Next Gen Beekeeper: Katrina Klett

What word comes to mind when you think of Chinese honey?  Laundering, tainted, counterfeit? 

Yes, me too.  That was, until I met next generation beekeeper and entrepreneur, Katrina Klett, of Elevated Honey Co.  In our conversations, Katrina helped me to understand that Chinese honey isn’t the problem.  It’s the supply chain.  It has so many fissures, it’s become weak and broken.  The system has failed both Chinese beekeepers, and worldwide consumers.  With “Elevated Honey Co.” she aims to spark a change.  Elevated’s mission, aside from preserving traditional Asian beekeeping methods to produce the world’s purest honey from naturally-occurring wild beehives, is to achieve three main goals:

1.  Enable honey producers to make a living wage,

2.  Offer a solution to environmental degradation, and

3.  Provide consumers with a safe and authentic product.

Beekeeping in China

There is a lack of work in rural China.  While ample employment opportunities exist in urban areas, these jobs are far from one’s family and home, are typically low-wage, and require uncomfortable (to say the least) living conditions.  Land in China is owned by the Communist Party, but they provide very long leases (multi-generational) to families.  Until recently, rural people working the land have been subsistence farmers.  Typically just producing enough to eat what they grow.  This has been changing rapidly in recent years thanks to big infrastructure, education, and housing projects by the Chinese government.  There is now opportunity for farmers to participate in the urban market economy and this has brought many positive changes to their lives.  However, this has created a lack of environmentally friendly rural work.  Unfortunately, a side effect of modernization has been the emptying of villages by adults to go to cities and work.  Those who stay behind in villages often take part in illegal activities such as logging or poaching to earn more money.    

Katrina lives in Diqing Prefecture, in Southwest China, about four hours west of Myanmar.  There are approximately 250,000 farmers living in Diqing and adjacent mountain communities.  One hundred percent of them would prefer to stay at home and provide for their families through participating in a stable and legal rural marketplace.  Beekeeping can provide that.

Currently Katrina and her husband of 3 years, currently work with 26 families to produce honey.  These beekeepers work with Apis cerana, a docile honey bee, native to Asia, that has a “stable host-parasite relationship” with the Varroa mite parasite (a scenario that American beekeepers’ dreams are made of).  Another fun fact: Apis cerana doesn’t collect sticky propolis, so there are no need for hive tools!  However, these honey bees aren’t management-free, cerana bees tend to be much more “swarmy” than their American and European relatives, so Chinese beekeepers must be prepared with knowledge and intuition. 

Chinese Honey: Pure and Exclusive (Wait. What?!)

Honey from Diqing is appropriately titled, “Thousand Flower Honey,” as there is an abundant nectar flow during the spring and early summer months before the monsoon season starts.  As a world biodiversity hot spot, there are thousands of endemic plant species in the mountains that provide a large array of pollen for the bees.  The elimination of Varroa infestation and disease issues, coupled with the copious nutrition availability creates abundantly healthy hives, and zero need for in-hive pesticides or supplementary feed products.  These beekeeping committees are high in the mountains, far from agriculture, and therefore the honey is as clean and pure as you can imagine.         

So these beekeepers spend next to nothing on medication, feed, and tools, so where does the money go?  Buying nucs (starter packages) of bees every year, as Americans do?  Nope.  Each community is split into family sections with informal, ancient land borders.  Within these borders each family has their own “bee tree,” a tree that houses a natural colony of bees.  If you belong to the family group, you can scale the tree, and scoop out a few handfuls of bees to start a new hive.  But don’t even think about raiding someone else’s bee tree (or grabbing a chicken or a head of cabbage)!  There is a deep tradition of honor code in these villages, and you will be seriously publicly shamed for it.  And unlike a public social media shaming that barely lasts the week, your community will stigmatize you, and your family, for years to come.  I love this integrity-filled system of keeping abundance just and even!

If maintenance costs are low, and bees are free, what is the issue here?  It’s all in the supply chain, and that is where Elevated Honey Co. steps in.  Katrina aims to act as a mentor and advocate for beekeepers, helping them to bring their extraordinarily valuable honey to market, and returning the profits to the beekeepers and their communities.  Pure "Thousand Flower Honey" is worth eight times as much as American commodity honey!  It can easily fetch $16 per pound, wholesale.  Elevated provides training for small family farmers on beekeeping techniques, queen rearing, and safe and clean honey extraction.  She then provides assistance with bottling and selling the honey.  Katrina currently only sells locally, but aims to bring "Elevated Honey Co. Thousand Flower Honey" to an international market within Asia.  Sorry Western foodies, it turns out the most valuable markets for her product are in Japan, Korea, and Singapore! 

Securing the Supply Chain for Social and Environmental Justice

The key of Katrina’s mission is securing the supply chain.  Elevated Honey Co. tests 100% of their honey for adulteration.  They are also investing in their own supply chain.  Starting in 2018 they will be tracing their honey using a combination of new technology applicable to supply chain transparency, and rigorous monitoring of distribution partners.  Elevate Honey Co. aims to keep honey safe and bring consumer trust back to an industry where very little remains.

