A small grassy strip of land tucks neatly between two homes in West Akron. A well-crafted fence surrounds the area. Inside, two stacks each with three wooden hives house a queen bee holding court to thousands of workers.
Brent Wesley walks across the grassy lot, citing, “A colony can get anywhere from 20,000 to 60,000 bees; they’re building out the combs, the queen’s laying the eggs, nursing the young, storing honey on top.”
It’s quite a production, but the bees flitting about outside the hives can’t be bothered with the visitors talking with and photographing Wesley and his Akron Honey Company, a sustainable agricultural start-up he founded last June at the Crestland Park Apiary.
Wesley, a Cleveland native who works for a technology company and performs in the band Wesley Bright and the Hi-Lites, wanted to do something with this land where a house once stood, so he started an apiary.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have the mentors I did,” Wesley says.
Bees, in fact, produce more than just a gooey sweetener.
“Approximately one-third of all the food Americans eat is directly or indirectly derived from honey bee pollination,” states the Atlanta-based American Beekeeping Federation (ABF). Commonly pollinated crops include melons, apricots, cucumbers, avocados, berries, onions, almonds and blueberries.
Wesley bought his hives from a Kent apiarist. And during transit — with the tops of the hives sealed and a screen placed over the hives’ entrance, he recalls the drive home during spring 2013 with his new purchase.
“I’m hearing all this loud buzzing in the trunk thinking, ‘Oh … what am I doing?’’
The Akron Honey Company is registered with the state, and it’s sort of a family affair. Wesley’s wife did help with the first harvest last year, “helping to filter and strain the honey,” Wesley recalls. And the eldest of his two daughters helped to paint some of the hives.
“My wife is good about that; she pretty much lets me do what I need to do,” Wesley says.
He concedes that he has a natural inclination, like many, to swat at bees that are buzzing about. But in the beekeeping world, “you learn not to behave like that,” he says. “They’re just checking you out.”
At this writing, Wesley says he has been stung just once since owning his apiary, and that was because he was distracted by one of his daughters while checking a hive when he inadvertently touched a bee.
And as most know, after a bee stings, it will die. That same fate lies with a drone, a male bee that does not possess a stinger and at first glance seems to live a pretty grand existence.
“The drones, the boy bees, are bigger and much fewer than the workers, the girl bees,” Wesley says. “All drones do is eat honey, rest and have sex with their queen.” That mating ritual takes place in the air, after the queen puts out a pheromone scent to attract a drone.
“It’s funny, you hear like a pop when they mate, and afterward the drone falls down and dies,” Wesley says.
A prolific queen can lay up to 3,000 eggs a day, states the ABF. The infertile workers are charged with guarding the hive, food preparation, building and repairing honeycombs, feeding and caring for the queen and brood (baby bees), feeding the drones as well as heating and cooling the hive. Outside the hive, workers gather nectar and pollen.
“Pollen provides protein and is used to feed the babies, and the nectar provides the sugar to make honey,” Wesley states.
During pollination, bees transfer pollen (male sex cells of a flower) from the anther to the stigma, the receptive service of the female organ of a flower.
It’s a tough life for the bees. ABF says the average life of a worker bee in the summer lasts six to eight weeks, the most common death being the wearing out of its wings. Within that short amount of time, “the average honey production of a worker is one-twelfth of a teaspoon … and they will have flown the equivalent of one and half times the circumference of the earth.”
“Bees are selfless, they live to ensure their future generations will be thriving,” Wesley acknowledges.
Those who like a neatly manicured landscape may want to rethink their upkeep and give bees a better chance at finding food. Wesley points to tiny yellow flowers scattered on the lot adjacent to the hives.
“You see those flowers back there? he asks. “A lot of times, especially in suburban areas, we cut everything down, like the grass so it looks nice and pretty like we live on Wysteria Lane on “Desperate Housewives.” But that’s what bees need, and we’re just cutting away their food! It’s why pollinating is pretty challenging for bees, that, on top of spraying pesticides …”
The bee colony at the Akron Honey Company, as with all colonies, will spend its day foraging terrain two to three miles away, sometimes beyond, from the Crestland Park Apiary, to gather nectar and pollen.
During springtime bee colonies flourish, Wesley says, thanks to the “nectar flow, when all the flowers are blooming, the sun is shining … the bees thrive in this climate.”
Harvest time plays out June through September, and Wesley doesn’t worry about his apiary’s neighbors, emphasizing: “The bees don’t bother anybody. They’re programmed to live and work. That’s it. Your best employees are bees.”
He adds that beekeepers should not harvest all of their frames of honeycomb, saving ample sustenance for the bees to live on during the winter.
Honey bees are no strangers to pestilence, arriving in the form of Varroa mites, a parasite that feeds on them. But a baking staple helps rid of the intruder.
“I take a backyard approach,” Wesley says. “I dump powdered sugar into the hive; it doesn’t hurt them. It looks like a bunch of white ghost bees flying around. And the mites can’t hold onto the bees to do their damage.”
After filling a smoker with twigs, leaves and junk mail, Wesley dons a hooded bee jacket with a mesh face screen, slips on gloves and heads toward a hive to pull a frame to check the bees’ progress.
Pumping the smoker at one of the hives, the fumes interfere with the pheromones sent to the workers by the queen, and the bees slowly waver, stopping their frenetic dance. It’s a good move, considering the queen is left to her own devices and may cause an uprising.
In addition to expanding the Akron Honey Company and making sure folks will have fresh fruit and veggies on their table, Wesley, who’s had offers to place hives on other properties, plans to further entrench himself in the Akron community with outreach.
He’s working with Akron Public Schools and will be conducting a field day this summer with “Let’s Grow Akron,” a nonprofit that works to promote health and nutrition in poorer neighborhoods.
He adds, “As far as beekeepers are concerned, there’s a drought of young beekeepers and beekeepers of minorities. That’s another area I want to address to get this more inclusive.”
Reiterating the value of honey bees’ contribution to the food population, Wesley offers an Albert Einstein quote, which, some say, has yet to be substantiated, yet seems to offer some contemplation.
“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”
For more information about the Akron Honey Company, visit https://www.facebook.com/Akronhoney/.