Young Change Makers: Why and How Katie Culbert of 4H Busy Bees Beekeeping Club Is Helping To Change…

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Young Change Makers: Why and How Katie Culbert of 4H Busy Bees Beekeeping Club Is Helping To Change Our World

Step out of your comfort zone. If I didn’t make a commitment to reach out to beekeepers, universities, and other individuals, I would not have been able to establish my hives and pollinator gardens. I credit the power of networking which has led me to my research as well as all of my community outreach efforts.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Katie Culbert.

Katie Culbert is a junior attending Toms River High School North in Toms River, New Jersey. Acting as both researcher and activist, Katie has established beehives, pollinator gardens, as well as her own YouTube channel, Katie’s Adventures in Beekeeping. For her research and community efforts, she was awarded the 2022 New Jersey Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence and the 2023 President’s Environmental Youth Award (PEYA) and currently serves as the 2023 New Jersey Honey Queen.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I am one of three siblings in my family. My mother and father always encouraged us to explore the world around us. One of my earliest memories is going to Cape May, NJ for vacation. One year, a ton of horseshoe crabs washed up on the beach and my mom says instead of playing in the water, I collected the horseshoe crabs and decided to draw detailed sketches for hours. At least, as detailed, as a seven year old can manage. She always says, that was when she knew, a scientist was born!

Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I have been a competitive swimmer since I was 8 years old. I first joined YMCA swimming when I was 6 years old. Competitive swimming at the YMCA has taught me the importance of setting goals. Having goals helps me to stay motivated. Whether it is swimming or in my day-to-day life, I find that it is necessary to know what I want to accomplish. I don’t swim to impress or satisfy others, I swim for myself and I enjoy it because each goal I achieve, serves as a milestone to ignite a new inspiration!

How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

“Making a Difference” to me is being able to instigate a positive change. However, for me, making a difference is not always about doing something big and grand. It could be something small. Imagine a ripple effect of how one small stone can create a multitude of ripples!

Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Honey bees are a vital species in our ecosystem. Pollinating 73% of the world’s cultivated crops with an economic impact of $20 billion in the US. Unfortunately, the latest reports suggest losses of 30–50% of all US honey bee colonies. During the pandemic, I was able to implement a research project involving Varroa mites, honey bees, and essential oils. It was during this time that I also decided to reach beyond my research and earn my certification in beekeeping to give back to my community. I partnered with Ocean County 4-H, obtained land through Jakes Branch County Park and sought donations for hives, beekeeping equipment and honey bees.

Today, I am the Founder and Student Leader of the 4-H Busy Bees Beekeeping Club. Understanding that the average age of commercial beekeepers is 55–60 years old, my outreach efforts in 4-H are designed to foster interest in the next generation of beekeepers. I have utilized my hives at Jakes Branch County Park to provide outreach presentations. As a 4-H Pollinator Habitat Ambassador, I provide presentations about the importance of pollinators, the significance of planting pollinator friendly gardens, reducing the use of pesticides, and environmental responsibility. My community presentations are a venue to teach the public about the importance of providing a healthy environment for bees and all pollinators. Last Spring, I was able to establish a small pollinator garden. The garden consists of native plants which are endemic to NJ and provide my bees as well as other pollinators with nectar and pollen all-year round.

Native plants help the environment when planted in places that match their growing requirements. They will thrive in the soils, moisture and weather of their natural habitat which translates to less supplemental watering and managing rain water runoff to maintain healthy soil as their root systems are deep and help keep soil from being compacted. This past summer, I was awarded a grant from the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation for 600 native plants. The Busy Bees along with Ocean County 4-H Teens and the Ocean County Master Gardeners, planted a 2,500 sq ft pollinator garden and wildlife habitat at Jakes Branch.

