“It’s a little hot,” says Angelina Jolie, acknowledging the sartorial perils of putting on a protective bee suit made of several layers of thick breathable mesh, in the middle of the summer, in the Sainte-Baume mountains outside of Marseille. But the actor and humanitarian is undeterred by such occupational hazards. She’s also unbothered by the swarms of bees flying around the seven hives she is currently inspecting with the participants of Guerlain’s inaugural Women for Bees program, which ended its intensive one-month course earlier this week. Jolie has a history with the buzzy pollinators, having long understood their importance to our own existence. ”They are responsible for one-third of our food supply,” she explains of why their preservation is a part of the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation, which she started in Cambodia 17 years ago and named after her eldest son. But on Wednesday, while visiting l'Observatoire Français d'Apidologie (OFA)— former Chanel commercial manager Thierry Dufresne’s organization in Provence that is dedicated to safeguarding the life of bees—even Jolie was getting an education. As a brand ambassador for Guerlain, she was on hand for the Women for Bees graduation ceremony and to get a bit of immersion herself. “I tasted honey off the hive. That was exciting,” she beams. “It tastes much better.”
In keeping with the LVMH-owned beauty brand’s commitment to increasing its sustainability efforts, specifically around bees which have been a part of its heritage since its inception in 1828, Guerlain has partnered with OFA and UNESCO on an ambitious program to train 50 women beekeepers from different biospheres over five years. The effort, which launched in June, aims to repopulate 125 million bees by 2025. In addition to helping reverse the devastating consequences climate change, pesticide use, and invasive species have had on the honeybee population, the program is also designed to create female-led employment and education opportunities in selected micro-economies. Following the training, Guerlain will outfit each participant with 50 hives and local swarms in their home countries. “It’s insane that we are often still in discussion about why girls' education is important. It's angering that we have to keep explaining this,” laments Jolie, whose work as a Special Envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has given her a firsthand look at how lifting women up can support entire communities. “These kinds of things make a difference in how women can become less vulnerable and in some cases even survive this life.”
Hindered by COVID travel restrictions, the program’s first class—women from different backgrounds, including a horse physiologist and a TV producer—was predominantly comprised of eager students from France who ranged in age from 25 to 49, and who were united by their collective passion for bees. “When I learned that bees are able to communicate with each other about where to find food, and that we as humans have studied bees long enough to be able to crack that code, to understand what bees are talking about, this is when I first fell in love with them,” says Aggelina Kanellopoulou, founder and director of The Bee Camp, an Athens-based NGO that works on the protection of bees in Greece through activities that raise awareness around conservation. “For me, it's like interspecies communication which is deep,” the 30-year-old says, her ivory cargo pants and navy blue OFA logo polo shirt baking in the hot July sun. “The life of a beekeeper is not easy,” Kanellopoulou explains of one of the major takeaways from her experience in the program, which saw her rise at 6:30 a.m. and travel up to four hours to inspect the health of some of OFA’s 2,000 hives. “These people work super hard, and what you put in is not necessarily what you’re going to get out of it,” she continues of the extremely physical labor that is often impacted by circumstances outside of your control. But the work is crucial to the survival of the planet, and of our species.
“Bees are life,” says Dufresne, who turned his 1,000 hectare Provençal family estate into OFA’s headquarters in 2014. Dufresne, who also ran the couture businesses for Lanvin and Christian Lacroix, had a realization after his first grandchild was born eight years ago: “I thought that she would never ask me what my life was like when I knew Karl Lagerfeld, but she would ask me what I did for her and her generation.” The concept of luxury businesses taking a more active responsibility when it comes to sustainability and conservation efforts is a big part of Dufresne’s mission, and something that speaks to Jolie, both as the face of a luxury brand and as a parent. “It’s kind of bigger than, ‘I promote a perfume and we’re doing a little project,’” she says of Women for Bees, which will stage its second session in Cambodia before taking the program to UNESCO biospheres in other countries including Ethiopia, Russia, and China. “Really we are creating a network for women around the world, and having a job and having a network of women helps you to be safe and helps you be independent,” elaborates Jolie. “If you teach a woman, she’ll teach someone else.” In this case, the lessons are as much about camaraderie over competition as they are about entrepreneurship. “There is an open conversation with Guerlain about us providing them with all of the products of the hive,” says Kanellopoulou, referring to the honey and royal jelly that makes Guerlain’s Abeille Royal skin care line, which includes its best-selling Youth Watery Oil, so effective at minimizing the physical signs of aging.
As Jolie, radiant in a tan Gabriella Hearst dress with artful ties across the back, called up each woman to receive her diploma, she acknowledged the completion of four arduous weeks of training and her partnership in the work that still lays ahead. Kanellopoulou wiped away tears. “In Greek there’s a word Charmolypi—it means sad and happy,” she explained of the overwhelming moment, the closing of one chapter, and the beginning of a new one.
Originally Appeared on Vogue