The buzzing of bees is a sound Brent Wesley, who goes by Wesley, finds comfort in when he arrives to any of his three apiaries in Akron to check on his busy bees.
Wesley laughs when he looks back at how he behaved around bees that were in close proximity to him prior to his newfound role as a beekeeper.
“I used to swat at the bees before I started beekeeping.”
Wesley is part of a larger movement of urban beekeepers in the country who are transforming their backyards and empty lots into a bee’s paradise. Many have started with one or two hives like Wesley and as their confidence in beekeeping has grown, so does their colonies.
The latest statistics to come out of the Ohio Department of Agriculture states that in 2015, there were 4,838 beekeepers registered in Ohio. It’s a growing number that represents 6,571 apiaries and 36,235 colonies.
Larry Theurer, president of the Greater Cleveland Bee Keeping Associaton, said that GCBA has had a record number of families, 109 total, taking beekeeping courses. It’s a trend that he sees happening not just in Cleveland but in Summit and Lorain County.
What started out as a way to repurpose blighted land turned into something more than a side hustle. In 2013, he bought his first two bee colonies from a beekeeper in Ravenna, Ohio. Since then, he expanded his two colonies to 20 colonies, give or take the season, climate and any pests or diseases that arise.
It was during a time when Wesley was driving through his own neighborhood that he noticed several vacant lots without a purpose in the neighborhood. His mission was simple: to breathe new life into vacant lots by way of bees and using his occasional pop-up market days to bring a community together for something sweet.
Three years into his business, Brent Wesley was one of eight budding entrepreneurs in the LeBron James’ ‘Cleveland Hustle’ project. The investors gave him a challenge: to sell $800 worth of honey in one day. Exceeding the expectations of the investors, he sold about $1,200 worth of honey and in return he was offered an investment most entrepreneurs struggle to find early on and sometimes not at all.
“They offered me $100,000 investment for 25 percent stake in the Akron Bee Company,” Wesley said.
Surprisingly, he turned down the investment and opted to continue building his business from the ground up and began to refine the direction of where his business was going.
“I’m so happy that I did, oh am I glad that I did. Why would they knowingly give me money without me having a plan of where my business was headed. I knew I needed time to evolve and now a year later, I realized that was the best decision at the time,” Wesley said. “It has evolved so much that it wouldn’t have been able to evolve if there was a price tag on it.
Wesley checks on his bees every day, going between his three apiaries: Crestland Park Apiary, Middlebury Park Apiary and Saint-Vincent-Saint Mary Apiary.
When he talks about his first encounter with a colony of bees, he admits he was intimidated by the process of raising honey bees. With four years under his belt, Wesley knows his way around the hives and the agility that is needed to handle each wired slab that often has thousands of bees working away to fill each comb.
“The further you go in the hive, the more agile they can get. It’s like a house they don’t want you in their house. This is the front door and they are tolerating us right now because they are busy working away,” Wesley said.
Wesley’s approach to extracting honey differs from how other beekeepers usually extract honey which is typically once or twice in a year. He extracts honey more frequently and doesn’t mix honey he gets from his different apiaries, allowing each batch of honey to reflect a flavor profile.
Spring time, particularly in urban areas, allows bees to extract nectar from multiple sources such as different trees, wild flowers, dandelions and so on. Walking through the brick-paved streets of the Highland Square neighborhood with Wesley, he stops and points at the plant life frequently, explaining how each dandelion, violet and cherry blossom tree contributes to the flavor profiles of the honey. It’s the abundance of blossoms, weeds and flowers that contribute to the success of urban beekeeping.
“Right now I know the bees are getting ready to take advantage of the extra nectar flow. I’m interacting with the neighborhood and seeing where they are going to, smelling the flowers and finding out where the bees like to go and not like to go.
At the Crestland Park Apiary, Wesley has the entire lot fenced off so the grass can grow high without fear of repercussions by the city. It’s this lack of grass cutting that he believes produces quality honey. His method is more meticulous but he believes it’s what people can’t necessarily find in the mass market.
“Clover honey is the quick way of doing it. I can easily harvest once a year and mix the honey all together without any background knowledge of where the flavor came from. But what value would that add to work done all-year round by the bees?” Wesley said.
“When people taste my honey, they don’t know what they are in store for. A lot of times I’m asked what I did to it and I tell them that I treat my honey like wine,” Wesley said.
Beekeeping is a far cry from his corporate job and his night side gig as ‘Bright Wesley’ who dishes out soul and old school R&B songs to large crowds. As Akron Honey continues to expand, he won’t leave his musical roots behind, if anything they add another rhythm to the sound of buzzing.
Wesley is continuing to learn as each season approaches because in the world of beekeeping, it’s all trial and error.
"It takes a long time to be good at it. You don’t know what is going to happen. For the first two years, you’re not going to know what will happen. Only once you go through it then you know what’s going on,” said Wesley, when giving advice to his fellow beekeepers.