Raymond Klein had never given a thought to being a beekeeper until a college class he was forced to take sparked a passion for the profession. That seemingly unfortunate situation turned out to be a positive step in Klein's destiny.
As the year 2012 rolled in, Klein not only celebrated his 100th birthday, there was also reflection on the 60-year-old family business, which is still going strong.
After working for a decade at a honey bee operation in Marshall, Raymond Klein bought the company in 1951, starting a family beekeeping business that has withstanded in the community for 60 years. A photo, taken in 1952, shows one of Klein’s bee hive sites, along with his “Bee Truck,” a 1951 Ford ton-and-a-half truck that was used for almost 30 years.
"My dad wanted to be an agronomist but ended up being a beekeeper instead," said Steve Klein, who, along with his wife Kay, took over his dad's honey-production business in 1992. "He just loved the bees."
After growing up in the St. Cloud area, Ray Klein decided to attend the University of Minnesota. In the midst of pursuing his agronomy degree, Klein became frustrated when a beekeeping course was the only one he could fit into his schedule one quarter. He quickly discovered a new career path.
"The professor was a partner with another guy that had all sorts of bee outfits all over the Upper Midwest and down south," Steve Klein said. "This was just coming off the Depression, still in the thirties, so my dad thought that it could be something. So he took the class and really liked the stuff."
After completing all his beekeeping requirements, Ray Klein had his pick of three locations.
"He could either go to Nicollet, Hallock or Marshall. So my dad decided to come to Marshall because he thought it might be the warmest of the three places,"?Steve Klein said.
Steve Klein said his dad took the bus to Marshall in 1939, got off at the Atlantic Hotel, which is now the Landmark Bistro, walked over to the Texaco gas station a block away and asked them where the honey farm was. Back then, the business was where the YMCA now stands.
"My dad walked down there and that's how it all got started," Steve Klein said. "In a couple of years, he was the manager. When the professor died in 1951 and all these individual places were sold off, my dad bought it and started the Klein's label."
Despite getting stung an average 2,500 times a summer, Steve Klein said that beekeeping was a good business. They had bees in five area counties.
"Your body gets desensitized to the bee sting," he said. "You get the stinger out quick and after a minute or so, you probably couldn't find where it was, unless you were stung in a really sensitive spot, like the face."
A number of studies, including one by the National Arthritis Foundation, suggest that bee stings actually help people with arthritis, Steve Klein said, although honey consumption might also have something to do with it.
"There are studies that said the longest-living profession is the beekeeper," he said. "It's a lot of hard work. You have to move hives around, and you're bending and lifting them up and down off the truck. But it's also very peaceful."
Steve Klein compared beekeeping to farming.
"It's a nice lifestyle," he said. "In some ways, it's like farming. You have the winter off, you get out in nature and you kind of set your own hours. You become very aware of nature, wildlife and the cycle of the seasons."
In early or mid-March, the honey bees have to be checked on, Steve Klein said, and the goal is to be wrapped up by the first week of November.
"You have to make sure the bees have enough food and give them antibiotics, in the form of powder, to keep them from getting diseases," Steve Klein said. "The bees eat honey, but they need pollen, too. The first things to bloom are the wild plum and then the dandelions and apples."
May ends up being a very busy time for beekeepers, who have to make sure the hives are approximately the same size.
"That's the art to beekeeping," Steve Klein said. "The beekeeper has to move them around so all the hives balance out to equal size. In the springtime, when it gets warm enough, the queen will lay up to a couple thousand eggs a day, so you can get a lot of bees fast."
The key is to keep the hives big enough so that they make enough honey, but not so big that they swarm. To move them requires finding the lone queen bee, Steve Klein said, and in a large hive, there could be 30,000 to 40,000 bees.
"In each box there are 10 combs and the bottom ones usually house the brood section where they're raising the new bees," Steve Klein said. "If there are too many in there, you have to find the queen, who is slightly larger, and leave her in the original box. Then you take out several of those combs, add them to a box that is short and even them out so it doesn't get too crowded."
In June, beekeepers will put out extra boxes, called supers, for the surplus of honey.
"If you have 2,000 hives, you need 7,000 to 8,000 supers," Steve Klein said. "That's a lot of hauling. Then, the second or third week of August, you start taking those extra boxes back. But you have to get the bees out first."
Originally, the family business was known as Klein Honey Farm, but was changed to Klein Foods in 1992, when Steve and Kay took over. Around the same time, the Kleins started to notice a downward trend.
"There weren't enough flowers anymore, so it became difficult to keep bees around here," Steve Klein said. "There were eight commercial beekeepers in the southwest fourth of the state they're all gone because there isn't enough floral source."
The biggest change Steve Klein noticed was that there weren't as many beef or dairy cattle around, which also led to a decrease in alfalfa. In the early 1990s, the USDA also changed the seeding formulas, Steve Klein said, switching to native grasses, which do not bloom. Diseases were also introduced to the country.
"Minnesota used to be one of the top two in the nation in honey production, but now it's not even in the top 10," Steve Klein said. "We could kind of see the end of an era coming, so we started creating speciality honey things, like barbecue sauces, syrups and preserves. We started marketing to gift stores all over the country."
By the late 1990s, the Kleins eventually sold their bees to a business in North Dakota, although they still manufacture honey products at the Walnut Grove Mercantile in Marshall, which the Kleins built 10 years ago.
"It was hard to see the bees go, especially for my dad," Steve Klein said. "It was his whole life."
The Kleins' gift store now displays many sentimental items from their beekeeping past, including an old smoker used to calm the bees, a 1951 calendar used in the first store, a license plate off of the 1951 Ford truck used in the bee business, an 1894 stove used to heat the old store and an old-time sickle the Kleins used to quietly and peacefully chop grass in front of the hives.
Also hanging from the ceiling are remembrances of Steve's mother, Cecelia Klein, who died in 1992, including her little coal shovel she used to clean out the coal clinkers, her ice skates and a doctor's bag where she kept her sewing items.
"We worked hard to create this old-time nostalgia that people can come here and have a fun time with," Steve Klein said. "A lot of the things we display here are from the family. We get to look at them every day."
And, of course, they stay grounded by continuing to produce award-winning honey.
"I love honey," Steve Klein said. "I eat it every day."