Akronisms | Inside Akron’s backyard beehives

Don’t squish the bees!

Words and photo by Jeff Davis

You’ve probably never been inside one of Akron’s beehives, of which there are many more than you might realize. Some are in backyards and gardens. Some are on roofs or porches. Some are hidden behind fences. They are on commercial properties and in neighborhoods. Sometimes there is only one hive. In some cases, a half-dozen or more, with the bees just going about their business and not bothering a soul unless provoked.

Note the syllable “hive,” which is not to be confused with a “nest.” A bees’ nest is a collection of wild bees living in the ground, a tree or perhaps a fallen log. These bees might be big, black and fuzzy, like bumble bees and carpenter bees, which are often solitary and stingless. They could be yellow jackets — which aren’t bees at all — but instead wasps who live in the ground, appear at late summer picnics, and chase people around their yards. These haters can (and do) sting repeatedly. In this case, yellow doesn’t mean caution. It means beware!

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Here, we are talking about honey bees, also known as Apis mellifera, which scientists say help pollinate about one third of our food supply. Honey bees are generally colored in shades of brown with black stripes and can live in trees and logs. They can also live in a wooden box known as a hive: a bee home that is under pretend-management by a human incongruously known as a “beekeeper.” 

We choose our words carefully here, because honey bees haven’t yet been domesticated. They like to be fed, but they definitely won’t come when they are called. Even when given a nice home and lots of attention, they will sting those who mess with their honey or babies. Sometimes a bunch of them will pick up and leave like ten thousand lovers scorned, in what we call a swarm. We may say “keeping bees,” but “herding cats” is the appropriate simile here.

So, how many beehives are there in Akron? It’s hard to tell. Beehives don’t always survive Ohio’s winters, and keepers aren’t always able to manage a hive’s nutrition or control predation, so the numbers go down. New colonies are purchased from suppliers every spring, so the numbers go up. The wildcard is that beekeepers often divide their hives to prevent half their bees and a queen from departing in a swarm. 

One theory is that bees swarm when they feel crowded. Splitting one hive into two puts a stop to that. Experienced beekeepers can do this a couple times each season, meaning they can split one hive into two, two into four and four into eight in a manner of months. So, the number of hives in town will change through the seasons. We can only guess their number. 

Still, we do know the number of “apiaries” in the area, which is the number of properties that have hives. Randy Katz, the Summit County bee inspector, says there were 396 registered apiaries in the county in early May. That could easily represent 1,000 to 1,500 individual hives. There could be 200 to 250 hives in Akron. More than you thought, right?

Whether people want to profit from the bees’ work by selling honey and wax or take up beekeeping merely for honey on their breakfast toast and more productive gardens, folks who want to keep bees should begin by asking themselves if they are ready for the responsibility.

After all, these are living creatures. Bees are like dogs and cats and children: they require care, commitment and some education. 

Beekeeping classes and a little book learning is a wise idea. Then, and only then, should people gather the appropriate supplies, a $150 to $200 investment to start — not including the cost of the bees.

Bees won’t just find a new hive and fly in of their own accord. The prospective keeper has to buy a box of bees and a fertilized queen from a dealer ($150 or so), divide an existing hive or catch a swarm: a big, scary looking bunch of bees that likely belonged to someone else a couple hours ago. But then they just flew away, likely because they were unhappy with their current living conditions. Maybe they felt crowded, for instance.

When honey bees swarm, they can’t be stopped. They will march out of their hive with their queen and fly in a low circular cloud until they’ve collected about half their hive mates, then fly to a holding area, where they will hang out for a short time while scouts search for a new home. 

It’s an amazing sight when a swarm lands. Just try to imagine a big glob of 15,000 buzzing bees. It would certainly be a threatening sight if you didn’t understand what’s happening. So here’s an important personal safety tip for those tripping over each other trying to get away: Bees gathered as a swarm are as gentle and as harmless as they will ever be, because they have no babies and no food to protect. Anyone who says they’ve been attacked by a swarm of bees was probably attacked by two or three bees who were accidentally disturbed or is talking about some other type of flying creature. Don’t run for the pesticide if you see one of these big globs of bees in a tree, a bush or on the tire of a car in a parking lot. They can often be collected and re-homed by an experienced beekeeper. The Summit County Beekeepers Association has a helpful list online if you need a name.

One thing that the keeper will try to do is find and save the queen, who is likely buried somewhere in the middle of that glob. If she is there — and she should be — the keeper can start a new colony. Every colony needs a fertilized and productive queen to survive. During her two to three-year lifespan, she will lay 1,500 to 2,000 eggs per day from late winter through late fall, which is necessary because a typical worker bee (always female) lives only about six weeks and a critical mass of bees is required if the colony is to survive.

Most of a worker’s time on earth is spent in the hive, first as a nurse bee taking care of newly hatched brood, then as a house bee, whose job is to keep the place tidy and help make honey.

After three to four weeks, she becomes a guard. Only in her last weeks of life will she become a forager, doing her pollination thing and bringing pollen and nectar back to her sisters.

There are a few males in the hive called drones, though there are not many. One can imagine what their only job is. They tend to live a little longer than the females, but they are kicked out of the hive and die in late fall. The females don’t want them sitting around all winter eating honey and watching football.

A little-known fact about bees is that the queen produces different, fatter bees in the late fall that are able to survive most of the winter. How is it that eggs from the same queen can live for either six weeks or three months? How can a queen survive up to three years? Scientists don’t exactly know.

Could it be something in the water? It’s believed Juan Ponce de León came to the New World via the second journey of Christopher Columbus. He stayed in the Americas for many years, but he never found the elusive Fountain of Youth.

Maybe he should have looked in a few back yards in Akron.

Jeff Davis is a retired writer, editor and teacher, and a member of the Summit County Beekeepers Association. He prefers his honey on hot biscuits.

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