizabeth can handle the hives herself, she needs her mom to drive her to Penobscot County Beekeepers Association meetings, where most other attendees are six, seven, eight times her age. “It really is amazing to see the next generation of beekeepers,” current state apiarist Jennifer Lund says. “They’re the future of agriculture in Maine.”

Standing over a hive box, Elizabeth opens up the lid and pulls out the honeycombed panels to check for eggs, larvae, and pupae. Finding bees in every stage of the life cycle assures her that the queen is in good health. As she makes her inspections, she’s methodical and calm in the face of the buzzing and swirling of thousands of bees, and she’s accustomed by now to being stung — when it happens, she pauses for a few seconds to process the flash of pain, then continues with the task at hand. A lot of kids fear bees, but Elizabeth doesn’t remember ever feeling that way. “If you do see one outside,” she says, “just leave it alone and it won’t sting you.”