In a way, the bees found Matthew Willey first.
While painting in his Manhattan studio in 2008, Willey turned around to find that a struggling bee had landed smack-dab in the middle of the floor. He knelt down beside the insect with a magnifying glass to take a closer look.
What began as a moment of distraction became something transformative. For hours, Willey gave this one dying honeybee his deliberate, undivided attention. Sure enough, the New York artist began seeing things he’d never noticed before—the way the bee moved, its furry legs, how it seemed “more like a little, tiny puppy,” he says.
Willey’s unexpected personal connection to that single bee ignited a flurry of feverish research into these animals, which ultimately became his main artistic focus. For more than a decade, Willey has been bringing the plight of these pollinators across the country through a series of murals, titled The Good of the Hive. His hope is to inspire action to save not only the bees but all the species that rely on healthy ecosystems, including our own.
“One bee sparked something that allowed me to connect on another level, not just with bees but with people, with trees, with soil,” Willey says. “I’m trying to communicate the importance of pollinators, but what’s unfolded even more for me is the power of human communication and the power of that human element when people find something to be passionate about.”
Next Thursday, Willey will be participating in the Smithsonian’s Earth Optimism Summit, a digital celebration of Earth Day’s 50th anniversary. During a live-streaming panel with the environmental writer Tasha Goldberg, Willey plans to discuss the threats bee populations face as well as his latest painting—a triptych entitled Conversation Piece that was previously on display at the New York’s capitol building in Albany to support the proposed Birds and the Bees Protection Act. The state bill aims to ban the use of neonicotinoid pesticides that have been decimating pollinator populations since their usage became widespread in the 1990s.
The Good of the Hive initiative has been sending the artist around the country for the last five years. Willey’s brightly painted honeybees now swarm on the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, a community center in New Hampshire, and Burt’s Bees headquarters in Durham, North Carolina. He also has murals in the works as far away as the United Kingdom and New Zealand.
And like the bees themselves, Willey’s works are diverse. His smallest mural yet is a bee perched on the side of an 11-year-old boy’s cochlear implant; his largest, a 22-foot bee spread across the roof of a barn in Lyons, Nebraska, is strategically positioned to be seen by the pilots of crop dusters spraying pesticides from above. After digging deeper, though, Willey discovered that the pilots aren’t really the ones to blame. This sent him down another rabbit hole learning about the troubling Big Ag strategy of selling genetically modified, pesticide-resistant seeds that only work with the brands of pesticides these companies also happen to sell.
At each site, Willey sets up shop, painting for weeks. But he’s never alone. Sometimes he helps organize specific events around his murals. While painting at the farm-to-table restaurant Flower Child in Charlotte, North Carolina., for instance, the chef helped children prepare two versions of the restaurant’s dishes—one using ingredients that rely on pollination and one without. Spoiler alert: The plates from the pollinators were far more delicious. Other times, the crowds form more organically. “The beauty of the mural is that people can come to it on their own terms,” Willey says—some coming to the bees for their beauty, others because they’re fascinated by the science.
Once, while creating a mural on a school in Washington, D.C., Willey was finding the hundreds of curious onlookers so overwhelming that he nearly considered asking the principal to block off the area for privacy. Then a young girl came up to him one morning and began talking to him so excitedly that all Willey could make out were the phrases “bees” and “queen bees.” “I had no idea what she was saying,” he says. “But whatever I was doing was lighting a fire in her for bees.” So he changed his mind.
Through word of mouth, Willey has become the bee guy, invited to speak on their behalf at places like the United Nations, the German and French embassies, and universities like Duke and Auburn. Today, his inbox is filled with enough requests for bee murals to keep him painting for years—which is good, because Willey still has a lot of bees to go.
So far, he has painted about 5,400 bees but has set an ambitious goal of hitting 50,000, the number that typically live in a healthy hive—because it’s the hive that matters most. “Sick bees exit the hive—for the good of the hive,” he says. “They’re hard-wired to understand that their immune system is collective.”
The bees’ instinctive understanding of communal health struck a chord with Willey, who saw a clear parallel with humans. Our own health is a reflection of the health of the ecosystems around us, the artist says, as well as the health of our neighbors and communities.
With our world currently reeling in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, never has the interdependence of our shared health been more apparent. “Everything that’s happening out there,” Willey says, “it’s a lesson we’re all learning from the bees.”
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
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