Angelina Jolie has sent me a movie. It starts with a steady pan across a cluster of conical plants resembling Marge Simpson’s beehive, an azure sky behind it, and the sound of gently trickling water. A few bees dip in and out of frame, and the camera slowly zooms in on one particularly fat specimen, its lower body curling in the blossom. The 16-second film was shot by the director/actress on location at her garden in California, and features one of her lesser-known passion projects.
Before she sent me the movie, Jolie and I were talking about her role as Guerlain’s Godmother of the Women for Bees Program (yes, that is her official title). Over Zoom, one of the most famous women in the world (and new fashion entrepreneur with Atelier Jolie) sort of looks like us. Her WFH setup is austere—a blank white wall, a black rolling office chair—and she’s serious, yet enthusiastic, as she describes the program, a joint venture between Guerlain and UNESCO that focuses on promoting female beekeeping entrepreneurship and is now in its third year. Bees and honey are central to many of Guerlain’s signature products, including its Abeille Royale skin care line. Through the Women for Bees initiative, Jolie travels on a yearly mission trip, most recently to the Yucatán Peninsula, where the Melipona beecheii, a type of bee sacred to ancient Mayan civilization, is threatened with extinction. Here, she talks about her version of self-care, being a change agent, and how we can help support and preserve the world’s bee population.
On her attraction toward bees
“I have always liked bees. I’ve never had a fear of bees, and I’m not allergic. I tend to lean toward the creatures in the world that are a little bit misunderstood. But I have grown in my admiration and respect for these beautiful little creatures over the years, as I’ve gotten to know more about their importance—the way they exist in community and what they contribute to our lives.
[I learned more about bees] in Cambodia. I have a home and a project [through the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation] where I’ve been working with communities, and looking after the forests and the protection of land and wildlife for over 20 years. I started it a long time ago in a place in Samlout, which was the first and last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge. It was a very heavily mined area on the border of Thailand. My son [Maddox] is Cambodian, and initially I thought that I would work in this area on de-mining, and learn a bit about the local people. I hoped to contribute in a good way and just be a good neighbor. Then I learned more about deforestation and the threats to the environment. Now the project has grown, and we’re working with the rangers and the protection groups to better understand what it means as it relates to biodiversity. What is in danger? When you live hand in hand with the local farmers, you learn that bees are essential to pollinating. [Beekeeping] is a very good skill and livelihood for a lot of the farmers we work with.”
On bee missions
“Recently, we were with the Mayan women in the Santa Clara community. When you discuss pollination and biodiversity, it very quickly ties to a culture of people, a history. Mayan communities have hives, and they use the honey for medicinal purposes, for beauty, and as a food. My job is to be a part of the training, and to bring people together and to participate and help support it. Sometimes, it’s working to get an education myself on the cultural heritage, the community, and the environment, and also to educate others on what I’m learning. I also get to work on training with little kids, and we get to talk about bees and do ‘bee school.’ It’s wonderful.”
On personal beekeeping
“I do bee-keep at our home in Cambodia. In Los Angeles, I have adapted my garden for the bees, with flowers and plants that are rich in pollen and nectar.”
On what individuals can do to help the bee crisis
“Awareness is the first thing. We should educate ourselves about what is happening, and the seriousness of the decline. Then you can start to question what is causing it. There are different aspects that can be fought for, like the effects of pesticides. We can be more responsible in how we consume and what we purchase. Anybody can find their way into it. It can also be a fun project like [setting up] a beehive, or standing up against the destruction to the environment. We met these beautiful local communities in Mexico. We can support them by making sure that the forests around them are protected. If they make a product, we can purchase from them directly. We have to be aware of our shifting world and what is important—not that we should be against growth. But we have to understand what we are losing and what is at stake.”
On making more conscious lifestyle changes
“I think many people [recognize all the risks to our environment]. It is a bit overwhelming, and people almost don’t know what to do, and how to keep existing or living. A lot of pressure can be on the consumer, but it should also be on these bigger companies and governments, and looking at what they’re choosing to protect, and what they’re selling off and allowing to be destroyed. A lot of governments and big businesses in the world can make every individual person feel like this is all their fault. There are some big decisions that the international community and governments could make that would make the biggest change. We can all do our part, but they have to do theirs, and they have to be held accountable. A lot of people project that we have 10 years, and we either reverse course or wind up in a very serious state where a lot of the damage done to the environment is irreversible. It’s not to scare everyone, but this is the reality of what we’re living with.”
Her advice for anyone wanting to make a change
“Like everybody, I’m searching to find the balance and to live through these times. You can’t be an expert on everything. Find what you’re passionate about, what you try to support and protect, and then do good where you can. For me, a lot of it is for the environment, but my heart is mostly for the people in these communities. I’ve worked with refugees for years. A lot of people are displaced because they’re unable to live in the land that they’re from, to farm and feed themselves, or to protect their own natural resources. I would like to encourage everybody to think of the communities, the Mayan women and others, and find ways to support and to respect them, with all the work they’re doing that benefits all of us.”
“It’s not the center of my day. But I think education is an important part of self-care. That’s where I’m happiest. If I feel that I’ve enriched my mind or a relationship with somebody through something I’ve learned or experienced, then I feel that I’m growing. For me personally, I don’t wake up and have a real self-care agenda, like what is often considered self-care today. I think it’s wonderful for people who can do that or if that is their way. Everybody has their own version. I like to feel like I’m growing emotionally or intellectually—that’s my self-care. So I guess I do [it], but it’s not so much a face cream.”
A version of this story appears in the August 2023 issue of ELLE.
ELLE Beauty Director
Kathleen Hou is ELLE”s Beauty Director. Previously, she held the same title at New York Magazine’s The Cut. She’s appeared in publications such as New York, The New York Times Magazine, Vogue India, Forbes, and Allure. She was also a co-founder of Donate Beauty, a grassroots beauty donation project started during the COVID-19 crisis, which donated over 500,000 products to over 30,000 healthcare workers across 500+ hospitals.