Life is sweet: A love of bees turns into a buzz-worthy business for Stephen Hahn and Mark Manner

Stephen Hahn didn’t plan to become a beekeeper.

He started out helping his stepfather, Mark Manner, with his own hives in the spring of 2018. Manner retired from Ohio Edison in 2020 after 34 years.

“I just started doing it as a hobby to give people good, raw honey,” Manner says.

One year later, Hahn decided to buzz into the hobby, starting out with three hives.

“I ended up helping him and falling in love with the hobby,” Hahn says. “Everyone should be a beekeeper in my opinion.”

Now, between the duo, they have 32 hives, 23 of which are on Hahn’s seven-acre property on Taylor Road in Perkins Township. They’ve also taken that hobby to the next level by selling their unfiltered, raw honey via their own business, Plum Brook Apiary.

Plum Brook Apiary is among the 77 registered apiaries 659 hives in Erie County, according to statistics from the Ohio Department of Agriculture and Mike Hensley, naturalist at Erie MetroParks.

Hahn, who is a chef by day, keeps Russian bees because they are better suited for colder climates, form a tighter cluster in the winter, and are more disease-resistant.

They do have their disadvantages, though.

Hahn smokes the bees to calm them before checking the frames.“They are really feisty, and I have a full bodysuit because they go up my pant legs and sting my ankles,” Hahn says. “I get stung once or twice a week.”

Stings aren’t the only difficulty of the job.

“Honeybees are actually quite challenging to keep alive,” Hahn says.

That challenge comes from threats both big and small. Those “big” things can be human-driven, like what we spray on crops and lawns–lawn chemicals, insecticides, herbicides–to “small” – very small threats, like varroa mites, which feed on honey bees and introduce disease to hives. 

To combat those threats, Hahn does everything he can to keep his bees healthy and happy, including spending more than $1,000 on seed “just so they have their own area to forage without pesticides.”

“I try to keep my bees close to me, which is impossible, but I at least like to provide them with 7 acres of clover and wildflowers,” he says.

He also treats his hives for mites with vaporized oxalic acid, which can be found in rhubarb leaves and spinach.

Hahn’s concerns fall in line with what Hensley notes are “what some beekeepers refer to as the four Ps: parasites, poor nutrition, pesticides and pathogens.”

Other threats, Hensley says, are loss of habitat and fragmentation, climate change, and invasive plants and bees.

Beyond the threats, patience and care can facilitate a sweet reward in the form of honey.

“It’s a fascinating food, honey,” Manner says, noting the myriad of benefits of consuming local honey, including warding off allergies and improving heart health. Plus, honey never goes bad.

The duo continue to monitor the hives through the spring and summer to ensure the bees have enough ventilation and space. Then they harvest in July “the old-fashioned way” by taking the boxes of honey (called supers) off of the top of the hives and gently brushing back every bee into the hive.

The amount of honey they remove from the hives is dependent on what the bees were able to produce in a given season. If the spring brought drier weather, flowers would produce less nectar, meaning the bees would have less nectar to gather to take back to the hive. Hahn and Manner also create “a little security” in case the bees eat all of their food by creating a sugar candy board on top. As the bees cluster throughout the hive, they slowly move from the bottom of the hive to the top by the end of winter. 

Hahn moves some of the bee boxes to look for a queen.Each small box of bees holds about 25 pounds of honey, but it varies from year to year how much the duo harvest. Last year, Manner, says, they harvested about 600 pounds of unfiltered, raw honey. The bees need about 80-100 pounds of honey to survive, so Hahn and Manner are sure not to strip the hives completely of honey. 

“I try to leave the bees with as much honey for themselves as nature intended,” Hahn says. “We do not believe in overharvesting and then feeding them sugar water. This is unhealthy for them, and actually more work for us.”

Hahn notes that the only time he feeds the bees sugar water is in an emergency, which would be if the bees are going into starvation mode due to a dry spell late in the summer or if Hahn notices that the bees don’t have any honey stored for winter.

“They can have bad years and they will die of starvation if we don’t help them,” he says.

And speaking of helping the bees, Hahn addressed a common misconception when it comes to “saving the bees.”

“I always roll my eyes when people say, ‘you save the bees,’ he says. “Honeybees are not the ones we need to save; it is our native bumblebees and mason bees that are threatened and actually better pollinators than the non-native honeybees that we keep, but anything you do for your honey bees benefits our native bees as well.”

Education about what plants and flowers are the most beneficial to the bees is an integral part of this process, Hahn says.

“The main thing we need to do is really create a program to help all of the pollinators that are so important to our environment,” Hahn says. “In my field of grasses, I have echinacea, black-eyed Susans, milkweed, sunflowers, etc., most of which honey bees’ tongues can’t reach. I’ve grown that for all our native pollinators.”

Manner and Hahn inspect their hives.Hahn again reiterates the importance of being educated and aware of what we are putting out into the environment.

“Everybody spraying their lawns is probably one of the largest threats, because mason bees are solitary and make nests underneath leaves in your grass,” he notes. “They even drink water from the blades of grass and this goes with lightning bugs as well. That’s why we’re starting to see less of them.”

Even if the thought of bees makes you think of that awful scene in “My Girl,” (which, by the way, weren’t even bees–they were wasps) know that bees “play a vital role in our world and are more important than many people even realize,” Hensley writes.

Interested in starting your own backyard hives? Check out the Ohio apiary laws and regulations, which can guide beginners on what it takes to keep bees within the state of Ohio. Additional information can be found through The Ohio Department of Agriculture, as well as local beekeepers and associations.

To order honey from Plum Brook Apiary, call 419-627-2906 or 419-366-3351.