Hiltz Bee Farm Named Farm Family of the Year in Beltrami County – Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI — Les Hiltz once swore that he would never breed bees.

But then Hiltz Bee Farm was born and since 1987 he has been a self-proclaimed “bee man” devoting his life to these busy, striped brown and yellow insects.

“We used to build a shed for my uncle, and a guy showed up late one day,” Hiltz explained. “Everyone told him why he was so late, he said he had to take care of his bees that morning, and I thought ‘who would ever grow bees?'”

“Well, guess who?” he added with a laugh.

Hiltz Bee Farm was recently chosen as one of 85 winners of the University of Minnesota’s 2022 Farm Family of the Year after being nominated by a fellow beekeeper.

Their farm was chosen as the Beltrami County winner by the UMN Extension committee based on their proven commitment to improving and supporting agriculture.

On Wednesday 24 August 2022, bees will swarm around the hives at the Hiltz Bee Farm.

Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

“This year’s Minnesota Farm Families of the Year reflects the breadth and diversity of farming in our state,” Extension Dean Bev Durgan said in a press release announcing the winners. “The University of Minnesota is proud of these families and their innovation and dedication to farming in Minnesota.”

Just outside Bemidji, Hiltz and his wife Ruth live on a short dirt road with a large pumpkin garden, a few rows of sugar cane and 14 beehives.

It all started 34 years ago when a friend, Randy Frisk, told Hiltz it would be nice to see some squash in his field, near his home.

“I did. I planted an acre of pumpkin and hoeed it by hand, but there were no bees,” Hiltz said. “(The pumpkin) would bloom and then fall off, there was no pollination.”

Hiltz walked into the house on Friday night after seeing the deteriorating pumpkin and told his wife he would take the drive out to the yard the next morning — he’d given up, but she was optimistic.

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Les Hiltz points to his squash garden at Hiltz Bee Farm on Wednesday 24 August 2022.

Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

“Ruth said I had to wait another day because maybe some bees would show up,” Hiltz said. “Low and lo, come Sunday, it was full of bees and I (finally) got two pick-up loads of squash out of it.”

Then everything changed. Hiltz realized, “If we don’t have the bees, we don’t eat.”

When Hiltz started researching beekeeping online and learned from other experienced beekeepers, he found that it is better to start with two hives rather than one, because 10% of the bees just sit “watching TV all day” .

He kept four hives the first year to get into the groove — mostly to pollinate his pumpkin — until finally moving on to the 14 hives he has today.

“The most hives I’ve ever had was 17 and my best year ever was in 2015 when I gained 2,450 pounds (honey) on 12 hives, I was smiling from ear to ear,” Hiltz said. “Last year I had 12 hives and gained 1,650 pounds, which is good for a dry year. I didn’t think I would get that much, but it turned out really well.”

While looking after the bees and extracting the honey is left to Hiltz, Ruth uses the honey for a host of other purposes – including cooking some delicious dinners.

Although she couldn’t choose her favorite meal, Hiltz said her baked beans are by far the best.

“She’s had a pot of beans right now,” Hiltz said with a laugh.

Ruth said that before their honeybees came, she had been battling a severe case of allergies for most of her life. She even forced her to travel out of the state to see multiple different allergists.

“I have major allergies,” Ruth said. “I was supposed to drive to La Crosse, Wisconsin to have my allergies tested, but in the meantime I was drinking teaspoons of honey four times a week.”

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Hiltz Bee Farm honey is available at Sunrise Foods and Downtown Meats in Bemidji.

Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

As a natural sweetener, along with a blend of amino acids, vitamins, minerals, iron, zinc, and antioxidants, honey is used as an anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antibacterial agent.

“It works,” she added, “I haven’t had to drink honey since.”

Ruth said honey is also good for cuts, sores and burns.

While most Hiltz honey is sold right outside your door, the pair also participate in craft shows and booths at the Beltrami County Fair. They said people can also find their honey at Sunrise Foods and Downtown Meats in Bemidji.

Hiltz’s agricultural gene dates back to his grandfather, when he grew sugar cane and cooked it for syrup. Like a change of pace from the bees and squash, he decided to give sugar cane a try.

“My grandfather grew sugar cane and he had a press to squeeze it out and boil it for syrup,” Les said. “So this year I said I have to try, I’m going to try. Right now it’s over my head, they usually get about 8 to 10 feet tall.”

His mother was also a farmer.

“My mother’s family in South Dakota has grown sorghum for the chickens, so I have some of that too,” he added.

Hiltz was not always a farmer, however, he was a longtime employee of JW Smith Elementary School and worked as a civil engineer, retiring in 2002.

“I told them that when I’m 62, I’m out the door,” Hiltz laughed. “Now I’ll keep bees until I can’t anymore.”

Believe it or not, getting the beehives in the back of an old semi truck trailer where it keeps the heat at 95 to 100 degrees so the honey doesn’t harden and then literally churning tons of the golden goo isn’t Hiltz’ favorite part of the job.

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On Wednesday 24 August 2022, bees will swarm around the hives at the Hiltz Bee Farm.

Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Hiltz said his best days are spent in a classroom at a local primary school showing children what a day in the life of a beekeeper is like. He also gives presentations on bee breeding to people all over the state.

“When I go to kindergarten, the teachers often tell me they don’t know how long I can hold their attention because their attention span is so short,” Hiltz said. “I just say, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll keep it.'”

Just as he keeps his bees, he also keeps the attention of 5 year olds as he shows them every process of the business with real beehives and all the tools that come with them.

“During the whole demonstration they don’t say a word,” he continued, “but when I’m done I ask questions, and they do it well, they really get into it.”

Hiltz doesn’t just teach preschoolers, he took a leading role in the beekeeping community when he took on a number of new bee apprentices. He invites them all to his closets to show them the tricks of the trade, but he’ll also make a trip to their closets if there’s a problem that needs solving.

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Just outside Bemidji, Les Hiltz and his wife, Ruth, keep many pumpkins and 14 beehives.

Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

“When I started, there was another guy who did what I do and he had about 20 beekeepers under his wing,” Hiltz said. “Then I took over and now I have up to 220 beekeepers.”

Ruth added that they are always looking for more beekeepers and if anyone is interested call them at (218) 751-6597.

“It’s fun, but a lot of work,” Hiltz said. “You really learn to appreciate nature and you never live with the bees long enough to know everything about them.”

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Hiltz Bee Farm honey is usually sold from the front door, interested buyers can also find their honey at Sunrise Foods and Downtown Meats in Bemidji.

Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

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