by Len Lear
Mt. Airy resident Stephanie Elson Bruneau, 40, is “the bee’s knees,” to quote a popular expression from the 1920s. She could probably wax poetic herself and come up with a pun that has more sting to it. A native of Mt. Airy, Stephanie went to the Miquon School as a child, which inspired in her a true love of nature. She went to Friends Select High School, Wesleyan University (2000) and Brown University (2006) for a masters degree in Environmental Planning and Policy.
She and her husband, Emile, the head of the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School, moved back to Mt. Airy to raise their family — daughter Clara, 5, who goes to the Miquon School and “loves the Miquon mud as much as I did,” and son Atticus, 3.
“I grew up in Mt. Airy,” Stephanie said last week, “and I am so pleased to be back in Northwest Philly. We started our family in Boston and moved down here with our bees and kids in the spring of 2015 so that we could raise our children in this diverse, progressive community and so that the kids could grow up playing in the Wissahickon, attending the Miquon School and having a strong relationship with my parents, who still live in Mt. Airy.
“Besides the woods, my favorite thing about Mt. Airy is the Weavers Way Co-op. My parents have been members since the ’70s, and I love how the faces at the Co-op are the same friendly faces that I’ve known since I was a kid. I love the deep sense of community that I get when I go there.”
On Saturday, Aug. 5, 11 a.m., Stephanie will have a book signing at Big Blue Marble Bookstore, 551 Carpenter Lane in West Mt. Airy, for her just-published book, “The Benevolent Bee: Capture the Bounty of the Hive through Science, History, Home Remedies and Craft!” Stephanie will lead a Honey Bee Q&A and a simple beeswax craft. Prior to her book-signing at 10:30, the store’s regular Saturday morning story time will feature books about bees.
The importance of honey bees for the food supply of human beings cannot possibly be overestimated. The diet of bees is flower-based, collecting pollen and nectar from the flower, and much of our own diet is flower-based in the fruits, nuts, seeds and vegetables we eat that the bees pollinate. In recent years the degradation of the environment has decimated large bee populations, which could ultimately threaten the very survival of the human species.
But people like Stephanie are trying to reverse this potentially catastrophic trend. In her Mt. Airy home, Stephanie runs a business, The Benevolent Bee, selling honey, beeswax candles and other handcrafted and hive-derived items. At her hives (at The Miquon School in Conshohocken, on the roof of Weavers Way Chestnut Hill and at the West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd), Stephanie teaches about bee behavior to students of all ages.
When she is not playing with bees, Stephanie can be found stomping in mud puddles with Clara, whose second word was “bee,” and Atticus, who was in a bee suit in a tree collecting a honeybee swarm at four weeks of age.
“In the book,” explained Stephanie, “I talk about how just like a painter is drawn to a blank canvas or a musician to a particular instrument, I have always been drawn to the natural world, and bees in particular.
“When I am with the bees, I am calm and totally at ease. I credit my parents, who along with my teachers at Miquon, nurtured my connection to the natural world and encouraged me to find and follow my passions in life.”
You might say that Stephanie’s character is as strong as an oak bookshelf. A natural community organizer, she helped found the Boston Beekeepers Association and taught about bees and beekeeping. She completed an apprenticeship training with the Boston School of Herbal Medicine and became interested in the use of bee products for health and wellness in her own family.
“Did you know honey is a natural antibiotic?” she asked rhetorically. “Or that honey has been proven to be more effective at calming coughs than the main ingredient in most cough syrups, dextromethorphan? ‘The Benevolent Bee’ is an outgrowth of the research I’ve been doing for years.
“I love how many different realms of expertise a beekeeper touches on in beekeeping endeavors. To be a good beekeeper, you have to know a bit about bee biology and botany. Then there’s crafting with beeswax and the culinary, nutritional and medicinal benefits of honey. Putting all of this together is so compelling to me.”
In her new book, Stephanie explores the six main hive products of the honeybee hive — honey, pollen, propolis, royal jelly, beeswax and bee venom. She explains how and why these products are produced by bees, how they’ve been used by humans all over the world for millennia and how today’s beekeepers harvest products. She also shares the hive-derived recipes she uses in her own household.
“My goal with the book was to share my passion for bees and the honeybee hive and the timeless uses of bee products. I’ve heard from folks who took my classes at Morris Arboretum, Mt. Airy Learning Tree and elsewhere that my energy for these topics is contagious. I hope that’s true with the book also and that readers will try some of these hive-derived recipes themselves!” (On the first day of Stephanie’s classes, her bee students were always given a sylla-buzz.)
Stephanie even has a beehive in her Mt. Airy home. Last month there was a “Pet Week” at The Big Backyard summer camp, where her children were having fun this summer. Camp counselors asked the kids if they had any pets at home. “Our kids said they have 10,011 pets,” said Stephanie.
“The counselors thought they were joking, but it’s true: our home observation beehive (behind plexiglass on the living room wall) has about 10,000 bees. Then we have our cat, Neko-Midnight, Fred the guinea pig, five chickens (Moptop, Cinnamon Queen, Doe-a-Deer, Chocolate and Chocolate Milk), and four fish (who have no names).”
Time commitment-wise, keeping bees is like gardening. There is a busy season (spring) and an off-season (winter). “You check on the bees once every week or so during the busy season and less often during the off season.”
In addition to the Aug. 5 program at Big Blue Marble, Stephanie will offer a program on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 7 p.m., at Weavers Way Mercantile, 542 Carpenter Lane. This hands-on workshop will introduce you to the tasty and medicinal products of the honeybee hive.
For more information, visit thebenevolentbee.com