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Latest News & Student Profiles

Katrina Klett: Beekeeper Extraordinaire

June 26, 2013

Meet Katrina Klett. With a major in Asian languages and literatures/Chinese and a minor in sustainability studies, Klett focuses on beekeeping as a means to alleviate poverty and protect biodiversity in developing countries. Dr. Marla Spivak, Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Apiculture & Social Insects, has worked with Klett on her research and calls her "the most remarkable young woman and undergraduate I have ever met," noting her "incredible potential to make an enormous impact in international development and environmental sustainability."

After winning two prestigious scholarships this spring—both the Harry S. Truman Scholarship and the Udall Scholarship—Klett will return to the University of Minnesota for the final year of her undergraduate experience in the University Honors Program, and plans to pursue a Masters degree in Public Affairs at Columbia University. We had the chance to catch up with Katrina before the end of the spring 2013 term.

Photo by Patrick O'Leary for University Relations.

UHP: You've been around bees for much of your life. Can you tell me a bit about your family's business and how it shaped your experiences as a young person?

Klett: We moved between North Dakota and Texas all my life. We are queen breeders, so we breed queen bees in the South and produce honey in the North. This meant we were on the road together quite a lot of the time, moving between our seasonal work. As a child, I spent a lot more time with my family and less time with friends than other kids did. We worked, moved, and socialized with other beekeeping families that also were migratory, and we still do. Our business is a central part of my life and always has been.

UHP: Bees have been in the news lately—unfortunately, mostly due to declining honeybee populations. There have been stories on NPR and in U.S. News and World Reports about the challenges faced by bee populations—specifically "Colony Collapse Disorder." What do you see as the most significant challenges faced by bee populations now and in the future, and how do you hope to be involved in meeting those challenges?

Klett: To risk oversimplifying the problem, a lot of what is happening is a result of the ultra modern agricultural system in the United States today. Our bees are flying out into pesticide-laden dead zones of monocrop agriculture—particularly corn and beans in this part of the world. Of course there are many things that are impacting honeybee health, but in a nutshell, ultra efficient industrial agriculture isn't good for bees. I am quite focused right now on working in developing countries that are starting to look to industrialized nations for examples on how to develop their own agriculture. I want to help farmers, beekeepers, and local governments understand that following directly in our footsteps is not the right direction for their apicultural industries. There are better, lower impact ways to increase income, to increase food production, and to maintain environmental integrity. As for U.S. issues, my family is focused on breeding a more disease-resistant honeybee. This is our contribution to the bee health issue in the U.S. After I graduate from the U, I want to get involved in policy advocacy, especially with issues surrounding the Farm Bill.

UHP: You're the beekeeping expert for Shangrila Farms in China's Yunnan region. You're also studying Chinese here at the U. How did these interests first intersect, and how did your interest in bees first bring you to China?

Klett: I have always been a lover of foreign languages. I keep bees because I have always been around bees, but the study of language is a real hobby of mine! I was studying Chinese and was paying attention to the controversy here in the U.S. about Chinese honey production practices. It's a very touchy issue here. The Chinese are accused of dumping honey on our market, and so relations are not very good between Chinese and American beekeepers—yet they are the number one producers of honey. The Chinese Government is quite liberal in their funding of apicultural research, and the species diversity of bees in China is very rich. I wanted to go over there and see for myself, I guess. There isn't much exchange of real information between beekeepers in China and the United States, I guess because of anger over trade issues—but trade is one thing, and bees and beekeeping are quite another. I wanted to establish contacts and learn about their bees and beekeepers. I wanted to have a bit of an exchange, and it turned into a long journey.

UHP: Can you tell us a bit more about the organic beekeeping process at Shangrila and the surrounding region in China?

Klett: Shangrila Farms is a brand of honey and other natural products sold in Beijing and around China. It was started by Sahra, Alia, and Safi Malik, who purchase coffee and honey directly from farmers in a fair trade manner. In addition to supporting farmers with a guaranteed market, they support training programs to teach farmers how to produce coffee or raise bees, which is where I come in. We started very small, but have expanded our outreach considerably and are going to expand even more this coming year. They are absolutely wonderful people to work for, and their model of socially responsible business as a way to give back to the community is really a great model.

