Six years ago, Manhattan artist Matthew Willey was working in his studio when a bee flew into the room.
Willey soon began painting bees and researching the problems they face. Now, his passion for bee conservation has reached Carrboro.
A muralist for more than 20 years, Willey completed the first mural for “The Good of the Hive” series in LaBelle, Florida.
“After the first one someone said, ‘Why don’t you paint a whole lot of bees?’” said Willey. “Fifty thousand is the number for a thriving hive, so I thought, ‘Why not put that number out there?’”
Carrboro leaders say being part of the project, in which Willey hopes to paint 50,000 bees on about 40 murals across the country, is a welcome addition to their efforts to promote the town’s status as a Bee City USA community.
“We’re thrilled,” said Alderman Bethany Chaney. “We think it’s a great progression and synergy with some of the things we’ve been doing for bees in Carrboro.”
Willey said his passion for bees centers around their existence as both individuals and as a collective organism. He said sick bees are known to commit altruistic suicide, abandoning their hive for the good of the group.
“It’s one collective piece of artwork because the bees are such a symbol of connection,” Willey said. “They seamlessly exist as one and as individuals. That’s the big reason for me as an artist.”
Willey worked with local government to find the future site of the mural, ultimately choosing the north wall of Fire Station 1 on West Main Street.
“It had a good vibe,” Willey said. “I want to be in a small town. The world moves so fast right now — this is about standing there and painting bee after bee until enough people realize how big the problem is.”
Bees, like all pollinators, are experiencing huge losses because they forage on the same limited and toxic resources, said Marty Hanks, owner of the Just Bee apiary in Chapel Hill.
“The main causes are loss of clean food resources and massive amounts of chemical used by humans,” he said. “It’s not just a farm issue anymore. Homeowners, landscape contractors, the Department of Transportation and power companies use millions of tons of chemical products on top of what farmers use.”
Randall Austin, director of the Orange County Beekeepers Association, said although the late-1980s invasion of a parasitic mite that spreads bee viruses will eventually cause the death of any untreated colonies, dedicated beekeepers have risen to the challenge.
“A third of the food we eat depends in some way on the plants that honey bees pollinate,” Austin said. “As long as there is a need for that pollination and we have beekeepers who will take care of those bees, the wonderful variety of fruits and vegetables we enjoy every day will continue to be in our gardens and on our store shelves.”
Alderman Randee Haven-O’Donnell said before pursuing a project like this, the board must ask what the art is for and whether it complements things the town is already involved in.
“In this case it certainly is and does,” said Haven-O’Donnell. “That’s one of the key components of the project.”
Chaney said she doesn’t know whether the mural will add economic value to the town, but that it doesn’t matter to her.
“It adds beauty to a plain wall,” said Chaney. “But in this case it also has educational value, and we’re excited the town can participate and help create a connection between the art and our pollination efforts.”
Chaney lauded Willey for bringing ideas for that connection to the table with the proposal, including plans to have students at Carrboro Elementary teach firefighters about bees.
“Depending on what the final mural is, we could do so many interesting things,” said Chaney. “Poetry contests, events about community health based on the hive being one organism, anything. I’d love to toy with that and see how we can honor and bring out the full meaning of the mural.”
Carrboro leaders approved the mural as discussions open up about how to deal with graffiti in the area, which police reports reveal has increased in recent years.
Chaney said she does not object on principle to street art as a means of expression, but perspective matters.
“One person’s self-expression or protest can be someone else’s mess they have to clean up,” said Chaney. “If you want public art that’s sustainable and adds value to the community, you have to find ways to encourage that.”
Willey said he believes art in all capacity changes the world, even someone tagging a building with spray paint — and yes, even if it were on one of his murals.
“I love discovering some little mark somebody made on the Earth because that’s the only way they could think of to shout ‘I’m here.’ Attachment is one of the biggest problems in the world,” said Willey. “We don’t let go enough, we don’t say ‘Maybe there’s more to this than I can see.’”
For a printer-friendly version of this story, click here.