The Sweet Life
Brent Ian Wesley, BBA ’04, isn’t just a keeper of bees—he’s an entrepreneur with a passion for uplifting people while selling urban honey and men’s personal care products.
By Justin Glanville
From a distance, the scene looks like a 1950s science-fiction movie come to life.
Two beings, covered in what appear to be silver space suits with hoods over their heads, stand in a vacant lot, hunched over a half-dozen or so tall wooden boxes. Wisps of white smoke rise around them.
Come closer, and a low buzzing becomes audible. One of the beings looks up.
“Hey, how are ya?” asks a friendly voice from behind a mesh mask. “Come on in—just don’t get too close. I don’t want you to get stung.”
Brent Ian Wesley, BBA ’04—the man behind the mask—is probably Akron’s most famous beekeeper, and among its best-known entrepreneurs. Since 2013, he’s been maintaining bee colonies and harvesting the fruits of their labor for Akron Honey Company (AHC), the business he founded and runs with his wife.
But AHC and Wesley aren’t just about honey. A big part of what makes his work unique is that it happens right in the middle of Akron’s close-packed urban neighborhoods. His two main apiaries are on vacant lots surrounded by century-old houses, brick industrial buildings and busy city streets.
For Wesley, visibility and connection to community aren’t just incidental. They’re the whole point of his work.
“My first allegiance is to people,” he says. “When people see I’m doing good things with spaces that were once empty, it seems to give them hope. It solidifies in their mind that things are good.”
In fact, honey was the farthest thing from his mind when, with savings from his day job, he bought two vacant lots, measuring just under an acre, in Akron’s Highland Square neighborhood.
“They were for sale, near where I lived and affordable,” he says. “I thought, “I bet I could do something special there.’”
He bought the land for cheap, then sat on it until a friend suggested beekeeping. Wesley visited Amish country, tasted some locally produced varieties of honey and was blown away by the vivid flavors.
He got to work buying equipment and setting up his first bee colonies. Those space suits? They’re what prevent him from getting stung (mostly). The crates are where the queen, thousands of workers and a few hundred drones live and make honey. And the smoke, created by burning dead leaves, prevents the bees from spreading a signal to attack.
He’s also purchased additional lots on Akron’s East Side, where he’s set up another apiary, and he maintains another four colonies at St. Vincent–St. Mary Catholic high school nearby. He sells small batches of honey at local markets, each jar named after the apiary where it was collected.
“I don’t mix any batches together,” he says. “Honeybees forage within two to three miles of their colony, so when you keep the batches separate, you’re tasting the neighborhood where it was made.”As accolades and attention have poured in—“The flavors are amazing, no comparison to store-bought!” reads one typical review on the company’s Facebook page—Wesley is embracing a growing sense of confidence and ambition.
In addition to selling his honey at pop-up shops and local stores (and eventually online), he’s been traveling to larger-market cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago, attending conferences for entrepreneurs and trying to make connections with distributors, bloggers and other “influencers.”
“When people see I’m doing good things with spaces that were once empty, it seems to give them hope.”
Partly as a result of inspiration from those travels, he’s now developing a skin-care line for men—“The women’s market is already established,” he says, “while men are not as well served”—derived from beeswax, honey and its byproducts. He’ll produce an all-in-one body wash, moisturizing salve and possibly a hair conditioner in a small business incubator in the Northside District of Akron. The products will be for sale, he says, by the first quarter of 2018.
Wesley was selected to participate in a monthly professional development series at a Chicago think tank in 2016, and he received another motivation boost—and learned some hard lessons—when he appeared last year on “Cleveland Hustles,” LeBron James’ cable TV competition show for Northeast Ohio entrepreneurs. Wesley impressed the judges with his drive and mission, then stunned everyone by turning down a $100,000 investment offer.
“I realized I hadn’t defined for myself where I wanted AHC to go,” he says. “If I’d taken that money, I would have had to listen to somebody tell me, ‘You should do this or that,’ and then I might have lost my way.”
Not that he’s above constructive feedback. One of the reasons he’s been traveling to other regions is to push himself to think beyond Akron—while remaining rooted in the city that’s so fervently supported him.
“I love Akron, but if I just stay here I’m only going to have people clapping me up all the time,” he says. “Who’s really being a critic? Who’s giving me that dose of what’s real?”
In addition to his full-time day job, this father of two fronts an eight-piece soul band called Wesley Bright & The Honeytones and organizes a periodic Open Air Social Market at his Crestland Park Apiary to promote local artisans.
“At each market, we’ll represent a culture or theme—maybe it’s immigrants or women,” he says. “Or we’ll feature black entrepreneurs. Sometimes it feels like I’m the only local black entrepreneur some people know about. There are many others.”
Whatever happens, he doesn’t want to become so focused on running his business, or keeping bees, that he misses out on the spontaneous, personal interactions that give him purpose.
Just the other day, he says, an older man came up to him while he was harvesting honey at one of his apiaries and told him he used to live in one of the houses that had been torn down there.
“He walked around the lot with me, telling me about the old bricks his house had been made of,” Wesley says. “He told me he was glad I was doing what I was doing, that it made him feel better about the future.
“That’s what’s the most fun for me. It’s not crunching the numbers or even beekeeping itself. It’s making those connections with people I’d otherwise never meet.”
Brent Ian Wesley on finding purpose in vacant lots