It’s startling at first glance to see an iconic beauty’s face and body swarmed by bees. A closer look tells a deeper story of the delicate balance between humans and the pollinating insects we depend on for so much of the food we consume.
Angelina Jolie posed for a striking portrait for National Geographic to draw attention on World Bee Day to the urgent need to protect bees—and to a UNESCO-Guerlain program that trains women as beekeeper-entrepreneurs and protectors of native bee habitats around the world. Photographer Dan Winters, an amateur beekeeper, drew his inspiration from a famous 1981 Richard Avedon portrait of a bald California beekeeper, whose naked torso was covered in bees.
Jolie was inspired by different visions: of bees as an indispensable pillar of our food supply—one that’s under threat from parasites, pesticides, habitat loss, and climate change—and of a global network of women who will be trained to protect these essential pollinators.
The actor, director, and humanitarian activist joined me for an interview in Los Angeles to talk about the connections among a healthy environment, food security, and women’s empowerment, and the estimated 20,000 species of bees, including 4,000 native to the United States. Protecting life-sustaining pollinators is a challenge well within our grasp, she said.
“With so much we are worried about around the world and so many people feeling overwhelmed with bad news,” Jolie said, “this is one [problem] that we can manage.”
Three out of every four leading food crops for human consumption—and more than a third of agricultural land worldwide—depend in part on pollinators, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. It’s not just fruits, nuts, and vegetables; bees also pollinate alfalfa consumed by cows and crops used for clothing and medicines. Honeybees alone enable an estimated $20 billion in U.S. crop production, according to the American Beekeeping Federation; pollinators support well over $200 billion in food production worldwide.
Yet bee populations in several nations suffered severe declines in the decade after colony collapse disorder was identified in 2006. (Read about how billions of dollars ride on saving pollinators.) Those mass bee die-offs have been linked to pesticides (especially a group of chemicals called neonicotinoids), parasitic varroa mites, and shrinking native habitat exacerbated by large-scale commercial monoculture. Climate change has also disrupted native species around the world, landing more than half a dozen native U.S. bee species on the Endangered Species List. (Read about bumblebees going extinct in a time of ‘climate chaos.’)
Jolie was recently named “godmother” for Women for Bees, a five-year program launched by UNESCO, the UN’s educational, scientific, and cultural arm, and Guerlain, the French cosmetics house. Guerlain says it has contributed $2 million to train and support 50 women beekeeper-entrepreneurs in 25 UNESCO-designated biosphere reserves around the world.
The women are expected to build 2,500 native beehives by 2025, safeguarding 125 million bees, according to Guerlain. Women from Bulgaria, Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, France, Russia, Rwanda, and Slovenia will be trained this year, with others from Peru, Indonesia, and more joining in 2022.
A key objective of the program is to highlight the diversity of local beekeeping practices, sharing the know-how of different cultures. In the Xishuangbanna Biosphere Reserve in China, for example, locals use log hives made of fallen trees sealed with cow dung to protect bees in winter. In the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve in Cambodia, beekeepers raise colonies on inclined branches that make it easy to harvest honey without destroying a colony. UNESCO officials told me that under the Women for Bees program, neither colonies nor queens would be imported, to avoid driving out native bees or spreading disease.
Jolie comes to her new role with unusual experience. A special envoy to the United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees, she has participated in nearly 60 UN missions to warzones and refugee camps in the last 20 years. In 2003 she started a conservation and community development foundation, named for her eldest child, Maddox, in a protected region in rural, northwestern Cambodia. The foundation has worked to remove wartime landmines, retrain wildlife poachers as forest rangers, and promote gender equality, among other goals. It also trains beekeepers.
In June, Jolie will join the first 10 Women for Bees to take part in an accelerated 30-day training led by experts at the French Observatory of Apidology in Provence, where she plans to get trained in beekeeping as well.
Indira Lakshmanan: You've been a champion for 20 years now for vulnerable populations, especially women and children. What’s the link between at-risk people and bees? How do these causes of yours come together?
Angelina Jolie: A lot of the at-risk people are displaced because of climate change, or wars that may have sparked from a fight over dwindling resources. Having your environment destroyed, your livelihood stripped from you, is one of the many reasons that people migrate or are displaced or fight. This is all interconnected.
Pollinators of course are extremely vital to our life and our environment. And so we have to understand scientifically what happens if we lose them. This is something we can work to solve.
What's exciting to me is that instead of stepping forward and saying, “We are losing the bees, we have certain species that have gone extinct, are going extinct,” we're coming forward to say, “Yes, this is how you have to protect.” You have to be more conscious of chemicals and deforestation. But also, here are things different people can do. You don't even have to have land, but you can consider being a part of the solution. What's exciting is that we're coming at this with solutions [and] empowering women in their livelihoods.
IL: There are so many threats to bees around the world.
AJ: Sometimes a lot of these issues feel so overwhelming. But then there are these simple truths and we just stick to them. When we're losing species, animal or plant, it is destroying something. It is breaking apart the fabric of all the things that we depend on. We're all smart enough to know that these pieces are very, very interconnected and very crucial. I know it seems like I'm now working on bees, but really, to me, the bee and the pollination and the respect for the environment, it's all interconnected to women’s livelihoods, [and to] displacement from climate change.
