By Mary Beth Breckenridge Akron Beacon Journal
---- — AKRON, Ohio — Sarah Smithers got worried when she rarely saw bees in her Akron, Ohio, yard.
She knew how important bees were for pollination and was aware of the health threats faced by honeybees, in particular. “I just got worried that there was no place for them to be,” she said.
So she created a place, right on her front porch.
For about four years Smithers has kept two honeybee hives in her urban neighborhood, not far from busy East Market Street. From there bees fan out over the neighborhood, pollinating plants in their travels and bringing back nectar and pollen for use by their colonies.
She said she’d hoped the bees would deter homeless people from stopping on her porch, but either they didn’t realize what the hives were or didn’t care. So she put up fencing and removed the porch steps instead.
Many people think of beekeeping as a rural pursuit, but bees are just as important in urban areas, beekeepers say. In fact, since New York City lifted its beekeeping ban in 2010, bee hives have been proliferating in unlikely places like rooftops and balconies.
Beehives are found on the White House grounds and the roof of the Paris Opera House, and Dutch electronics company Philips has even developed a prototype of a glass, window-mounted beehive perfect for an urban apartment.
Even in the city, plenty of plants are available to support honeybees, said Denise Ellsworth, director of Ohio State University’s honeybee and native pollinator education program.
Ellsworth said the bees will visit a long list of plants, including annuals, perennials, herbs and blooming trees and shrubs. They’ll also travel three miles or more in their searches for nectar and pollen, she said.
“Typically finding forage in a big city isn’t a big problem,” Ellsworth said.
That’s been Almuth Koby’s experience in more than three years keeping honeybees in her backyard near downtown Kent, Ohio. Her older neighborhood has plenty of flowers, some vegetable gardens, woods and a swampy area — enough plants to supply the bees’ needs, she said.
Koby started keeping bees so she’d have a supply of local, fall-derived honey to fight her allergies. She eats honey derived from fall-blooming plants in the hope of building immunity to the allergens, but the honey she was buying was expensive and not always available, she said.
The first summer, her bees produced more than 100 pounds of honey, but they didn’t survive the winter. Her replacement bees have been less productive, although they usually make enough honey for her family’s needs, plus some to give away.
She keeps her two hives somewhat low-key, because she knows some people are afraid of bees. But she’s never had any complaints from the neighbors, she said.
“I try to be a good citizen when it comes to beekeeping,” she said, such as making sure the bees aren’t especially aggravated when she opens their hives. If someone in the neighborhood were to be stung, “I’d rather not feel that it could have been my bees,” she said.
Honeybees will sting to defend their colonies, but usually they’re not aggressive. When they’re foraging, they rarely sting unless they’re stepped on or otherwise threatened.
After all, a honeybee usually dies after it stings, so it doesn’t want to use that defense unnecessarily, Koby noted.
Sometimes the fear of honeybees is misplaced, said Geoff Westerfield, president of the Summit County, Ohio, Beekeepers Association and a beekeeper in Akron. People often confuse them with more aggressive yellow jackets, he said.
Still, Ellsworth urges would-be beekeepers to consider the neighbors’ concerns before committing to keeping bees. A hive might have 50,000 workers out foraging, so “it’s not just a few bees. It’s thousands of bees,” she said.
Allergies are a prime concern for some. Although bee allergies are often confused with normal swelling in response to a sting, legitimate bee allergies can be deadly. If a neighbor is allergic to bees, that might affect where you put the hives or whether you keep bees at all, Ellsworth said.
You can mitigate problems by putting a tall barrier such as a fence or arborvitae hedge between the bees and the neighbors, Ellsworth said. The bees will fly up to get over the barrier, she explained, and then they tend to continue flying at that height, above people’s heads.
She also recommended checking local regulations on beekeeping. Even if your community allows it, laws may regulate how close hives can be to property lines or buildings.
“It really is all over the board,” she said.
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Ellsworth said it’s also important to manage the bees properly and make sure they have plenty of room. That reduces the chance that they’ll swarm, which is the bees’ way of breaking off and forming a new colony — and which often scares people who don’t realize the bees are fairly docile in that situation because they have nothing to defend.
Westerfield said he’s never had any complaints, even though his hives are near his neighbors’ deck, pool and barbecue grill. “They’ve never had any issues with it,” he said.
Rather, he said the bees are a source of fascination for his two children, who are 4 and 7. They’re not even afraid to, as he put it, “go nose to nose” with the bees.
Smithers isn’t quite so fearless.
“I frankly don’t like them touching me. I don’t like bugs on me,” she said, pulling on a pair of rubber gloves as she prepared to open her hives on a recent afternoon. She also wears a hat outfitted with a homemade veil that she tucks into her neckline to keep the insects off her head and out of her clothing.
In fact, when she first considered keeping bees, she worried that she’d discover she was allergic or just too scared. But “it didn’t freak me out like I thought it would,” she said.
Smithers doesn’t medicate her bees, but she does check for the mites that can kill them and uses sugar-based home remedies to keep the mites’ spread in check. So far she hasn’t lost any colonies over the winter, as many beekeepers have.
Smithers sometimes gets honey from the hives, but that’s not her aim. She said she just wants to support the bee population and do her part to expand their numbers in Ohio.
“They are very nice bees,” she said. “I love my bees.”