Down on Honey Bee Road

BEMIDJI, Minn. -- Grass pokes up around the old tractor, which succumbs a little more each day to orange rust. In this place where practically all things have been marked by time and weather, there's a peeling white shed that holds equipment that...

Local beekeeper Les Hiltz maintains 14 beehives and by the middle of the summer each will hold about 60,000 bees. MAGGI STIVERS / FORUM NEWS SERVICE

BEMIDJI, Minn. -- Grass pokes up around the old tractor, which succumbs a little more each day to orange rust. In this place where practically all things have been marked by time and weather, there’s a peeling white shed that holds equipment that glistens, as if spanking new.

Les Hiltz has made retired life all about beekeeping.

At his farm outside town, Les raises colonies in the summer and harvests their honey in the fall. Last year he collected a literal ton of the golden goo. He sells jars to local stores and to people who come by the house, which sits on a gravel driveway marked with a sign: Honey Bee Road.

“If you get into beekeeping, you won’t get out,” he said. “It grows on you. It gets in your blood.”

Ruth, his wife, has somehow kept her distance. You won’t find her tending the hives, or churning honey out of the flawless, stainless steel extractors stored away in the shed.


Only when the bees are long out of the picture does she jump in. She makes her own mead with the honey Les declares too moist to sell. And she makes her own salve by combining mineral oils with the leftover beeswax. It’s worked wonders, they say, on their friend’s feet.

“He says he’s got baby feet now,” Les said.

Hiltz Honey and other small bee farms are humming right along while commercial bee farms are buckling. Here and across the country, bees are struggling. Their populations are dwindling.

A survey by the Bee Informed Partnership found that beekeepers across the country lost 44 percent of their colonies from April 2015 to April 2016. That’s up 3.5 percent from the year before, and roughly 10 percent from several years ago.

Family bee farms are, in most cases, too small to fail. Those bees aren’t often touched by the pesticides that ravage colonies on large farms.

“It’s the bigger guys dealing with that,” Les said. “They call it CCD, colony collapse disorder. If a bee comes in contact with some of those pesticides, it’s going to die.

“I do know one beekeeper,” he said, “who lost his bees when they planted a field across the road.”

Les started keeping bees 25 years ago, only a few at first, to pollinate a squash field on his farm. Ever since, he said, “everybody gets honey for Christmas.”


He started with four hives, then six, then eight. In the early days, he spent a lot of time on the internet, researching how to build his farm and raise his bees.

“But with that internet, you have to take everything with a grain of salt,” he said. “What you read on there, it’s not always so.”

The wooden hives that form a line in his backyard are always teeming and softly buzzing. This year he’s keeping 14 hives, and by the middle of the summer, each will hold about 60,000 bees. The average worker produces only a few drops of honey in a lifetime.

Around the hives, Les has built a fence with enough voltage to discourage Winnie the Pooh. He’s grappled with bears that want the honey, and skunks that want the bees.

“We had a deer hit the gate once,” he said. “Dropped right to his knees.”

Americans can thank bees for about one-third of the food we eat. According to Greenpeace, honey bees are the world’s most prolific pollinators by a wide margin. A single honey bee, the organization says, can pollinate 300 million flowers each day. Seventy of the world’s 100 most popular crops -- fruits, vegetables and nuts -- are pollinated by bees.

A threat to them is a threat to us, experts say.

Family beekeepers have tried to help, saving bees in their neighborhoods, and recruiting the next generation of beekeepers.


Les gives presentations across the state, but said he most enjoys visiting schools. The children write him letters, he said, with jokes too corny to run in the paper.

“Get it?” he said. “Not a bus driver. A buzzzz driver.”

Les is the undisputed bee expert around here. Many a beekeeper has turned down Honey Bee Road, or placed a phone call, seeking his apian wisdom.

“Whenever I can,” he said, “I like to help a beekeeper.”

It’s possible this really is in his blood. Les has absorbed copious amounts of venom by now, from accidental stings and intentional ones. A few years ago, his left wrist was acting up. He grabbed a bee and stuck the stinger into his arm. He did the same for a sore right knee.

“It’s better than cortisone,” he said, “if you’re not allergic.”

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