8 minute read

Lorenzo's Legacy: Miami's Apiculture Society

By Kelly McKewin
Photography by Lydia Hanicak

It was late morning, on a sunny day in Summit Lake, Wisconsin, in the summer of 1970, when Alex Zomchek, a bright, curious 10-year-old, went bike riding with his brothers and friends through their neighborhood, and one of the boys suggested a shortcut. The group could ride through the yard of an elderly neighbor.

Zomchek, responsible for his age, protested; the house in question was the “evil” house in the neighborhood, the one his parents warned him to stay away from. But the other boys had all gone ahead, and not wanting to be left behind, Zomchek reluctantly followed. However, just as he biked across the neighbor’s lawn, his fear materialized: his elderly neighbor, the one who lost one of his arms in World War 1, and reminded him of Captain Hook, had stepped outside and was coming towards him.

“To my 10-year-old eyes, he had to have been 250 years old,” Zomchek says.

But the old man did not yell or chase Zomchek off his lawn. Instead, he beckoned Zomchek closer, asking him to come around the side of the house, so he could show him something.

Despite his fear, Zomchek followed. There, on the side of the house were two beehives, and before Zomchek even knew what was happening, his neighbor had taken the top off one of the hives -- he had no suit or veil or gloves -- and pulled out a frame of glistening honey. He set the frame on top of the hive, went back into the house, and returned a few moments later with two spoons. He scooped a dollop of the “angel white wax” onto one of the spoons and handed it to Zomchek.

“Try this,” he says.

The raw honey was an explosion of fl avor in Zomchek’s mouth, and after that fi rst taste, he was hooked. He ran home later that day and began to learn everything he could about honeybees, and more importantly, how to keep honeybees. He was so taken by the one bite of perfect honey, he wanted to harvest it on his own.

And so he did. Zomchek built his fi rst hive at 12, and has kept bees ever since, taking only one year off during his freshman year of college when he could not fi nd a way to bring or care for a hive at school.

Now, 47 years after that first encounter, Zomchek works at Miami University’s Ecology Research Center, still studying and keeping bees. He is also the president of the Butler County Beekeeper’s Association (BCBA), a group mainly populated by local farmers and beekeepers from the 31 farms around the county that sell honey. However, the group gained two new members this year; ones who do not fi t the typical demographic of the group: two Miami University seniors inspired by Zomchek, Jack Fetick and Luke Elfreich.

MIAMI APICULTURE SOCIETY

Fetick and Elfreich joined the BCBA after deciding to found the Miami Apiculture Society, a club on campus devoted to keeping bees and learning about the species. The pair decided to establish the club nearly two years ago when they came across a story about Zomchek’s work in a magazine. Neither Fetick nor Elfreich had kept bees before, but they were intrigued by the concept and inspired by the fact that bees are facing a high mortality rate, and thus wanted to learn more about the practice.

“It’s the perfect mix of all these things. I think it’s a great platform for environmental awareness here, it’s a good way for kids to get involved,” Elfreich says.

Additionally, the pair was inspired by beekeeping’s close tie to Oxford. Known as the “Mecca of beekeeping” by those familiar with the history of apiculture, Oxford was the location of the fi rst modern beehive in 1856, invented by Lorenzo Langstroth.

Langstroth, a clergyman from Philadelphia, moved with his family to Oxford in the late 1850’s, where he built and patented the fi rst hive ever to have movable frames. He imported Italian queen bees and planted thousands of fl owers on his 10 acre property in an effort to cultivate more honey. His successful hive design became the norm for most beekeepers in the country, both then and now. His former home, Langstroth Cottage, resides on Patterson Avenue and since 1982 has been a National Historic Landmark.

“I’d walk past the Langstroth Cottage and see the historical marker out there talking about how important it is and how a whole industry, a whole world, was revolutionized here in Oxford, Ohio,” Fetick says. “So I was like ‘wow, that’s pretty cool. That’s something Miami has that nobody else really has.’”

Zomchek was surprised when Fetick and Elfreich approached him about starting a bee club. While he has always wanted something like Fetick and Elfreich’s organization to develop, he has refused to start a club on his own, worried that there would not be enough interest to sustain a hive. He was even concerned when Fetick and Elfreich fi rst asked to start the club, unsure that even their enthusiasm could generate enough interest on campus.

“I was skeptical. I said to them upfront ‘I will give you as much time as you need, but if you’re going to do this, do it seriously. Create a club that’s sustainable, like the bees themselves. Don’t let it die with you.’ I didn’t want to give them several hundred of my hours only to watch them graduate and wait another 23 years for somebody else to come along,” Zomchek says.

