Queen bee: 2014 Honey Queen spreads bee awareness with sweet title

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Not all queen titles with sashes and tiaras come from beauty pageants. For 2014 Indiana Honey Queen Katie Neighbors, the process involved essay writing and an interview in front of a panel of judges about none other than bees and honey. Pairing her sparkling crown and white sash with a black business-suit jacket, the 19-year-old Purdue University student stood by handing out ribbons at the Watermelon Seed Spitting Contest at the Indiana State Fair on Saturday.

At the State Fair, Honey Queen and Princess duties also include presenting honey-cooking and candle-making demonstrations, manning the Indiana State Beekeepers Association booth and answering people’s questions in an effort to spread bee knowledge. But their work doesn’t end with the fair. They promote beekeeping through presentations at schools, farmer’s markets and 4-H groups throughout the year.

PHOTO: Honey Queen Katie Neighbors and Honey Princess Teresa Nance pose Saturday in front of the Indiana State Beekeepers Association booth (courtesy Alex Kincaid/BSU Journalism at the Fair)

Neighbors has been beekeeping for three and a half years. Already fascinated by bees, she went to beekeeping school on scholarship in 2012, running for Indiana Honey Queen in 2014.

“I really like trying new things,” she said. “I’ve always liked helping people. Before I was queen I would come up here sometimes and help out with some of the booths, and I really wanted to get more younger people involved in beekeeping,” she said.

Neighbors wrote her essay for the Honey Queen competition on the antibacterial aspect of honey, and then underwent an interview with three judges from the Indiana State Beekeepers Association.

“They want someone who can speak in front of people,” Neighbors said.

“They’re kind of like our ambassadors,” said Lacy Dooley, board director of the Indiana State Beekeepers Association and 2011 Indiana Honey Queen.

Like Neighbors, Dooley was motivated to become Honey Queen to share her knowledge of bees with others and enjoyed the friendships and connections she made.

Being the youngest contestant running this year, Neighbors was shocked to win.

“People cheered,” Neighbors said. “I actually had some of my friends from college come down because I told them I was running for the Indiana State Honey Queen, and they just wanted to see what was going on even though none of them really like bees or beekeeping.”

PHOTO: Bees sit on display in the Agriculture and Horticulture building of the Indiana State Fair. Fairgoers can watch the bees as they produce honey and perform daily hive procedures. (courtesy Alex Kincaid/BSU Journalism at the Fair)

More people than just beekeepers should be concerned about honey bees. Jeff Dittemore, board president of the Indiana State Beekeepers Association, said bee colonies have dwindled from 6 million in the early 1940s to less than 3 million today for many reasons, including pesticides, poor farm practices—and a dwindling number of beekeepers.

“Our agriculture is literally built on the backs of bees,” Dittemore said.

For example, each year 1.2 million colonies of bees must be transported to California for the purpose of pollinating almond trees. This is 1.2 million of the fewer than 3 million colonies in the nation. Without the transportation of these bees from February to April, the state that produces 90 percent of the world’s almonds, an $8 billion industry, would not be able to do so.

Bees alone put $29 billion into the U.S. economy, Dittemore explained. That doesn’t include the $7 billion in hive products like honey, honeycomb and beeswax produced by bees.

“I don’t know of any other animal on the entire agricultural field that pulls that much financial weight,” Dittemore said.

The Honey Queen helps draw attention to these important issues. “They’re a face for us,” Dittemore said. Coming with a sparkly crown, the title also comes with a bit of fame.

People interrupted Neighbors’ duties to snap her picture and congratulate her on her title as she walked around the Agriculture and Horticulture Building.

“Are you Queen? Can I take your picture?” said an anxious fan fumbling with her camera. “I have a picture of all the Honey Queens!”

Neighbors said she enjoys the attention, especially from young girls who like to look at her tiara. It’s the perfect excuse to talk about bees.

“Yay Disney movies, for making me seem cool,” the environmental science major said with a laugh.

Alex Kincaid is a writer for BSU Journalism at the Fair, a Ball State University immersive-learning project placing 25 student journalists at the heart of the Midway to tell the weird and wonderful stories of the 2014 Indiana State Fair.