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Honey, it's a labour of love

Burnaby-based Healing Bees Natural Skincare markets lotions and balms made with honey and wax from the company's own beehives.

Around 13 years ago, Laszlo Kalmar took up beekeeping as a hobby — as a way to wind down from his daily duties as a registered nurse. 

Curiosity paved the way for his new hobby, as did a problem with the fruit trees in his backyard (which he shared with his wife, Agnes), which failed to yield because their flowers hadn't been pollinated. 

This is how the Kalmars' adventures started.

For years, Laszlo Kalmar tried and failed, until finally, he mastered the art of beekeeping. 

With this newfound skill, the couple produced more honey than they could use in their small family, which prompted them to generously share all the honey-love with their neighbours and loved ones.

The sweet generosity had everyone swarming back to the Kalmars for more. 

Realizing the beneficial effects of honey and beeswax on skin, Agnes Kalmar, a dietitian by profession, started experimenting with honey-based creams and lotions. She believed that, just as high-quality food nourishes the body, so could top-notch bee-based skincare nourish the skin. 

Growing up in Central Europe (in the area formerly known as Yugoslavia), on a farm, she spent her whole life believing the maxim “you are what you eat,” so naturally home cooking and wholesome ingredients were in the forefront of all her dietitian-related endeavours, and skincare was no different.

For Christmas 2016, she packaged those handmade creams and lip balms into small gifts for her loved ones, which garnered a lot of love, and became the starting point of Healing Bees Natural Skincare.

A friend who owned Gigi B on Granville Island encouraged her to find some shelves for her products in the store.

While she was skeptical at first, having one too many things on her plate, almost six years later her products have found love in a lot of stores and homes in Lower Mainland and abroad. 

A family labour of love

Healing Bees, now a family endeavour, is "truly as a labour of love as opposed to a big income," she said.

Laszlo Kalmar is the beekeeper, and brings organic honey and beeswax to the table, which is the standout ingredient in all of the company's products.

Their kids help with honey extraction, labelling and packaging. Her brother and sister-in-law are in charge of all the artwork, design and photography for their website and labels. Her mother, a chemist, brings her expertise to the table and help with new recipe experiments.  

However, it is not all sunshine and roses for the family-owned brand.

In the first few years, Kalmar explained, it was a great deal of work combined with huge upfront costs and negative returns. As a side passion project for the couple, who each had full-time careers to keep them busy, managing time and daily expectations proved to be an uphill task.

While their products were widely loved, they largely remained unknown  — partly owing to the challenge of running a small business without a marketing team. Just as they were finally breaking even in the last couple of years, the pandemic shut everything down, forcing them to start from scratch. 

"It is something that we can do as a family and something small that we can keep going," Kalmar said, "and it really offers something of good quality to those people who are interested, but I don't see this becoming a big business or big profit maker."

However, income is not a deterrent for the Kalmars, as what they do is a labour of love.

"It is like having a child.... They bring you so much joy but they are also time-consuming and [detrimental] to your bank account," she joked. "But you don't give up —  especially, if you have something that's coming from the heart."

They have a wide range of best-selling products like skin lotions, bath bombs and honey — all of which can be found in gift shops across Vancouver (including the Capilano Suspension Bridge shop) and on their website. 

The creator's pick is organic chocolate. 

"Chocolate is probably the one that is truly a labour of love because it's not necessarily bringing any money in," she said. "But as a dietitian, I always look for high-quality food. I found a lady who brings in single-origin organic cacao from Cameroon and she processes it here. I buy chocolate directly from her.

"I always look at chocolate as something that could be better if we didn't use refined sugar to sweeten it. After many years of trying and looking for information, I figured out how to add honey to chocolate as opposed to sugar. It's a huge process, and I can only make 20 bars at a time, in very small batches. So it's truly a labor of love because at the end if I look at what I charge for a bar of chocolate and the amount of time I put into it and the ingredients, they barely break even. But that is something I enjoy making."

Aside from a loyal customer base, Healing Bees has helped Agnes Kalmar reap many family memories —whether of extracting honey, which is multi-day project for the whole family, or of spending quality time at holiday markets.