UHP: What can bees teach us about the importance of biodiversity and sustainability?

Klett: I think bees teach us that our current method of agricultural food production in the U.S. is not sustainable. Before World War II, when farming was still done on family farms, bees were flourishing in this country. Admittedly, honeybee decline is not a simple problem with a clear, smoking-gun culprit. But it is very clear to researchers and people who work in the beekeeping industry, that when you lose biodiversity in the form of natural areas, or small family farms which grow a variety of crops, you create large monocrop areas where pollinators (as well as other life forms) cannot survive. Bees struggle to survive with the level of pesticides needed for such intensive agricultural production and they struggle to find adequate nutrition when they forage over miles and miles of a single crop species. In this country, we have turned our diverse prairies into fields of corn and beans, most of it not even for human consumption. Our bees now fly out into a landscape completely altered by humans, and we are finding that they cannot easily make it. If this is the case for the Midwest, what was traditionally our largest honey-producing region, then we can say that the deaths of our honeybees are like canaries in the mineshaft. This should be sounding the alert to everyone that we need to seriously rethink how we grow food and operate our agricultural industries, as well as how we write our agricultural policy.

UHP: Here at the University, you've worked directly with Professor Marla Spivak, who focuses on Apiculture and Social Insects in the Department of Entomology. Can you talk a bit about how you were connected with Professor Spivak, and about the research you've been doing?

Klett: I received a UROP undergraduate research grant to study the mechanism by which bees collect propolis. Propolis is a sticky plant sap, which has been found to also act as a kind of pseudo immune system for honeybees. It is very amazing stuff, propolis. It's well known that bees dance to stimulate foraging behavior for honey collection—the dance communicates the location and quality of the nectar source. We wanted to see if they were doing the same for propolis. It turns out that they do not seem to dance to stimulate propolis collection, but it was good information to establish. It was also my first real experience in research and in a laboratory, and I learned a great deal working in Dr. Spivak's lab.

UHP: You've been pretty busy lately, with Truman and Udall Scholarships to show for it! You have one more year here as an undergraduate at the U—can you tell us about what you hope to achieve next year, and beyond?

Klett: Well I'm very interested in urban agriculture that is starting to crop up (no pun intended) around the United States. Lately people have been talking to me about Chicago and Detroit as examples where agriculture in the urban environment can sometimes revitalize certain neighborhoods and communities. I have also watched with interest as they have changed the policy in Minneapolis about keeping bees on rooftops. They are now making it much easier to do that, by eliminating the need for 80 percent of nearby dwellers to sign an agreement that hives can be kept. I would love to get involved in some of these kinds of efforts. I am excited to see the new Minneapolis 2025 initiatives and I hope that urban agriculture and bees are going to play a part in some of the exciting new plans in the works. After graduation I am going to move to New York, where I will be applying for an M.S in Environmental Science and Policy at Columbia University. A little further into the future, I see a potential Ph.D. and more rural development projects. I am hoping to partner with people who are focused in environmental public health, because I think we do can some really interesting things together. And of course, my goals always include going home to work in my family's business, which is very close to my heart.

I also want to talk a bit about the University Honors Program and how they have really shaped my experience at the University of Minnesota. I started at the University of Minnesota as a transfer student in 2007. I transferred directly into the UHP and met Sally Lieberman (Associate Director for National & International Scholarships) early on. I am really grateful that UHP has Sally on its staff. She is so dedicated to her work with students and national scholarships. She leaves no detail unexamined, and really pushes students to refine their writing, future goals, and overall worldview. Sally quite literally changed the entire direction that I am headed after graduation.

I also have been very fortunate to have Tim Jones as my UHP advisor. He has gone way above the call of duty to assist me in my academic goals. He even took the time to introduce me to an NGO leader in the Twin Cities community so that I could seek advice and learn more about this person's professional development. Being a UHP student is probably the best thing I could have done at the U, because I have been in this very close advising community. UHP sends me email about scholarships and grants that I seem eligible for, and they just really believe in their students and try to help us refine our goals and ourselves. I always love it when I have an excuse to go see them!