Don Fishbaugher and his daughter Madi enjoy spending time together, just hanging out with a few million friends. Those friends just happen to be the honeybees responsible for Madi & Daddy Honey, produced at Don’s home in southwestern Fillmore County.
Regarding their honey venture, Don explained that, “I started about six years ago. It was something fun for Madi and I to do together, and we got kind of fascinated by it. The more you learn, the more there is to learn with it.” Madi is currently a high school junior, and Don said when he first asked if she wanted to help with the bees and honey, “It was really fun to see. She had no fear. She just put that bee suit on, and was Supergirl, and put her face right in the hive.”
The upper midwest is known as an especially good area for honey production, although Don said he’s not sure of the exact reason. And like any type of venture that relies on nature, there is a delicate balance of factors that makes the difference between lean times or a bumper crop. Don explained, “We’re trying to get the bees to produce surplus honey. They need about 100 pounds of honey (per hive) to survive winter, because that’s their diet. So we can take what is above and beyond that.” He added that the last couple of years have seen decreased honey production, but he hopes that is just a temporary change rather than a long-term trend.
When asked about the growth of their honey business, Don stated, “I got, I think it was 10 hives the first year. And I’ve kind of been doubling every year since then. Now it’s up over 200.” Asked how many bees they have, Don replied, “Well, 200 and some hives, so each hive has, if they’re good hives, maybe 60,000 bees in a hive.” Using those numbers, it’s likely that Madi and Don have around 10 million bees in their hives! Despite this, Don said his operation is considered “pretty small.” He explained that there are other honey producers in the area with hundreds more hives, and one is in the thousands.
According to Don, the biggest challenge to raising honey is the Varroa mite, which is a tiny mite that creates wounds on the bee’s body, which then allows infections to easy impact the bee. He said wherever there are bees, there will be Varroa mites, and if left unchecked, they can be devastating to bee populations.
Another challenge is the winter death rate. Although many beekeepers, including Don, ship their queen bees to warmer areas over the winter, death rates still run around 25%. And for the rest of the bees, which stay in their hive through the winter, death rates of 40% or more are seen. Don said nobody really seems to understand why so many bees die each winter.
Don shared that during the summer months, the worker bees only live about six weeks, but during that time, they never rest. The queen bee will lay 1,500 to 2,000 eggs per day, to keep the hive population from dropping. And the bees have a big workload, as they must make wax to build the honeycomb chambers for the larvae. Beeswax is basically just dried honey. Don explained, “They have to build a lot of wax. It takes a lot of honey to make wax. They say three pounds of honey to make one pound of wax.”
The workload for Don and Madi varies greatly depending on the season and weather. When asked about the summer and fall workload, Don replied, “This time of year, it’s very little. There’s a lot of nectar and pollen. They have everything they need right now. In the spring, when it’s a cold, rainy spring, I was feeding 400 pounds of sugar every other day.” He generally harvests the honey once a year, in the fall. Then over the winter, after the queen bees are shipped to California, the remaining bees basically just hang out in the hive. Don said they’ll move their wings enough to generate some heat, and are usually able to keep their hive temperature around 45 degrees.
Madi & Daddy Honey is clearly a labor of love. Despite all of the challenges, Don and Madi enjoy the work, and Don said he expects to keep growing the operation. He also showed blue ribbons their honey earned at the Fillmore and Olmsted County Fairs. Madi & Daddy Honey is available at Harmony Foods, Preston Foods, Harmony Gardens & Floral, and Blossom Hill in Preston. Don added, “And I wholesale a lot of it, too. It’s easier to sell it in five-gallon pails than little bears.”