Again, the benefits of an improved system go beyond the bottle to real and positive change for people.  A safe supply chain equitably funnels money back into the mountain villages.  This will provide local, stable jobs for small farmers that are environmentally beneficial, not destructive; as well as providing the end consumer with a product we all want – pure, honest, and safe food.         

Spread Those Wings and Fly

Second generation beekeeper Katrina Klett didn’t grow up in Asia.  Far from, it in-fact.  She was raised by two beekeeping parents that split their time raising queens in Jamestown, ND, and Beaumont, TX.  Katrina loved the migratory life.  Growing up between Ashland, OR, and Hollis, AK, I completely sympathized.  We gushed about the fantastic opportunity this provided us to be truly present where we were, because it wasn’t going to last.  Living seasonally gives you clarity, energy, and focus in the present moment.  We also love the ability to have grown up with the confidence to up-and-leave when you know it’s time to up-and-leave, but always with the knowledge that you can easily return. 

Growing up with the nomadic lifestyle, combined with her tenure as the 2007 American Honey Princess, fostered a travel bug in Katrina.  After graduating with a degree in Chinese Language and Literature, from University of MN, she jetted to Asia, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand to hone her love of language, and bees.  Katrina is letting some roots grow, for now, in Diqing as she is completely in love with her unique community, her important mission, and her new baby.

Read on for 42 facts about beekeeper, scholar, entrepreneur, and my new favorite person, Katrina Klett:        

1.    Age: 31

2.    Where do we know you from: Echoing Green Fellow and/or 2007 reign as the American Honey Princess, for those in beekeeping community might just know as Bill’s daughter. 

3.    What do your parents do: They are both beekeepers.  

4.    What do/did your grandparents do: On my mom’s side both of my grandparents were farmers.  My dad’s father was wildlife biologist and mother was a court clerk.  

5.    Where did you grow up: Both in Texas and North Dakota.  

6.    First bee memory: Running around barefoot in Texas as a very little kid, while my parents were grafting, and stepping on a bee.  It was a revolutionary experience!   

7.    What career path would you be on if you weren’t studying/keeping bees: I’d be a Chinese/English translator.  

8.    Hobbies: Learning foreign languages (Tibetan, Naxi, Lisu, Norwegian, German, Spanish, Vietnamese, French), cinema, literature, and live performances.   

9.    Hidden talents: Natural downhill skier!  

10.    What song is on repeat: The Moody Blues, The Candle of Life. 

11.    Favorite app: No smart phone (yet)!!  But I use “We Chat” on my husband’s phone.    

12.    Favorite show: Oh, there are so many.  The Wire, Narcos, Good Girls Revolt, Man in the High Castle.   

13.    Last show you binge watched: The Wire (repeatedly).  

14.    Favorite museum: African American Negro Baseball League Kansas City.     

15.    Favorite thing bees do: I love that bees self-medicate with propolis; they apply their own immune system!   

16.    Best bee pun you’re heard: “You’ve got a honey of a story,” said by journalist interviewing me.  

17.    Most favorite part of a bee’s anatomy: Compound eyes.  

18.    Favorite honey: Creamed French lavender. 

19.    Favorite book: Cheyenne Autumn, by Mary Sandos.  

20.    Favorite author: Mo yan.  

21.    Favorite bee suit: Khakis, a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, square veil and tan helmet.   

22.    How do you keep cool in your bee suit: I roll up my sleeves for air flow, I’d rather get stung in the arms then be hot in a bee suit.  

23.    Most painful place you’re been stung: Inside of my upper lip.  

24.    Weirdest place you’ve been stung: Same (how did she get in there?!) 

25.    Person you text the most: Husband (in Chinese!!).  

26.    Traditional or J-hook tool: Traditional.  

27.    What item do you bring to potlucks:  Soup.  

28.    Best beekeeping conference you’ve been to? Bee Audacious.   

29.    In 140 characters, or less, what does bee conservation mean to you? Turning the landscapes that we design into pollinator paradises whether that be urban, town, or rural.  Lush garden universes. 

30.    Who do you look up to most? Ruth Bader Ginsburg (AKA the Notorious RBG). 

31.    Favorite beekeeper/researcher icon? Marla! 

32.    Childhood celebrity crush: Clint Eastwood.  

33.    Spirit animal: A hummingbird.  

34.    Words to live by: “Better a mediocre idea with excellent execution than an excellent idea with mediocre execution.” 

35.    Money being no object, where would you travel to:  Montreal, Canada.  

36.    Weirdest bee tchotchke someone has given you: An enormous, heavy table-top bee statue. 

37.    Favorite website: 

38.    Last google search: High-speed train tickets from Guangzhou to Kunming. 

39.    Pets: Nope. 

40.    How do you feel when a colony dies, in one word: Responsible.  

41.    How do you decompress: Take a shower. 

42.    Weirdest thing you’ve put honey on: Tortilla with grape jelly and ranch dressing.   

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Sarah Red-LairdComment