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Hiltz Bee Farm named Beltrami County’s Farm Family of the Year

Hiltz Bee Farm was recently named Beltrami County’s Farm Family of the Year by the University of Minnesota Extension after being nominated by a fellow beekeeper.

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Hiltz Bee Farm owners Les and Ruth Hiltz were recently named a University of Minnesota Farm Family of the Year.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — Les Hiltz once swore he would never raise bees.

But then Hiltz Bee Farm was born and ever since 1987, he’s been a self-proclaimed “bee guy” and dedicates his life to these busy, banded brown and yellow insects.

“We were building a barn for my uncle way back in the day, and one guy showed up late one day,” Hiltz explained. “Everyone was ribbing him on why he was so late, he said he had to tend to his bees that morning, and I thought ‘who in their right mind would ever raise bees?’”

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

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

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Their farm was chosen by the UMN Extension committee as Beltrami County’s winner based on their demonstrated commitment to enhancing and supporting agriculture.

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Bees swarm around the hives on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022, at the Hiltz Bee Farm.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

“This year's Minnesota's Farm Families of the Year reflect the breadth and variety of agriculture in our state," Extension Dean Bev Durgan said in a release announcing the winners. "The University of Minnesota is proud to honor these families and their innovation and dedication to Minnesota agriculture."

A change of heart

Just outside of Bemidji, Hiltz and his wife, Ruth, live down a short dirt road with a big squash garden, a couple rows of sugarcanes and 14 hives of bees.

It all started 34 years ago when a friend, Randy Frisk, told Hiltz it would be nice to see some squash in his field, just down the road from his house.

“So I did, I planted an acre and a half of squash and I hoed it by hand, but there were no bees,” Hiltz said. “(The squash) would flower and then drop off, there wasn’t any pollination.”

Hiltz walked into the house on a Friday night after seeing the deteriorating squash and told his wife that he was going to take the disk to the garden the next morning — he’d given up, but she was optimistic.

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Les Hiltz points at his squash garden on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022, at Hiltz Bee Farm.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

“Ruth told me to wait one more day because maybe some bees would show up,” Hiltz said. “Low and behold, come Sunday, it was loaded with bees and I (ended up getting) two pick-up loads of squash out of it.”

That’s when everything changed. Hiltz realized, “if we don’t have the bees, we don’t eat.”

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As Hiltz began researching the beekeeping trade online and learning from other experienced beekeepers, he found that it’s better to start with two hives instead of one, because 10% of bees just “sit and watch TV all day.”

He kept four hives for the first year to get into the groove — mostly to pollinate his squash — until eventually progressing to the 14 hives he keeps today.

“The most hives I’ve ever kept was 17 and my best year I ever had was in 2015 when I got 2,450 pounds (of honey) on 12 hives, I was smiling from ear to ear,” Hiltz said. “Last year, I had 12 hives and got 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.”

Healing power of honey

While tending to the bees and extracting the honey is left up to Hiltz, Ruth uses the honey for a bunch of other purposes — including cooking a number of delicious dinners.

Although she couldn't pick her favorite meal, Hiltz mentioned that her baked beans are by far the best.

“She’s got a pot of beans on as we speak,” Hiltz said with a laugh.

Ruth mentioned before their honeybees came along she’d been fighting a bad case of allergies for most of her life. Even forcing her to travel out of state to see multiple different allergists.

“I’ve got allergies big time,” Ruth said. “I would drive to La Crosse, Wis., to get 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 mix 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 of Hiltz honey is sold right from their front doorstep, the couple also participates 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.

Farming in his genes

Hiltz’s farming gene dates back to his grandfather, as he grew sugarcane and cooked it down for syrup. As a change of pace from the bees and squash, he decided to give sugarcane a try.

“My grandfather raised sugarcane and he had a press to press it out and cook it down for syrup,” Les said. “So this year I said to heck with it, I'm going to try it. Right now it's above my head, they usually grow about 8 to 10 feet tall.”

His mother was a farmer, too.

“My mothers family down in South Dakota raised sorghum for the chickens, so I have some of that down there too,” he added.

Hiltz wasn’t always a farmer though, he was a long-time employee of J.W. Smith Elementary School working as a custodial engineer and retired in 2002.

“I told them once I hit 62, I’m out the door,” Hiltz laughed. “Now I’ll be keeping bees until I can’t anymore.”

The future of beekeeping

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

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Bees swarm around the hives on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022, at the Hiltz Bee Farm.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Hiltz mentioned his best days are spent in a classroom at a local elementary school showing children what a day in the life of a beekeeper is all about. He also gives presentations on how to raise bees to folks all over the state.

“When I go into the kindergarten classes, often the teachers tell me they don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep their attention because their attention spans are so short,” Hiltz said. “I just say, ‘don’t worry about it, I’ll keep it.’”

Just like 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 go along with them.

“Throughout the whole demonstration, they don’t say a word,” he continued, “but when I'm done I open up the floor to questions, and by golly, they do a good job, they really get into it.”

Hiltz doesn’t just teach the kindergartners, he stepped into a leadership role in the beekeeper community as he took a number of new-bee apprentices under his wing. He invites all of them out to his hives to show them the ropes, but he’ll also take a trip to their hives if there’s a problem that needs fixing.

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Just outside of Bemidji, Les Hiltz and his wife, Ruth, raise a lot of squash and 14 hives of bees.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

“When I started there was another guy doing 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’re always looking for more beekeepers and that if anyone is interested, to give them a call at (218) 751-6597.

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

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Hiltz Bee Farm honey is mostly sold from their front doorstep, interested buyers can also find their honey at Sunrise Foods and Downtown Meats in Bemidji.
Maggi Fellerman / Bemidji Pioneer

Maggi is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer focusing on outdoor and human interest stories. Raised in Aitkin, Minnesota, Maggi is a graduate of Bemidji State University's class of 2022 with a degree in Mass Communication.
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