Honey producers earn sweet reward

A couple from central Alberta got into the beekeeping business by accident and now they help others succeed

LACOMBE, Alta. — Nestled in the grass near a field of brilliant canola sits a bee yard containing multi-coloured hives, most in shades of green, yellow, pink, red, and coral.

The cheerful colour scheme identifies the hives as belonging to Howard Oudman and Freda Molenkamp-Oudman. Stacked among them are a few hives owned by Krystal Braam, who Oudman is mentoring in beekeeping.

Collectively the trio own about 600 hives in the area.

“We rely on really good relationships with about 20 local landowners who give us the opportunity to put hives on their land,” says Oudman. “Without them we wouldn’t have a business”.

The beekeeping season runs from April to October. Oudman says that initially they’re busy preparing hives for the summer nectar flow, and making splits to maintain the number of hives from losses incurred over winter, or to increase hive numbers.

As the weather begins to warm and plants begin to flower, the worker bees gather nectar and bring it back to the hive. Some of the earliest flowers are those most people consider a weed.

“You look at dandelions differently,” says Molenkamp-Oudman.

Later comes the extraction period once the nectar turns into honey.

The area’s cooler temperatures, cloud cover, and frequent rains this summer affected honey production with extraction pushed back weeks while crops waited for the sun.

“We are so weather dependent,” she says.

“The rainy weather is making the bees angry,” says Oudman. “Like kids sitting on a couch.”

They are a bit behind, he says, but thinks they can make that up with plenty of summer left.

Several other area beekeepers use the Oudman’s 6,000 sq. foot honey house, which contains honey production equipment including the airlift, uncapper, wax press, extractors, storage tanks, 45-gallon drums, and forklift .

“By sharing in the cost of overhead and equipment it allowed all of us to build up our businesses,” says Oudman. “The message we want to reinforce is that we’ve expanded by helping others.”

It’s lesson he learned as a child growing up here.

“One of the things my parents taught us is that if you’re richly blessed, try to bless others”.

The opportunity for Oudman to mentor Braam resulted from their meeting at church. At the time she was a beekeeping hobbyist while working full time as a hairdresser in Edmonton.

Braam shared with the couple her desire to make a life change. They encouraged her to consider beekeeping full time and earlier this year, she bought 100 hives from Howard and Freda and moved to Lacombe.

Freda Molenkamp-Oudman and Krystal Braam prepare gifts of honey to give to farmers in thanks for housing bee yards on their farmland. The honey here is primarily wild flower honey purposefully selected from the bee yard beside the Blindman River near Blackfalds, Alta. | Maria Johnson photo

“I can see a future in this,” Braam says. “I like the physicalness of it. I like the creation aspect of it. We work as a team.”

Braam says one of her favourite things to do is check for eggs in the spring and finding the queen bee.

“She’s just magnificent. I never want to lose that excitement.”

The Oudmans’ start in beekeeping began after an unfortunate event involving Molenkamp-Oudman’s twin brother, Nico Molenkamp. A devastating fire in early 2008 destroyed the mushroom growing plant he managed at Sherwood Park, Alta., putting him suddenly out of work.

“He came to visit us for a career counselling chat,” says Oudman.

The conversation quickly moved to Molenkamp beekeeping hobby. He shared his desire to expand into the industry full time.

Oudman saw this as the catalyst he needed to pull back from his agri-business consulting career and return to his agricultural roots.

“I’ve dreamed about living back here,” he says.

He and Molenkamp-Oudman decided to join forces with Molenkamp.

The first few years saw the new beekeepers operate from a garage in Sherwood Park. Later Molenkamp built a 9,000 sq. foot honey house there.

It was 2012 when the Oudmans built the honey house at Lacombe on land where Oudman grew up. During the beekeeping season, he splits his time between Lacombe and Leduc where he and Molenkamp-Oudman live. She works in Edmonton for Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.

While Oudman’s business Agrimen Advisory Services Group Ltd. owns the honey production assets, the business is more commonly known as Lacombe Honey Ltd. Moving from a business management service to beekeeping was a steep learning curve.

“When we got into the business, the only thing I knew about honey was that I liked it,” says Oudman. The couple met other beekeepers.

“They were tremendous with their time and knowledge.”

Connections were made with the Alberta Honey Producers Cooperative, whom they are members of, and Bee Maid Honey Limited, the AHPC’s marketing arm.

Although Canadian honey producers are experiencing struggles due to lower-priced adulterated imported honey showing up on grocery store shelves, Oudman says the industry has continued to expand and thrive.

The couple agree that the best way to combat the problem is to go straight to the source.

“Buy local honey,” Molenkamp-Oudman says.

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