Bee Inspired: The Sweet Life of the Walters Family

What do you do when you come from a family that’s been beekeeping for several generations? You continue the tradition! The Walters family had bees in the early 1900s in southwest Wisconsin, and while the location would change over the years, the love of beekeeping remained.

Mark Walters grew up knowing his grandfather, Albert, kept bees in Wisconsin. He watched and helped his dad, Orville,harvest honey from under the floor of their kitchen in Madagascar. Mark knew the excitement of checking the honeycomb and seeing the hive’s queen – only one of a kind in each hive. And, of course, he had flowing supplies of delicious honey!

Mark established his first hive in 1976 in St. Paul, and took hive bodies to Madagascar when he moved there in the early 1980s with his wife Sharilyn. Mark grew up in Madagascar and the memories brought him back. Locals helped him find honeybees in Madagascar and the Walters harvested honey and raised their children there for 11 years.

Upon returning to the U.S., the Walters were without bees for a while until some nudging from their son, Zach, in 2007 after the family moved to Duluth. Zach was a professional boxer [more on Zach in a future article] who spent a great deal of money on honey as part of his workout diet. Zach loved beekeeping with his dad in Madagascar and thought doing so again would be a great way to obtain the honey for his nutrition regimen while also spending time with his dad.

The honey production rapidly outpaced Zach’s consumption and the family started giving it away as well as selling some. The next summer the family was introduced to the Duluth Farmers Market and they sold more than 100 bottles of honey on their first day!

It wasn’t long before demand for their honey outpaced the production from their hives so they increased the number of hives to 14, which produced a great deal of beeswax. This was a new opportunity to innovate! Sharilyn, who is allergic to bee venom, had wanted to be more involved in beekeeping. She took the beeswax and learned to make lip balm before branching out into beeswax-based lotions, soaps, candles and more.

As the beekeeping operation evolved from hobby to business, a name was chosen – Miel, which means ‘honey’ in French, a nod to Duluth’s French history and Madagascar where French is spoken. The Walters’ honey and beeswax business is a true family affair. Mark serves as the beekeeper, Sharilyn as CFO and Product Development Lead, Zach as CEO and Zach’s wife, Shannon, as Director of Marketing and Design. And Mark is nurturing the family’s love of beekeeping among his grandkids with the possibility they too will carry on the tradition.

Sales have been strong online – from all over the world – and at various stores and events across northern Minnesota. Unfortunately, many 2020 festivals were cancelled due to COVID-19; however, the Duluth Farmers Market has remained a steady event to sell Miel products and market the business.

Mark brings the ‘honey money’ earned to the Duluth branch of Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union at least twice a week, which means he’s gotten to know many of the team members there. “Affinity Plus is an extension of my family,” said Mark. “The people there know about me and I know about them.”

Mark and Sharilyn first worked with Affinity Plus in 2011. They were in the process of closing on their new home when they learned they were $3,000 short on the closing costs. Their fast-thinking mortgage broker knew just what to do and asked the Walters to go with him to Affinity Plus. There they talked with Brian at the Duluth branch. Brian asked the mortgage broker, “If you were me, would you give them $3,000?” A yes response was all that was needed to see the loan through and get the Walters back on track to complete their closing.

Mark and Sharilyn have been with Affinity Plus ever since. “We were previously with a big bank and there were a lot of fees and a great deal of frustration. It’s the opposite at Affinity Plus. We have a very friendly relationship with the people there. I really enjoy doing business with Affinity Plus.”