The sound of splintering wood disrupts the rhythmic hum of bees flying midair as Liesa Helfen wedges a flat metal tool in between two boxes. The containers crack apart as she wiggles the steel up and down, loosening the propolis, or bee glue, that seals the two together.
For tens of thousands of bees, the hive in Liesa’s front yard is home. She moves methodically and carefully to disassemble the stack of boxes standing nearly five feet tall, blowing trails of wood smoke over the area she works to keep the bees calm.
“When you open the hive you have to move very slowly, kind of like tai chi,” she says, wearing a white zip-up suit that covers her skin from head to toe and makes her look like a character from a “Ghostbusters” movie. “It makes you slow down and relax.”
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Liesa Helfen examines her hive // Photos by Ryan Siverson
Seven years ago that passion for beekeeping turned into an artisanal skincare line when Liesa launched Worker B with her friend, Michael Sedlacek. However, what began as a solution to cracked and damaged skin has evolved into something bigger than either could have imagined. The pair started importing honey from beekeepers around the world and transformed their skincare brand into a platform to support sustainable beekeepers in Minnesota and beyond.
“What we are trying to accomplish is not just for us,” says 36-year-old Liesa. “It’s for the bees, for pollinators, and for beekeepers all around the world.”
One look at Liesa’s hands and it was obvious that the days she spent in the kitchen weren’t easy on them. Redness, irritation, flakiness—her skin bore the hallmarks of her daily work with flour as a pastry chef. She tried steroid cream after steroid cream, but nothing eased her damaged hands. A breakthrough didn’t come until she traded baking for a marketing gig with Ames Farm. When she started working with bees, her struggle with skin issues turned a corner.
As her dermatitis improved, Liesa began tinkering in the kitchen and reading old books about how people turned beeswax and honey into burn cream salve. With her pastry background, her roommate Mike wasn’t surprised to catch her mixing up variations of beeswax, honey, and olive oil into hand cream. It looked a lot like making frosting, and he was on board with the new direction her culinary instincts were taking her.
“Experimentation isn’t necessarily a small, controlled process,” says Mike, who watched as Liesa repurposed the duo’s cooking space and utensils into a makeshift skincare lab. “I thought, ‘There goes the kitchen. We won’t be using the stove for the foreseeable future.’”
“I thought, ‘There goes the kitchen. We won’t be using the stove for the foreseeable future.’”
– Michael Sedlacek
The pair whipped sticky ingredients by hand, and even sacrificed their blender to mix the thick and tacky concoction that eventually turned into one of Worker B’s flagship products, the Rescue Putty.
With a minimal list of food safe ingredients in their products, Mike and Liesa gifted their creations to former coworkers still working in kitchens, as well as family and friends. The Rescue Putty was aimed at tackling the worst skin scenarios Liesa was all too familiar with, while the easier-to-lather on cream was intended to head off severe problems before they flared up.
When the organizer of the Minnesota State Fair’s honey counter called in 2010, things got serious. At the time, Worker B didn’t even have a company name, much less a complete line of samples to share; but over the next four months the pair scrambled to morph their casual side project into a business. They debuted their honey-focused skincare line at the fair that August.
Worker B walked away from the Great Minnesota Get-Together with its first wholesale customer, Bibelot, which was quickly followed by Bachman’s and several local Whole Foods Market stores. A year into the business, Mike and Liesa emptied the bank account and made a trip out to New York for the massive NY Now show to see if there was a bigger market for their skincare line. They won “Best in Show” in the Best New Product Awards for their Rescue Putty that year. When Worker B took its first multi-pallet order from West Elm 12 months later, Mike quit his job manufacturing high-end women’s outerwear to focus on Worker B full-time.
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Photos by Ryan Siverson
The ingredients behind the duo’s expanding line of raw honey products—including a face wash, lotion bar, day serum, lip balm, and night serum—set them apart. Honey acts as a humectant, drawing and retaining moisture to itself. Research has shown that honey contains antibacterial properties and that beeswax has anti-inflammatory properties.
Mike and Liesa source the highest quality beeswax from a pair of third generation beekeepers in Minnesota who heat their wax low and slow—as opposed to boiling it—to separate it from any remaining honey or imperfections. The result, while more time-consuming, is a high quality beeswax that stays as close to its natural state as possible.
“I wanted something that worked better,” says Mike who felt an improvement in his skin when Worker B came out with its honey face wash for oily complexions. “I liked the feeling. It wasn’t like you got all the life sucked out of your face. Ten minutes [after using it] you felt really hydrated.’”
Next Page: Growing Big, Sourcing Small
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