Thus, he has been quite pleased not only with Elfreich’s and Fetick’s efforts last winter and spring in starting the club, but also with the sheer number of students who come to meetings and are interested in the Apiculture Society. 72 students are registered as club members on The Hub, and a dedicated group goes out to the hives behind Boyd Hall each weekend.

“We just want a club that people can keep bees and continue to realize the legacy of beekeeping on campus and how important it is, and how much fun it can be,” Fetick says.

THE PLIGHT OF HONEYBEES AND HUMANS

While Fetick and Elfreich try to make the club as much fun as possible for the members, there are some serious undertones to what they are doing. Honeybees have faced a growing mortality rate over the last 25 years. A survey from the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that nearly 44 percent of bee colonies died between the summer of 2015 and the spring of 2016. However, their survey relies on selfreporting from only a small percentage of beekeepers around the country, making many experts guess that the fi gure is actually higher, especially in eastern states like Ohio.

Zomchek estimates that nearly 60 percent of bees in Ohio die each year, which poses a challenge when it comes to making up the loss. He says that back in the 1970’s, when he fi rst kept bees, the loss rate over the course of a year was only about 3 percent.

“I don’t care who you are, you can’t stay in business if you lose 60 percent of your product every year,” Zomchek says.

In the early days of rising bee mortality rates, there were rumors that humans would die out completely without bees. This rumor is false; however, the consequences of bee extinction are still severe.

About one-third of all food consumed by people needs to be pollinated by bees. However, as most

of these foods are fruits and vegetables, this one-third contains about 80 percent of all vitamins and minerals humans need to survive. Without bees, these foods will diminish in quantities and thus become signifi cantly more expensive to buy.

As Zomchek explains, this can cause a chain reaction of negative consequences. With fruits and vegetables more expensive to buy, many families will opt to buy “cheap calories” as Zomchek calls them, in the grocery store: foods that are often processed and loaded with unhealthy fats and sugars. In turn, this will negatively impact the health of more members of the population, which can lead to increases in diseases like Type 2 diabetes and obesity.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 36 percent of the U.S. popular is currently obese, and just over 9 percent of the population has diabetes. If these numbers were to increase, it would cause a huge fi nancial and labor strain on the country’s healthcare system, and an overall decreased quality of life.

“I am motivated by the larger goal of solving the bee problem so we can solve the food problem so we can solve the health problem,” Zomchek says.

SAVING THE BEES

Fortunately, Zomchek’s research, and the efforts made by local beekeepers and groups like the Miami Apiculture Society, bring hope for the longevity of honeybees.

Fetick and Elfreich lead club members in monitoring the hives closely and keep detailed notes on the progress of the colonies, noting the amount of wax and nectar the bees have built up. They perform a regular “sugar shake” on the hives. The process involves scooping up nearly 300 bees, placing them in a jar with powdered sugar, and straining them out in a coffee fi lter to estimate the number of varroa mites infecting their hives.

A small parasite about the size of a pepper fl ake, varroa mites were brought to the U.S. during the 1990’s through trade with China and Southern Africa. The mites reproduce in honeybee hives, and often drink the blood of bees, which weakens the entire colony. Today, they often carry diseases or pathogens that can wreak even more havoc on hives and colonies.

Of course, not everyone has the means or the interest in becoming a beekeeper, but Elfreich says that everyone can make a difference when it comes to saving bees.

“A regular hive can take 400 million fl owers just to sustain itself for a cycle and that’s quite a bit,” Elfreich says. “I think if everybody just does a little bit here and there and plants the right things, that’s something that’s very easy to do and can alleviate many issues.”

However, Elfreich also warns people about falling into traps that actually harm bees. Honeynut Cheerios, for example, had a promotion where they sent consumers packets of seeds to plant in an effort to save bees, but the particular brand of fl ower turned out to be an invasive species in many areas around the country. He says a quick Google search to fi nd out native fl ora in different areas is a better way to resolve the issue.

THE FUTURE

What lies ahead for the honeybee is hard to predict, but at least for the future of the Miami Apiculture Society, Fetick and Elfreich have plans. Though they only have two and a half hives this year, they hope to expand in the years ahead. Currently, the club is working on making sure the hives have enough resources to survive the coming winter, when fl owers, and therefore food, will be scarce.

“It’s a race against the clock for us to make sure these guys have everything they need as far as numbers, food, and everything else to last through the winter,” Elfreich says.

If all goes well, the club would like to eventually have more hives in more locations on campus, as well as to produce honey they can sell to Miami students and Oxford residents alike.

For Zomchek though, the club itself is a testament to how long he has been passionate about beekeeping. The 10-year-old boy who fell in love at his fi rst taste of honey now gets to teach and share his passion with a new generation of young people.