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A honey of a family business
Beekeeper Phil Veldhuis and assistant Marcus Wiens walk around towers of boxes (supers) that are home to thousands of bees without regard for those buzzing around.
But after he lifts off the lid and protective blanket on one super, an agitated bee stings Wiens on the nose.
"There are worse places to get stung," jokes Wiens, 23, rubbing his nose.
Before they start extracting the frames containing honeycomb, Veldhuis says they’ll suit up to prevent more stings.
The morning of July 24 was the first time this summer they had harvested honey from the towers, situated in a wooded area close to the La Salle River southwest of Starbuck. They were also preparing to divide up the hives in hopes of expanding the bee population before the winter.
"It’s a big gamble," said Veldhuis. "I’m reducing production by doing this."
He hopes to get a second, and possibly third, crop of honey before the cold weather forces him to haul his hives indoors.
He overwinters his bees inside a building on his property near Starbuck, but last winter was tough and many bees died. So many, in fact, that the number of hives he set out this year across more than 30 locations was reduced from approximately 1,200 to 600.
"I lost about half," said Veldhuis.
Varroa mites have reduced honey bee populations in North America over the past 20 years by attaching themselves to adult bees and larva and then sucking their body fluids, thereby weakening or killing them. The mites also spread viruses.
"They continue to be a big culprit in die-off," said Veldhuis, adding that the mite seems to be able to adapt to preventative measures taken by beekeepers.
Another threat to continued honey production is the decreasing amount of natural vegetation that Veldhuis’ bees can use as a nectar source before and after canola crops bloom. He said biodiversity is necessary, especially in rural areas.
"Plant a few trees and don’t chop them down," he said. "Don’t mow all your yard. Leave a bit of wild."
While this is the second season Wiens has worked as a beekeeper, Veldhuis , 45, started when he was just 16. He says beekeeping is in his family, and some relatives on his mother’s side have kept bees near Wawanesa, Man. for over 100 years.
Veldhuis’ other job is philosophy professor, and he teaches a logic course at the University of Manitoba. Asked if he’s able to incorporate any beekeeping analogies into his lectures, he said most of his students don’t know anything about bees and beekeeping, so they wouldn’t understand. However, his many years of experience as St. Norbert Farmers’ Market board president, Manitoba Cooperative Honey Producers chair, and Manitoba Beekeepers Association president allows him to provide corporate examples that his students can more readily understand.
Veldhuis was one of the first local business owners to sell his products at St. Norbert Farmers’ Market under the Phil’s Honey banner. His son Tim, 13, has helped out at the family’s stall for years and plays his fiddle to attract and entertain customers.
While about 90% of his honey is sold through the Manitoba Honey Cooperative under Bee Maid Honey, Veldhuis thinks it’s important to also sell directly to customers at the farmers’ market. He enjoys answering their questions and explaining his business.
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