By Kristie Snyder,
Bees perform a kind of alchemy, transforming pollen and nectar into that sweet, sticky substance that got Pooh Bear into so much trouble back in Rabbit's hole. Lesli Sagan, owner of Avital's Apiaries, is a bit of an alchemist herself, using beeswax, honey, and propolis to create natural bodycare products.
Lesli's balms, lotion bars, soaps, and deodorant are made in her home workshop in Cayuga Heights in a converted downstairs apartment, using all-natural, often organic, and often locally sourced ingredients. Some ingredients are very locally sourced, coming right from her beehives. She maintains two in her backyard, and around 10 to 20 more in two locations outside of town.
Lesli's love affair with bees — and she does love them — began about ten years ago, when she started keeping them as an antidote to long days in front of a computer as a systems administrator at Ithaca College. "Bees are essentially wild — you give them good digs and they stay," she explained. "Bees are a beautiful little society. They're the perfect feminist occupation — they're all women!"
She always hoped to turn her hobby into a business, but with the hours she was putting in at her job, there was no room for a sideline. Fast-forward ten years. She'd married, left the job at IC, and had a child — Avital — who was approaching school age, thus freeing up Lesli to pursue that bee-based business after all. While tossing around various ideas, she accepted an invitation to sell some honey at Temple Beth-El's annual Hanukkah Festival. She brought the honey, but also some candles and lotion bars, which she'd been making for friends and family since her beekeeping hobby began as a way to make use of the wax. The lotion bars were a huge hit — "Four months later I was still getting phone calls," she recalled — and their unexpected success nudged her in the direction of bodycare as business. The name was a natural — Avital herself has her own bee suit, and fearlessly helps her mom in the bee yard.
Everything bees make, it turns out, is great for human skin. We all know honey tastes great, and smells wonderful, but it's also a humectant — it attracts moisture. This makes it a great addition to Lesli's soaps. Beeswax, used in skin and lip balms, seals in moisture. Propolis, an antimicrobial substance that bees make and use as a barrier to protect their hives from pests and disease, serves to kill bacteria in her natural deodorant spray.
Lesli's soaps are beautiful — they're vibrantly colored with spices and clays, and scented with essential oils. They contain only plant oils, and the oil content is high enough (in soap-makers' parlance, the bars are "super-fatted") that some is left over after the saponification process to moisturize the skin. With a good dozen varieties currently in production, Lesli is always experimenting with new blends. "There are about six bars of soap in my shower," she laughed.
The balms are made of natural oils and beeswax; because they contain no water, they need no preservatives. The deodorant employs propolis and essential oils to keep odor at bay.
All the ingredients reflect a desire to keep not only the humans who use them healthy, but the bees, too. "As a beekeeper, I want everything to be good for the bees, good for nature, and good for us," Lesli explained. With a consciousness that extends beyond ingredients, she chooses reusable, recyclable, and biodegradable packaging wherever possible. "I want to be part of a new business model," she said. "I want to be a showcase for natural products that are simple and chic and lovely and just make you feel good."
While Avital's Apiaries is currently a one-woman (and thousands of bees) operation, Lesli looks forward to expanding the business, with plans for a mail-order component, a renovation of her production kitchen, and the addition of employees. "I'm ambitious! I think it's a great example to my daughter," she said. "I'm really proud of what I do — I don't make anything I wouldn't use myself."
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