The teenager chosen to be a spokeswoman for Iowa’s beekeeping industry has spent her summer visiting fairs around the state to tell the public about the plight of bees. Gabrielle Hemesath of Clermont is the 2014 Iowa Honey Queen.

“Last winter, Iowa lost 70 percent of their honey bee populations, so it’s been a big struggle,” she says.

In a normal winter, the loss is far lower, somewhere between 15 and 20 percent. Hemesath says honey bees are crucial for the pollination of a wide variety of crops. Experts estimate at least one-quarter of the food consumed in the U.S. can be traced back to a plant that was pollinated by a bee.

“That’s things like 60 percent of fruits and vegetables, but also it effects things like beef because honey bees pollinate alfalfa and cows eat alfalfa,” she says. “So we need to take care of honey bees because they’re such a big part of our food supply, but honey bees have been dying off.”

Bee populations have been dying at a rate that USDA officials say is “economically unsustainable.” Bee keepers and researchers say the dramatic escalation in bee deaths is due at least in part to the growing use of pesticides. Hemesath is urging Iowans to think twice about killing those dandelions in the lawn.

“Because that gives honey bees a great source of food and also protects them from those potential pesticides,” Hemesath says.

Hemesath, a senior at North Fayette Valley in West Union, first started working with bees as a seventh grader. Her older sister was working for a beekeeper in Elgin and there was a job opening. She still works for that operation, but has two hives of her own as well.

“Honey bees are very nice creatures,” Hemesath says. “They won’t sting if they think you’re going to threaten their hive or their queen, so if you don’t bother them, if you’re calm around them, they won’t sting.”

Hemesath was crowned the 2014 Iowa Honey Queen last November. She visited the Clay County Fair this past week. She plans to compete for the title of American Honey Queen this December.

(Reporting by Ryan Long, KICD, Spencer; additional reporting and editing by Radio Iowa’s O. Kay Henderson)