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.