Let me tell you about the birds and the bees… Well, just about the bees. About a week ago, I did something I never thought I’d do. I got up and personal with a hive of bees, on purpose, and it was fabulous! I thought I’d be terrified with bees flying everywhere but in full regalia — what looked almost like a hazmat suit — I felt perfectly safe, and the interesting and informative discussion led by the tour guides had me so engaged I forgot all about my mortal fear. I took a friend and her kid and they both thoroughly enjoyed themselves as well. In fact I was entertained with a beautiful song about the bee-utiful (see what I did there) experience by the littlest bee keeper as a thank-you a few days later.
Half Mad Honey is a local beekeeping company comprised of partners in business and in life, Natasha Phan and Amelia Mraz. Pham is also a chef and I did her profile a little while back so this time we chose to shine the spotlight on Amelia. A psychology student and mental health worker, Mraz got into beekeeping as a therapeutic outlet. She and Phan are dedicated to creating “awareness surrounding mental health and wellness, and providing a safe space for all people to learn about bees, build confidence, and connect with peers and nature.”
So tell me a little about yourself.
I grew up in North Wales, about 30 minutes outside of Philadelphia. I have one brother. I just got back from visiting my mom in Cape Cod. Most of my family is from New England and I’m originally from Rhode Island.
I’m jealous, my grandparents had a house in Martha’s Vineyard and we used to go up all the time, but I haven’t been there for a while.
My grandparents had a house in Falmouth so we’d go up every summer and then they moved to Mashpee. This trip we went to Provincetown and it was super fun. It was a side of the cape that I’d never seen.
What was the most unexpected or favorite thing about P-Town?
The Gayness! I’d been to places on the cape before with past girlfriends and didn’t feel as comfortable, but this was incredible, everywhere you looked, queer flags, everybody holding hands in the streets, partying all day, it was really fun.
You didn’t start out as a beekeeper, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I was a big soccer player, so for a while I thought that was what I’d do. I was terrified of bees, so this profession never entered my mind! In college I was a psych major at Temple. I thought I’d do something with psychology and then I randomly took a beekeeping class at their horticulture and landscaping school in Ambler. At the time I was really struggling with mental health. I was really low and not in a great place and it ended up becoming a very therapeutic practice for me. It ended up helping me psychologically, which I hadn’t expected to happen. There’s a big “save the bees” culture right now and the bees need our help, but I got into it more to share the therapeutic aspect of beekeeping.
What was going on and how did the bees help?
Oh my God, what was happening? A lot; I spent my 20’s in and out of psych hospitals. I was back in school and I wasn’t working and to top it off, I fell down my stairs and got a concussion which made my depression and anxiety worse. I was also physically sick, which just exacerbated everything. Beekeeping got me out in nature, it was a space where I finally felt I could actually breathe. Bees can sense and smell when you’re scared and they pick up on anxiety and fear, so it’s a space that really requires you to get in touch with your body and to make yourself calm down. So it was a combination of challenging my fears and teaching me about trust, which is something that didn’t come easily to me, and it taught me to really check in with myself and my surroundings.
I was terrified of bees and had this crazy long hair. One time, in Martha’s Vineyard, I was outside of my grandmother’s house and a friend calmly said, “Hold still, there’s a bee in your hair” and reached to get it out but the dramatic 13 year old that I was, I just started screaming and running around. I actually did a full lap around the house, when I go to her screaming, “Is it still there?!?” and when she said yes, I took off at a sprint again. On my third lap she made me stand still so she could get it detangled.
[Laughing] Well, that’s our natural reaction, it’s normal to be scared but sometimes you just have to push forward and face your fears.
Which I had a chance to do with you on the beekeeping tour and it was a great experience.
I’m glad, it was really fun having you there, and I’m so glad you brought Vicki and her daughter. I love having little beekeepers in those small suits.
So let’s jump back to your athletic career, what were your best and worst moments on the soccer field?
It was a very short lived career! I dabbled in almost every sport, but my best sports moment was when I was in 1st grade and I was the goalie and I scored a goal by kicking the ball all the way across into the other team’s goal! The worst moment was when I tore my patella tendon and dislocated my kneecap. That kind of ended my career.
What other things were you into?
I was really into art. I went to the University for the Arts for a little bit and I studied photography. I love being in the hives and taking pictures of bees. I’m working on an art project now where I’m taking drawings and putting them into hives and letting them draw a comb over it, creating mixed media pieces.
You showed us that, it was really cool! So how or when did you first start to realize that you were gay?
I had a crush on my kindergarten teacher, I remember that vividly. And I definitely had a crush on my best friend growing up. Everyone thought we were a couple! They all knew before I did!
When did you know for sure?
My senior year of high school. I got really drunk with my friends and blurted out, “I’m a lesbian!” and they were like, “We know.”
And the family?
I came out to them when I was in college and got my first girlfriend. They’re pretty supportive which is great.
How did you meet Natasha?
[Chuckling] We met online on OK Cupid. She messaged me because I was in a beekeeping suit. Her message was, “I’m looking for honey”. And I didn’t message her back for several months! I finally did and she was in Hawaii and thinking about staying there. We started dating and then soon after that we got the U-Haul and moved in together!
Natasha is a chef, what’s a favorite dish that she makes? Or is it a situation where after a long day cooking it’s the last thing she wants to do?
