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Beekeeping a family business for the Larsons
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Beekeeping a family business for the Larsons

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Three generations of beekeepers pose for a photo in 1985. Front and center is Ron Larson, who is flanked by his sons, Kerry and Todd. They are pictured with their uncle Frank Yack, left (brother to Joe Yack). Joe Yack’s passion for honey bees led to the creation of a family business that has lasted four generations.

Generational family businesses can often point to one serendipitous moment where it all began. It’s the moment the idea stuck or the passion was lit, setting a family member on a life’s journey into a profession that goes on to span the ages. For the Larson family, that particular moment was back in the early 1920s when family patriarch, Joe Yack, stumbled upon a swarm of bees and was instantly enraptured.

“That swarm of bees got grandpa really interested, and then he met a beekeeper in 1923 when he was 18 and began working for him. That was kind of the initial genesis of the whole beekeeping operation,” Jeff Larson said.

By 1927, Yack had 110 hives and eventually four of his brothers had joined the business. By 1950, Yack was running two beekeeping outfits in Lander, Wyo., and Laurel, Mont., so in 1958, he asked his son-in-law, Ron Larson (Jeff’s father), to join the business. The Laurel area ultimately became the home for the Larson family and Grandfather Yack.

It was there, on the dividing line between Montana’s mountain and prairie land where three Larson sons learned to work alongside their father and grandfather in the business of keeping bees. Kerry, Todd, and Jeff Larson have carried on the family business with Todd’s son, Ben, now involved as a fourth-generation apiarists.

“A family business is just something kind of special,” Jeff stated simply.

Nowadays, the Larson family has about 7,000 hives of bees. The bees spend the late spring and summers in Montana, feasting on clover and alfalfa, which makes for the best tasting honey. The honey is extracted from July to October and then in October the bees are shipped down to California where they will spend from about February to April pollinating the almond trees.

Looking back through the history of a nearly century-old family business, it is interesting the things that have changed. For example, Grandfather Yack’s biggest threat to his honey bees was bears and skunks. Today, the Larson family battles the looming threat of mites, disease, monocrops, pesticides and colony collapse disorder on their honey bees. Not to mention the actual theft of hives that can happen.

Similarly to so many other aspects of agriculture, maintaining a healthy honey bee hive is becoming more and more difficult. Even though the challenges of the industry are persistent and daunting at times, all three of the Larson sons look back at memories with Grandfather Yack and smile with pride and gratitude for starting the family on the course of the beekeeping business.

Jeff’s oldest brother, Kerry, recounts one of his favorite memories with Grandfather Yack happened when Kerry was about 12 years old. He and Grandfather Yack had just sat down to eat their sack lunch in the bee field. With all the inquisition of a 12-year-old boy, Kerry earnestly asked his grandfather why he chose to make a living from honey bees.

Grandfather Yack’s response was as profound as it gets: “Because I absolutely love it,” he replied.

Hi passion for the beekeeping business has resonated down the generations through his son-in-law, grandsons, and now his great-grandson.

“This is where history plays such an important role because when you look back on the history of your family, you can be reaffirmed that life is where it needs to be,” Jeff articulated.

Jeff does not want to bemuse anyone. A family business can be hard at times. Siblings quarrel and economics can hit a rough patch, but when the family enterprise becomes less about being a business and more about being a way of life, the stakes are higher and the desire to see things passed on to the next generation is more important than anything else. Family memories, Jeff says, far and above make up for any of life’s troubles.

Honey bees play a vital role to agriculture. The incredible insects can pollinate crops, help increase yields, make honey and produce a host of other byproducts. Thankfully, the Larson family has a deep-felt appreciation for bees and for nearly a century now the family has done their part to help feed the world. It was more than fate that had Grandfather Yack discover that swarm of bees. It was destiny.

The Prairie Star Weekly Update

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