Confessions Of A Beauty Beekeeper

Photo: Courtesy Of Worker B.
The following is an interview with Liesa Helfen, a 36-year-old baker turned beekeeper who started the skin-care brand Worker B. As told to Mi-Anne Chan.

"I was a pastry chef for quite some time and I developed really bad eczema. When you're a chef, you're washing your hands all the time and working with flour. So it was just really ripping my hands apart. It got to the point where it was difficult for me to do my job, because, as a chef, you're working 70 to 80 hours per weeks and my hands didn't have time to heal. There was a huge organic farmers' market right outside my restaurant and I made friends with the beekeepers there. They needed somebody to do all the marketing and learn about bees, so I ended up leaving the restaurant. That's how I got into beekeeping."

Sweet Beginnings
"I was working with a honeybee keeper in Minnesota. I was outside all the time, processing honey and making candles out of beeswax. I realized my hands were really starting to improve. I had tried everything out there to [cure my eczema] and I was sick of trying steroid creams, because they didn't really help me at all.

"So I started doing all of the research on the bee products and started putting stuff together. Making beauty products is similar to baking — your eggs provide your structure, flour provides your gluten and base, and baking soda is your leavening agent. I knew that I had honey and beeswax and that I could combine them with different oils like almond, olive, or avocado oil. Worker B was born later that year in 2009."
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Photo: Courtesy Of Worker B.
From Hive To Bottle
"Honey is naturally antibacterial. It's also a humectant, so it draws moisture to the skin. Beeswax actually has a mild pain-reducing property, so it helps with things like mosquito bites and eczema, it also creates a barrier to keep moisture in your skin. Propolis, which is found in beehives, is anti-fungal and antibacterial. We use all of these ingredients in our products.

"I'm Worker B's main formulator and my business partner and best friend, Michael, does some formulating, too. He has oily skin and I have dry skin, so when I was developing the face wash, he did one for oily skin while I created one for dry skin. All of these products have solved my own skin-care issues, but the one thing that really changed my skin is our face wash. [Before developing the face wash] I was cleansing my face with honey. Although it works really well, it's also really sticky. So I took the idea of oil cleansing and mixed it with the honey method. It's still sticky, but I find it easier to wash off and the oils have a lot of skin benefits, as well."

Just this year, seven species of native Hawaiian bees were put on the endangered species list...

Harvesting Honey
"It takes about two weeks before you can collect honey from a hive. When bees collect honey, it's about 80% water. Bees bring the nectar back to the hive and since they can control the humidity in the hive, they get it down to 10 to 13% water. At that point, it's considered honey — it won't ferment, because the water content is so low and the sugar content is so high. They'll cap the honey with beeswax and that's when we know it's time to harvest it.

"We go out to our hive locations with smokers. The smoker makes the bees think that there's a problem, so they'll gorge on honey just in case they have to leave their hive and start over again. Think of it like when you have a big turkey feast at Thanksgiving: the bees almost get drunk and tired from eating all the honey, so it calms them down and we're able to remove the [honeycomb] to harvest it while leaving the bees in their hive [unharmed]. Once we have 60 pounds of beeswax and honey, we'll bring it back to the honey house and put it in a centrifuge to separate the outer layer of beeswax from the honey.
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Photo: Courtesy Of Worker B.
"Then, we just bottle the honey right there. We don't process it. All we do it put it through a strainer. The screen allows trace amounts of pollen to go through it, so it's considered raw honey. If you're buying your honey in-store, you want it to be raw because if it isn't, all the nutrients, minerals, and enzymes in it will be gone."

The Problem With Commercial Beekeeping
"All of our beekeepers believe in non-migratory beekeeping, which means our bees are not kept commercially in order to pollinate. But unfortunately, migratory beekeeping is where all the money is. For example, California is one of the largest almond growers in the entire world. Farmers there need many bees to pollinate their almond groves. There are hundreds and hundreds of hives being brought on flatbed trucks then shipped to places like Florida for citrus pollination, then to Maine to pollinate blueberries. A lot of times, the groves are sprayed with pesticides, so bees are foraging while being sprayed, then shipped [all around the country]. Obviously, this can spread disease [like wildfire]. We won't support any beekeeper who does this and we don't work with any beekeeper who we can't harvest right alongside them." [Ed. Note: You can learn more about this phenomenon, here.]
Dedication To Sustainability
"Just this year, seven species of native [Hawaiian] bees were put on the endangered species list. If honeybees are dying, that means other major pollinators are also dying. These insects are tied so much with our agricultural system.

"We try to be as sustainable with our bees as possible. We try to keep them healthy, so they can make excess honey. We also have a lot of pollinator parties here, where we get kids to engage with and learn about bees. Many kids are afraid of bees. We have them come here and catch a bee on a wildflower; then, we'll put a little marker on it, so they can follow their bee around. It really helps kids learn that bees are not really insects to be afraid of. If honeybees were lost, a lot of agricultural crops will go along with them, like almonds, blueberries, and citrus. With that, there goes your ability to easily mass produce crops.

"When you start keeping bees, you really connect with everything in nature. They're just incredibly important parts of our ecosystem — and they're just so cool."
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