82-year-old beekeeper still catches a buzz at work
Whereas most people run or scream at the sight of a bee, Walter Diehnelt chooses to be surrounded by them.
"I've spent 70 years amongst the bees," says Diehnelt, 82, a fourth-generation beekeeper and vice president of Honey Acres, a 40-acre bee yard that produces a million pounds of honey a year.
Founded in 1852, Honey Acres originally was located on Roosevelt Drive and Fond du Lac Avenue on Milwaukee's North Side. Today, it's 35 miles northwest of Milwaukee in Ashippun. Diehnelt's nephew, Eugene Brueggeman, is the CEO.
Honey Acres sells gourmet honey, honey crème, honey candy, honey mustard and features a honey museum called -- what else? -- "A Honey of a Museum."
Although summer is usually peak season for collecting honey, this summer was a time of recouping losses. Last year, almost all 1,800 hives -- and millions of bees -- were lost to mites. So far, they have 800 hives, and luckily this summer's weather was conducive to honey making.
"It can't be too hot or too windy, and the flowers need to get enough moisture and sunshine," says Diehnelt, a father of six. "Honey is very much an agricultural crop based on exterior conditions."
Each hive is expected to produce, on average, 120 pounds of honey per season. This year, even though there are fewer hives, they are producing at or above the average. Plus, the warm September weather helped Honey Acres retrieve honey later than usual in the season, which typically runs from March when the trees start to bloom until late August.
During the fall and winter months, bees live off of the honey they have stored, knowing there isn't nectar available when the ground freezes.
Beekeepers like Diehnelt take advantage of bees' innate behavior. To retrieve the honeycombs, beekeepers use smoke to trick the bees - which indigenously live in trees -- into thinking there's a forest fire. Consequently, they try to fly away, at least to the opposite side of the hive, so the beekeepers can access the comb.
Although he wears the traditional netted headgear, Diehnelt says he has never worn gloves. Because bees release a scent to alert the others when they sense danger, Diehnelt says the scent gets into the fabric of the gloves and makes collecting very difficult.
Does he get stung a lot? Absolutely.
"The stings are a part of the business," he says. "And we feel every single one of them. But we work with the bees in a certain way so we get as few as possible."
Diehnelt estimates he gets one sting for every 50,000 bees he comes in contact with. He says knowing where to stand, how to walk and how to react to bees is an important aspect of the art of beekeeping and the key to getting fewer stings.
"Basically, if you and I both walked into a bee yard, you would get stung but I probably wouldn't," he says.
Although he's never been hospitalized for stings, bees have attacked Diehnelt on numerous occasions. Once because the hives were infested with ants, and the bees, who were on the denfense, swarmed Diehnelt.
The time of year also makes a difference in bees' behavior. Early in the season they know there's plenty of nectar and are less protective, but by the end of the summer, they recognize the lack of flowers and are quicker to defend the hive by attacking trespassers.
Diehnelt says he's never tried any "bees stunts" like wearing a beard or coat of bees. Such an act might garner negative attention for Honey Acres, a company that tries to downplay the bee aspect of their business and focus on the flowers instead.
"As a company we associate honey with flowers and forget the bees. A lot of times people will see a bee and shudder," he says. "And who doesn't like flowers?"
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