To reach beyond my immediate community, I established my own YouTube channel, Katie’s Adventures in Beekeeping and Instagram. My essay entitled “Varroa, American Foulbrood and the Amazing Honey Bee” received first place honors at the 2021 National 4-H Beekeeping Essay Competition and is published in ABF Quarterly. Earlier this year I was crowned the NJ Honey Queen and I travel throughout the state to educate the public about bees, native plant pollinator gardens, as well as the beekeeping and honey industry.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

My bees drive my passion! I first became interested in honey bees at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. There was a research contest sponsored by the Army Educational Outreach Program (AEOP) on pollinators. My research focuses on the #1 killer of honey bees, the Varroa destructor mite. I was determined to find an environmentally-friendly, cheaper, and safer solution for honey bees. My research project examined the use of essential oils against Varroa. Working with faculty at Rutgers, Stockton, and the University of Florida, I was able to implement a laboratory study investigating the use of thymol-based essential oils and mist diffusers. Based on encouraging laboratory results, I proceed to a field study. My field study concluded thymol-based essential oils, particularly thyme essential oil, dispersed via battery-operated mist diffusers, provided early elimination of mites as they emerged from the brood cell, while remaining safe for honey bees. I was a finalist at the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) and at the National Junior Science and Humanities Symposium (JSHS). My laboratory and field study are published in the Journal of Research High School. It was during this time that I also decided to reach beyond my research and earn my certification in beekeeping to give back to my community.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. We don’t always get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

I think many of us let our fear of failure get the best of us. My “Aha Moment” was when I first started my research. Originally, I wanted to go right into a field study. Unfortunately, I did not know a single person who kept bees. I decided to reach out beekeeping clubs as well as nearby colleges and universities. While the majority of my emails remained unanswered, I did have a handful of people who gave me great advice. In the end, I decided to first proceed with a laboratory study. After gaining the trust of beekeepers and earning my beekeeping certification, I conducted a field study as a follow-up to my encouraging results from my laboratory study. Today, both of my studies are published! From this experience, I made the conscious decision to overcome my fears and confront my insecurities surrounding rejection and learned the worst thing anyone can say is say” no”. I made the conscious decision to always take the risk, as it is worth the reward!

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

I think the single most important thing I’ve learned on my journey is the importance of networking! At first, my motivation stemmed from my scientific research. However, my research led me to interact with other members of the beekeeping community, beyond academics. I became involved with the Central Jersey Beekeepers Association and the New Jersey Beekeepers Association. Realizing that the average age of a commercial beekeeper is 55–60 years old, hobbyists even older. I decided to seek out land from Ocean County Parks and Recreation to provide a potential home for beehives. Ocean County 4-H provided me with the needed insurance to have hives. Networking led me to Mann Lake, a beekeeping supply company, to donate two beehives, CJBA donated the maintenance equipment, and Ray Markley, a private donor from the New Jersey Beekeepers Association, donated two nucs of bees. Today, I have hives at Jakes Branch County Park and am the Founder and Student Leader of the 4-H Busy Bees Beekeeping Club where I teach young people as well as the general public about the world’s most important pollinator.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

After establishing hives at Jakes Branch, I became a 4-H Pollinator Habitat Ambassador and I established a small native plant pollinator garden near my beehives. Thanks to networking at a local Roundtable Meeting, I learned about available grants being provided by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. I applied and I was awarded a grant to establish a 2,500 square foot pollinator garden. I obtained 600 native plants from the Pinelands Nursery and coordinated the pick-up and planting of the native plants at Jakes Branch County Park. My 4-H Busy Bees Club and park staff maintain our pollinator gardens for not only my honey bees, but all pollinators, and my community to enjoy.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

A major mistake, which is documented in the first installment of my YouTube channel, “Katie’s Adventures in Beekeeping,” was despite all of my detailed planning, checking, and double checking, I still managed to forget to bring the sugar water for my bee feeders, when I established my hives. I have learned that despite all of my careful planning, mistakes can still, and will, happen. Thankfully, in this case, the mistake was easily correctable!

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I have had many mentors on my beekeeping journey. Dr. Ron Hutchison (Stockton) and Professor Michael Haberland (Rutgers) provided the Varroa and larvae for my laboratory research. I had beekeeping support from Central Jersey Beekeepers Association (CJBA) members Clifford Moore, Peter Van Mater, Geff Vitale and my mentor, Angela Juffey. I utilize my hives at Jakes Branch County Park to provide outreach presentations about bees, the importance of planting pollinator-friendly gardens and reducing the use of pesticides. Establishing hives at Jakes Branch would not have been possible without the support of Jakes Branch County Park Naturalist, Ben Ackerman and Jakes Branch County Park Supervisor, Michelle Urbane. With donations of hives from Mann Lake LTD, maintenance equipment from CJBA, and honeybees from Ray Markley of the New Jersey Beekeepers Association (NJBA), I maintain my hives and educate my community. With support from Amelia Valente from Ocean County 4-H, I founded and established the 4-H Busy Bees Beekeeping Club. Ms. Laura Eppinger from 4-H has provided me with support as a Pollinator Habitat Ambassador. Dr. Kass Urban-Mead and Dr. Kelly Gill, at the Xerces Society of Invertebrate Conservation provided me with a generous grant for 600 native plants to establish a 2,500 square foot pollinator garden at Jakes Branch. With Xerces support and other grantors, I hope to establish additional pollinator gardens throughout the Ocean County Parks System.

Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

My cause has technically helped everyone! By saving the bees, we save our food supply! But, to answer your question, one person who comes to mind in particular is Danielle. She is one of my Busy Bees Beekeeping Club members. At Busy Bees, we utilize the beehives to learn about honey bees and how to care for them. Danielle is currently in the process of obtaining her beekeeping certification and will one day have her own hives. By introducing beekeeping to young people, I know I am helping to inspire the next generation of beekeepers!

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Not everyone needs to own a beehive to help save the bees. Three things that each of us can do 1) Go Native: Plant native plant pollinator gardens. By planting a native plant pollinator garden, you can create a safe haven for all pollinators. 2) Go Chemical Free: I encourage everyone to avoid using pesticides and herbicides. Synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, and neonicotinoids are harmful to bees and pollinators. If you must use a pesticide, choose a targeted organic product, and always avoid applying pesticides when flowers are blooming or directly to the soil. 3) Lastly, Build a Bee Hotel. Not so much for honey bees, but for solitary bees like the mason bee, leaf cutter bee, and bumble bee, whose population is also declining, but are critical pollinators too!

Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).

I think the first thing I wish someone told me was to 1) Do not set my expectations bar too high. I have learned to be happy with those who do show for an event and provide support and help in my efforts. When I first established the 4-H Busy Bees, I expected to have a full roster of participants. However, in reality, I only had five interested youngsters. However, with these five individuals, we were able to establish not one, but two pollinator gardens! Another important lesson is 2) Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I’ve learned I can’t do everything by myself. There truly is strength in numbers. One of my pollinator gardens is 2,500 square feet with 600 native plants. I reached out to Ocean County 4-H teens as well as Master Gardeners to help us with our planting. Today, we have a beautiful pollinator garden for bees, pollinators, and all to enjoy! 3) You must advocate for yourself. It is important to promote what you are doing. Reach out to your community, involve the press. Change doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I have learned utilize the power of press. I am currently planning two Honey Harvest Days at the Rutgers Bee Yard this summer. To promote the event, I reached out to Ocean County 4-H, Monmouth County 4-H as well as NJ 4-H. Because I recently was awarded the President’s Environmental Youth Award, the EPA is planning to present my award at the June Honey Harvest. I also contacted CBS News and they will now be coming to the June Honey Harvest as well. Having the support of media is can be a helpful communication resource to spread awareness surrounding the importance of honey bees and pollinators. 4) Learn from your mistakes. It’s okay to fail, as long as you learn. When one of my bee colonies died, I learned to do a “walk-away” split with another hive. Today, both of my hives are thriving. And lastly 5) Step out of your comfort zone. If I didn’t make a commitment to reach out to beekeepers, universities, and other individuals, I would not have been able to establish my hives and pollinator gardens. I credit the power of networking which has led me to my research as well as all of my community outreach efforts.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I encourage other young people to consider making a positive impact and tell them to think about the big picture! I would tell them to think about all the people who could potentially be affected by your efforts and compare that to what would happen if you did absolutely nothing! For me, knowing that your little stone, could potentially make some huge ripples, gets me motivated to do something!

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would like the opportunity for a breakfast or lunch with Dr. Samuel Ramsey. Dr. Ramsey went against conventional wisdom by discovering that the #1 killer of honey bees, the Varroa mite, was harmful to honey bees not because Varroa fed on the hemolymph of bees, but because Varroa fed on the fat body tissues of honey bees. I found his discovery highly inspiring. He is a young man who challenged conventional wisdom and made a huge discovery that turned the beekeeping world upside down!

How can our readers follow you online?

You can find me on YouTube at Katie’s Adventures in Beekeeping and on Instagram @ kt.bees as well as @ njhoneyqueenprogram and on Facebook at NJ Honey Queen.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Young Change Makers: Why and How Katie Culbert of 4H Busy Bees Beekeeping Club Is Helping To Change… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.