Gatineau Hills’ ‘Honey Man’ to speak in Chelsea, Quebec

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by admin on April 15, 2010

Tijs Bellaar-Spruyt stands outside the family's honey house on Lac Bernard Rd.

Tijs Bellaar-Spruyt stands outside the family's honey house on Lac Bernard Rd.

Tijs Bellaar-Spruyt had a curious introduction to the world of beekeeping. Sent to boarding school in Basel, Switzerland, to escape the misery of post-war Netherlands, young Tijs found himself roaming the courtyard while his peers were in class.

“For some reason I was never told I had to go to school,” he said. “So I didn’t.”

His peers took notice and singled out the free-wheeling six-year-old as something of an anomaly. In an act of youthful malice, they told him to go look at the boxes hanging in the schoolyard. When Tijs obliged, they threw stones, stirring up the bees inside the hives.

He was hospitalized, his head shaved, his eyes swollen shut from the stings.

“So that was my introduction to beekeeping,” he said.

Tijs’ life is crowded with remarkable adventures with eccentric motivations, some quixotic, some hilarious, all worthy of attention. The patriarch of the Bellaar-Spruyt farm, whose sons Leaf and Ian now produce the popular Berg en Dal honey, will be recounting many April 19 at the Gatineau Valley Historical Society presentation, Beekeeping in the Gatineau Hills.

Raised in a small Dutch village near The Hague, Tijs seems to have developed an aversion to city life at an early age.

Tijs Bellaar-Spruyt climbs a tree to recover a swarm of bees.

Tijs Bellaar-Spruyt climbs a tree to recover a swarm of bees.

“When I go to town, I have to take an Aspirin as preventative medicine,” he said.

When his father was posted to Sydney, Tijs fled to Tasmania at age 13, where he worked for a beekeeper. Similarly, when he followed his family to Ottawa six years later, he wasted little time fleeing the city again. First, he followed a girl to British Columbia, where he worked on a tugboat.

“I fell in love with some lady and my heart went to B.C.,” he said. “It wouldn’t be the first time your heart tells you what to do and you shouldn’t, but you do it, anyway.”

The ladies used to call him “The Honey Man,” says his wife, Vivian.

The fair sex played a part in his settling on Lac Bernard Road, too. In 1963, after hearing about some available land from one of their mother’s friends, Tijs and his brother Diederik took two ladies for a picnic to check it out. They returned intent on buying the land, even though the house was a mess, and borrowed money from their father to do so.

The early farm days were stressful, as Tijs juggled his time between working for the Environment Ministry in Ottawa, studying agriculture at the MacDonald Campus of McGill University and raising livestock. Diederik once dreamed of selling sand to raise the money to repay their father. On another night, Tijs caught him sleepwalking out to the barn to perform his chores.

“Farms don’t make any money,” he said.

Tijs seems, at times, to have regarded his work as a curiosity as much as a calling. He said the local farmers were always shaking their heads. He raised peacocks for fun, calling them his “walking flowers.” Last spring, he raised quail but lost heart when it came time to kill them, and he eventually    released them.

“I killed a couple and felt so bad. I mean, they’re beautiful, right?”

This spring, he has 36 goose eggs in the incubator.

Tijs breaks off a branch full of bees

Tijs breaks off a branch full of bees

“If they all hatch, I don’t know what kind of trouble I’m going to get into.”

Tijs always worked at other jobs while farming on Lac Bernard Rd. For ten years he was a glaciologist for the Department of Mines and Technical Surveys, spending up to six months at a time in northern B.C. and The Territories.

One day, he received a call at his Ottawa office, informing him that his farm was on fire. He remembers arriving on the scene in his suit, looking at the dozens of silent faces watching the disaster. Among the blazing buildings was a shed containing 40 lbs. of dynamite, used for removing stumps. Once the fire was extinguished, he checked on the explosives to find they were leaking nitroglycerin, so he tied them o an elm tree and ran away.

“Well, you should have seen that tree, man. Like going to the moon,” he said.

Seven buildings in all, along with a number of sheep, pigs and goats, were lost in the fire. Two pigs – Dr. Johnny and Dr. Frankie – survived and were offered temporary refuge in the basement of the main house. “They really did a number on my basement,” Tijs said.

Still, when it came time to do them in, he couldn’t bring himself to do it, and he sold them on the condition that they wouldn’t be killed right away.

Tijs started keeping bees in 1964 with 10 colonies. Three years later, he had 300.

For two years he was granted a snapshot into all the region’s hives when he worked as the provincial bee inspector.

“Those were the hippie years,” he said. “Everyone had bees.”

Everyone seemed to be growing something, too, and Tijs found as many fields of “funny plants” as he did colonies during his inspections.

Tijs returns from the tree with his swarm of bees

Tijs returns from the tree with his swarm of bees

He admires the bees’ social unit, likening their governance to a House of Commons. He also appreciates that they aren’t being abused or slaughtered, that they’re given a home, and that the beekeeper is taking something that they make, anyway.

Tijs said beekeepers habitually converse with their bees, and he takes great pleasure watching his son Leaf carry the tradition.

“It’s a wonderful thing to watch a beekeeper complimenting or chastising his little people,” he said.

Tijs and Chelsea beekeeper David Selwyn will both be speaking at the historical society presentation at the Chelsea Library. Local historian Louise Schwartz will examine beekeeping from an historical perspective. Her article on former beekeeper Harley Selwyn will be in the next issue of Up The Gatineau, available next month.

In conjunction with the presentation, the Chelsea library will feature a beekeeping exhibit. The event begins at 7:30 p.m.