Usually, it’s the last thing she wants to do, but she did a lot of cooking at home during the pandemic. When we were in Massachusetts she made swordfish that was pretty great. Her sauces are the best.
When did you fully get into the business of beekeeping?
I got my first hive in 2018 and we just got our license in March and because of the pandemic, it really gave us time to plan things out. We moved into the Navy Yard in 2020.
Tell me about the wonderful world of bees and beekeeping.
I love being a beekeeper, I get a lot of weird looks and lots of “Really?” when I tell people what I do. People will look me up and down and be like, “You don’t look like someone who would do that…” Beekeepers are traditionally older, white, cis, heterosexual men. Not too much diversity in the apicultural and agriculture industries so we’re trying to represent the new generation of beekeepers. We want other people to know that this is a space for them. There’s a lot of judgement out there but the wonderful thing about bees is they don’t judge you! They will hold you accountable for your emotions though, they can sense it.
Fun facts about bees.
Though they have a queen bee, it’s not a monarchy, it’s a democracy. They’ll kill a queen if they want to, if she’s not doing her job. They also all vote on where they should live. They do a little waggle dance to communicate where they shake their bee butts. The queen can mate with up to 30 drones in an afternoon, so she’s a bit of a slut. After having sex with the queen, the male drone dies, so that’s really all he’s good for. The males don’t even have stingers! All the worker bees are female and in the wintertime they kick all the guys out. It’s a very female centered society.
Wow, I found these nuggets on the Free Library site, but I remember you telling us some of these: During the summer months, a honeybee will travel the equivalent of 1.5 times the circumference of the Earth; To make a pound of honey, honeybees will visit approximately 2 million flowers; Bees maintain a steady temperature of approximately 92 degrees inside the beehive; In summer, bees will flap their wings outside the hive to create a breeze; In winter, bees will huddle together and vibrate their wing muscles (without flapping their wings) to generate heat. And there’s a whole part about old queens fighting each other to the death which I found inappropriately funny. Aside from the tours, what else do you do?
We do the tours with our friend Nicole Rivera Hartery from Bees on Main Street. We also do apiary therapy, we work with an organization called Savage Sisters Recovery. They come once a month to do apiary therapy with a licensed therapist, we practice mindfulness skills and coping, etc. while we spend time with the bees. And of course we spend a lot of time managing the bees and harvesting the honey. We make products like lip balm and salves, which are available on our website. We harvest on July 17th so we’ll have plenty of honey available too.
What was a challenge in getting started?
We had a hive vandalization. Someone came in with a big sledge hammer and knocked down our largest hive. They went through our stuff and threw it all around and broke things. We found the hammer left in the hive but we never figured out who did it.
What is wrong with people? Okay, let’s flip that to something positive that’s happened there.
That would be something that happened with my mom. My mom’s mom was deathly allergic to bees, so my mom and my aunts grew up terrified of them. When I was a kid the family was out for a walk once and somehow ended up disturbing a nest of bees and everyone got stung multiple times. It was not a fond memory, so it was a heartwarming experience when I got my parents to come to the apiary and to see my mom suited up and holding a screen full of bees. She really conquered her fears and it felt like she was truly accepting what I’m doing.
Okay, a question outside of the hive, who was one of your idols growing up?
Mia Hamm, she was THE soccer star at the time.
The first queer movie you ever saw?
Well, the first thing was the L Word, but the 1st movie was “But I’m a Cheerleader.”
I had a dog and a fish named Rojo growing up, and now I have 3 cats.
What is your ancestry?
My dad’s side is Czechoslovakian and my mom’s side is Scottish. I have a book right behind me about our heritage that my maternal grandfather gave me. My family actually came over on the Mayflower and one of my ancestors was Margaret Scott, one of the witches that was hung at the Salem witch trials.
Get out! If I were an emoji right now it would be, Mind Blown. I actually went to Salem to go ghost hunting. Have you had any paranormal experiences?
I have had several, the first one I remember is from when I was 5 and I was standing at the top of the stairs. It felt like I was looking down at myself and I had black hair and was wearing a white old fashioned nightgown. Another time I was in a women’s trauma group and one of the women was wearing a bracelet with crosses on it. I’d seen it in my dream the night before, she asked me to put it on and it felt like it was grabbing me. Sometime later at home, I had this weird moment when I started bawling and had a terrible feeling of having lost something, and I could see a chandelier and two windows with purple light coming through. The next time I saw the woman with the bracelet, we were talking and comparing notes and she told me that on that exact date, she’d had a miscarriage and that she had a chandelier in her house and hated it. That was kind of weird.
We have to go out for drinks and exchange stories! So, what 3 artists would we find on your Pandora/Spotify list?
Definitely Taylor Swift, Dessa and Kelly Clarkson, the old stuff.
What’s your mantra?
I bring back my power and I release what no longer serves me.
What is the origin of the company name and what are you looking forward to?
Half Mad Honey comes from something called Mad Pride which started in the 70’s. It was a movement by people in recovery who didn’t like the mental health community was treating them. They wanted to have their voice and take back their power to speak up against the injustices that were happening. Mad honey is also a type of honey from rhododendron plants that causes hallucinations and stuff. We didn’t want to go that far, so we’re half mad! As for the future we’re looking forward to letting people know that we’re here, especially the LGBTQ community. I want to create a safe space for everyone to come in and learn about bee keeping, especial queer youth. We just want to continue to do what we love and be able to share it!