In the Hive With Guerlain

For the French skincare company, protecting the black bees of Brittany’s Ouessant island is truly a thing of beauty.



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LOOKING OUT OVER the waves of the Atlantic, where they rush into the breakwaters of Sainte-Barbe point, it’s easy to see why the locals call this quaint part of Brittany, France, “the edge of the world.” Rocky islands and lighthouses pock the coastal seascape of Le Conquet, the surrounding commune that is the westernmost town of mainland France, lined with clusters of white-stone and pastel-granite homes punctuated by bright-red shutters. The view, as seen from a cliffside, window-lined suite in the town’s Sainte-Barbe Hôtel & Spa also includes a port flecked with ferries, houseboats, and fishing vessels.

One of those ferries takes travelers to Ouessant, a craggy, treeless, approximately 4-mile-long island that is home to stalwart stone structures as well as abundant varieties of fish, birds, and plants. Among the wildlife is a rare bee, calm in nature, with a black abdomen to better absorb sunlight, strong wings to fight heavy winds, and a flying speed of 15 miles per hour. The black bee is fuzzier than common bees and has a large supply of fat, enabling it to carry more pollen on its hairs in harsh weather and to endure extreme winters. But what’s most significant about these bees is that, in their native habitat 15 miles from France’s mainland, they have been sheltered from exposure to chemicals and pesticides, and are surrounded by a bountiful array of maritime flora, such as Silene, wild blackberries, sea fennel, thrifts, coastal-grassland Jasione, and multiple varieties of heather that give the bees’ honey a texture and flavor — thick, coarse, and subtly sweet with complex floral notes and an herbal minty finish — unlike any other honey in the world.



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Ouessant’s bees are protected by the environmental efforts of heritage French fragrance and cosmetic brand Guerlain, which uses the rich, healing black bee honey in the newly revitalized Abeille Royale skincare line. “It’s a very old species that’s been in France for tens of thousands of years,” says Dr. Frédéric Bonté, Guerlain’s director of scientific communication. “The black bee has unique genetic specificities present because it has been allowed to evolve and adapt to its local ecosystem for all this time without being changed.” Bonté’s research involves demonstrating the potential of the Ouessant bees’ honey to repair microtears in the skin that appear with age, using the medical mechanics of the “honey bandage.” The inspiration behind the product line, honey bandages are an ancient treatment used for centuries to heal human wounds. Honey naturally mobilizes collagen fibers and enables the skin’s matrix to rebuild itself. “Some honeys are able to aid in the production of collagen elastin,” Bonté says, “but the honey also promotes healing, is an anti-inflammatory, restores UV damage, and stops the proliferation of bacteria.”

My trip to visit the bees begins with a 45-minute boat ride through the Atlantic’s choppy, frantic waters, chased by playful dolphins. On the island, an unwieldy electric bicycle ride through grassy trails leads me to these scarce insects’ home.


Dressed head to toe in a sealed bee suit, I approach a hive at the urging of our beekeeper guide, Frédéric L’Hôte. He removes the hive’s lid and lifts out slats of fresh honeycomb, the bees clinging to them with sticky legs. A bee lands on my face mesh, and I study how dark it is — the yellow I’ve come to know from the western honeybee is replaced by dark black set off with coffee-brown stripes. “There are 50,000 to 80,000 bees per hive,” L’Hôte says. “About 5,000 males, and only one queen. One single hive of bees consumes 88 pounds of its own honey per year.” Guerlain is mindful of allowing the bees their own honey supply and taking only the excess. As a result, the honey is rare and isn’t available for human consumption outside of the island, nor for products outside of the Abeille Royale line. It’s rarer still in years when the bees don’t produce as much, depending on a variety of environmental factors.

This is why Guerlain has invested so much energy into sustainability and protecting the bees’ fragile ecosystem. Cécile Lochard, the brand’s chief sustainability officer, who’s worked for decades on the alliance of luxury and social responsibility, joined Guerlain’s team because they were already ahead of the curve on environmental impact, with their sustainability efforts dating back more than 15 years. “We are depending on living animals,” Lochard says. “We understood early that you have to respect the source, and manage the bees and flowers and ecosystem very carefully.” The brand’s sustainability actions also include an exclusive partnership with the Association Conservatoire de l’Abeille Noire Bretonne to ensure the black bee species is protected as we move into the future. “The bees’ welfare is intrinsically connected to our business,” Lochard says. “It’s our pride, making things better. It’s our soul.”

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Our Contributors

Leah Angstman Writer

Leah Angstman is a Boulder, Colorado-based copy editor for Departures and the author of “Out Front the Following Sea” and “Shoot the Horses First.” Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Publishers Weekly, and Electric Literature, and she has previously edited for Pacific Standard and Mother Jones.

Marcelo Gomes Photographer

Marcelo Gomes is a Brazilian artist based in Paris. He has two books published by Hassla Books, and his recent monograph, “Pathêmes” (2002), was published by Self Titled. Gomes has created work for brands such as Chanel, Comme des Garçons Parfums, Lemaire, Tiffany & Co., Études, Apple, Stussy, Arc'Teryx Veilance, Auralee, Jacquemus, Salomon AD, Editions de Parfums Frederic Malle, and many others. His work and collaborations have appeared in The New Yorker, T Magazine (The New York Times), New York Magazine, and others.


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