IL: There are some simple ways that every one of us can help—planting native vegetation, not using harmful chemicals in our own yards and community gardens. (Read about 9 ways you can help bees and other pollinators at home.)
AJ: With so much we are worried about around the world and so many people feeling overwhelmed with bad news and the reality of what is collapsing, this is one that we can manage. We can certainly all step in and do our part.
I don't think a lot of people know what damage they're doing. A lot of people are just trying to get through their day. They want to do good. They don't want to be destructive. They don't know which thing to buy. They don't know which thing to use. So I think part of this is wanting to help it be simple for everybody, because I need that. I have six kids and a lot happening, and I don't know how to be the “perfect” anything. And so if we can help each other to say, "This is a way forward, simple, and this is something you can do with your kids.”
Young people are so educated, so aware. They are so conscious of the problems facing the world they live in. And they're being told to buy this or do this or don't touch that or don't drive that. They're overwhelmed. So one of the things we want to do is make this possible and simple [to protect bees and biodiversity].
IL: Have your own children inspired your interest in conservation and the environment?
AJ: They're certainly growing up much more informed. Listen, it's down to their generation. We're at the wire. Decisions made and things that we do in the next 10, 20 years are going to make or break the way we're able to live on this planet. Sadly, they know that. That's very hard for them. I can't imagine being a little kid again. Whether the Earth will be able to exist in the same way, and whether there will be bees and pollination, was not something I was thinking about at 12 years old.
IL: You started a foundation in Cambodia where you’ve witnessed deforestation, illegal logging. What was the inspiration for supporting a beekeeping program there?
AJ: Looking at the environment and livelihoods. We've had a lot of poachers become rangers who work with us, and they've done a lot to stop logging and protect the animals where they can. And there's a lot of gathering of wild honey in Cambodia.
It's very important that you don't just go into a country and say, "No infrastructure, no roads, no progress, no nothing, we're going to keep this special area and preserve it." We do need to do that, but in order to really do that in a way that's sustainable, we have to find ways that the people living within those communities are thriving and connected to this natural environment.
IL: Honeybees practice a form of democracy in which individual bees vote on choosing a new nest location. (Read about how animals choose their leaders.) It feels like a nice parallel to Women for Bees. Why involve women in beekeeping, how will it give them voice, leadership, economic clout?
AJ: Women are so capable. And there are many women in areas that have not had opportunities. But they are hungry to learn, they have great business instincts. To have a network, learning how to be the best beekeepers with all the latest science and methods, and having something they can make and sell. It’s not just about going around teaching women, it's about learning from women all around the world who have different practices.
When a woman learns a skill, she teaches other women and other men and her children. And so if you really want something done and you want it magnified, you find a woman and you help her understand what the problem is and she will work very hard to make sure everyone in the community knows.
IL: The first training for these beekeepers starts this June in the south of France. Are you going to be trained, do you plan to set up hives with your children at your home?
AJ: I have a lot of wildflowers and my bees are very, very happy. Yes, we're trying to figure out where we would put the hives. I think I have to do them on the roof.
There are two types of bees. This is to all you women: wild and solitary or domestic and honeybee. Take a choice. The domestic honeybee is the one that makes the honey and then there's this other bee, that's the wild solitary bee that lives a very different life and does not make honey but pollinates.
IL: So which kind are you?
AJ: I feel like lately I've been a lot of domestic honeybee, but in my heart, I'm wild solitary. [Laughter]
The Birds and the bees
As bees visit flowers to collect food, pollen from one flower sticks to the hairs on the bee’s body and gets left behind at the next flower. This helps the plants reproduce.
IL: You recently sat for an extraordinary National Geographic portrait by the photographer Dan Winters, and you were literally covered with bees and they were flying in front of your face. What did it feel like?
AJ: I'm going to sound like my Buddhist practices, but it just felt lovely to be connected to these beautiful creatures. There's certainly a hum. You have to be really still and in your body, in the moment, which is not easy for me. I think part of the thought behind it was, this creature is seen as dangerous sometimes or stinging. So how do we just be with it? The intention is we share this planet. We are affected by each other. This is what it should feel like and it really did, and I felt very honored and very lucky to have the experience.
IL: Dan Winters tracked down the same pheromone to attract the bees to you that was used by Richard Avedon in his famous portrait of a beekeeper 40 years ago.
AJ: It was so funny to be in hair and makeup and wiping yourself with pheromone. We couldn't shower for three days before. Because they told me, "If you have all these different scents, shampoos and perfumes and things, the bee doesn't know what you are.” [They] don't want [bees] to confuse you for a flower, I suppose.
IL: And try to pollinate you. [Laughter]
AJ: I'm not really sure, but it was interesting. Then you put a few things up your nose and in your ears so you don't give them as many holes to climb in.
IL: Wow, that's a little scary!
AJ: I did have one that got under my dress the entire time. It was like one of those old comedies. I kept feeling it on my knee, on my leg, and then I thought, "Oh, this is the worst place to get stung. It's getting really close." It stayed there the entire time we were doing the shoot. And then when I got all the other bees off, I lifted the skirt and she went away.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Indira Lakshmanan is the senior executive editor for news and features at National Geographic Partners. She has reported from more than 80 countries on six continents, covering everything from wars and world leaders to environmental threats and endangered cultures.
A version of this story appears in the October 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.