Jolie – Angelina Jolie embraces bees – and beekeepers as guardians The movie star and humanitarian talks about training women to care for bees in UNESCO’s biosphere reserves… and about the bee that crawled under her dress.
“My biggest concern was safety,” says photographer Dan Winters. “Everyone on the set except Angelina had to wear a protective suit. The set had to be quite quiet and dark to keep the bees calm…Angelina stood completely still for 18 minutes, covered in bees without being stung.”
It is surprising at first glance to see the face and body of an iconic beauty full of bees. A closer look tells a deeper story about the delicate balance between humans and the pollinating insects we depend on for so much of the food we consume.
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To draw attention on World Bee Day to the urgent need to protect bees – and to a new program that trains women to become beekeeping entrepreneurs and defenders of native bee habitats around the world. Photographer Dan Winters, an amateur beekeeper, was inspired by Richard Avedon’s famous 1981 portrait of a bald Californian beekeeper whose naked torso was covered in bees.
Julie was inspired by several visions: of bees as an indispensable pillar of our food supply – one threatened by parasites, pesticides, habitat loss and climate change – and of a global network of women trained to protect these vital pollinators.
The actor, director and humanitarian activist joined me for an interview in Los Angeles to talk about the connections between a healthy environment, food security and women’s empowerment, and the estimated 20,000 bee species. Protecting life-sustaining pollinators is a challenge within reach, she said.
“With so much concern around the world and so many people feeling overwhelmed by bad news,” Jolie said, “this is [a problem] we can deal with.”
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According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, three of the four main food crops for human consumption – and more than a third of the world’s agricultural land – depend in part on pollinators. It’s not just fruits, nuts and vegetables; bees also pollinate alfalfa eaten by cows and crops used for clothing and medicine. Bees Honey alone provides about $20 billion (£14 billion) in crop production in the US, according to the American Beekeeping Federation; pollinators support more than $200 billion (£141 billion) in food production worldwide.
However, bee populations in several countries suffered severe declines in the decade after colony collapse disorder was diagnosed in 2006.
The mass bee die-off has been linked to pesticides (especially a group of chemicals called neonicotinoids), parasitic mites and roaches, and a shrinking native habitat exacerbated by large-scale commercial monoculture. Climate change has also disrupted native species around the world, putting more than half a dozen native American bee species on the endangered species list. (Read about bumble bees that went extinct in a time of ‘climate chaos’).
Recently, Jolie was awarded the title of “godmother” of Women for Bees, a five-year program launched by UNESCO, the educational, scientific and cultural arm of the United Nations, and Guerlain, the French cosmetics house. Guerlain says it has donated $2m (£1.4m) to train and support 50 beekeeping entrepreneurs in 25 UNESCO-designated biosphere reserves around the world.
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According to Guerlain, the women are expected to build 2,500 native beehives by 2025, and protect 125 million bees. Women from Bulgaria, Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, France, Russia, Rwanda and Slovenia will be trained this year, with others from Peru, Indonesia and more in 2022.
The main goal of the program is to highlight the diversity of local beekeeping practices and share the knowledge of different cultures. For example, in China’s Xishuangbanna Biosphere Reserve, locals use wooden huts made of fallen trees sealed by cow dung to protect bees in winter. In the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve in Cambodia, beekeepers grow colonies on angled branches that make it easier to harvest honey without destroying a colony. UNESCO officials told me that under the “Women for Bees” program, no colonies or queens will be imported, to avoid driving out local bees or spreading disease.
Julie comes to her new role with exceptional experience. As a special envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, she has participated in nearly 60 UN missions to war zones and refugee camps over the past 20 years. In 2003, she established a conservation and community development fund named after her eldest child, Maddox, in a protected area in northwestern Cambodia. The foundation worked to clear mines during wartime, train wildlife hunters to become forest rangers and promote gender equality, among other things. She also trains beekeepers.
In June, Julie will join the first 10 female beekeepers to participate in a 30-day accelerated training led by experts from the French Observatory of Epidology in Provence, where she also plans to train in beekeeping.
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Indira Lakshmanan: You have been a champion of vulnerable populations, especially women and children, for 20 years. What is the relationship between people at risk and bees? How do these reasons of yours fit together?
Angelina Jolie: Many people at risk have been displaced by climate change or wars that may have resulted from a struggle for dwindling resources. Destroying your environment, taking your livelihood, is one of the many reasons why people migrate or are displaced or fight. It’s all related.
The pollinators are, of course, extremely important to our lives and our environment. And so we need to scientifically understand what happens when we lose them. This is something we can work on to fix.
What I find exciting is that instead of stepping forward and saying, “We’re losing the bees, we have certain species that are extinct, going extinct,” we’re moving forward to say, “Yes, this is how you should protect.” You need to be more aware of chemicals and deforestation. But also, here are things that different people can do. You don’t even need land, but you can consider being part of the solution. What’s exciting is that we achieve this with solutions that empower women to earn a living.
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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 lose species, animals or plants, we destroy something. It breaks down the fabric of all the things we depend on. We are all smart enough to know that these parts are very, very interconnected and very essential. I know it seems like I’m working on bees right now, but really, to me, the bee and pollination and respect for the environment, it’s all about women’s livelihoods, [and] displacement from climate change.
IL: There are some simple ways each of us can help: plant native vegetation, not use harmful chemicals in our gardens and in our community gardens.
AJ: With so much concern around the world and so many people feeling overwhelmed by the bad news and the reality of what’s going down, we can handle it. We can all definitely jump in and do our part.
I don’t think many people know the damage they are causing. Many 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 what to buy. They don’t know what to use. So I think part of it is wanting to make it simple for everyone because
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Need it. I have six kids and a lot going on, and I don’t know how to be “perfect”. So if we can help each other by saying, “This is a simple way forward, and this is something you can do with your kids.”
Young people are so educated, so aware. They are so aware of the problems facing the world they live in. And they tell her to buy it or do it or not touch it or not drive it. They are shocked. So one of the things we want to do is make it possible and simple [to protect the bees and biodiversity].
AJ: They are definitely growing much more informed. Listen, it depends on their generation. We are on the line. Decisions that are made and things that we do in the next 10, 20 years will make or break the way we can live on this planet. Unfortunately they know it. It is very difficult for them. I can’t imagine being a little boy again. Would the earth be able to exist in the same way, and would there be bees and pollen, it’s not something I thought about at the age of 12.
IL: Setting up a foundation in Cambodia where you witnessed deforestation, illegal logging. What was the inspiration to support the beekeeping program there?
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AJ: Looking at the environment and livelihood. We had a lot of hunters turned rangers working with us, and they did a lot to stop the logging and protect the animals where they could. And a lot of wild honey is collected in Cambodia.
It is very important that you do not just enter Israel and say, “There are no infrastructures, no roads,
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