Chapel Hill News

50,000 bees on the walls

It was “Fun Dayz” with a “z” at Estes Hills Elementary School, and out on the blacktop kids were tossing bean bags, a teacher was getting dunked, and a man in a straw cowboy hat was painting giant honeybees on a brick wall.

“It’s not going to look like a ‘kid’s mural,’” the painter, Matthew Willey, said. “I’m never going to downgrade for an elementary school.”

The 20 foot by 100 foot mural on the exterior of the school gym is the latest in a series being painted by Willey, 46, a New York City transplant who has embarked on a one-of-a-kind, bee-themed, mural marathon here in the Triangle. Willey’s goal is to paint a total of 50,000 honeybees in a series of murals in public spaces across the U.S. and the world.

Why 50,000? According to his website,, the number represents the population of honeybees in a healthy hive.

Estes Hills’ two-foot-long bees command attention, which is Willey’s intention, ever since he first read about declining pollenating bee populations in the United States.

“I can make them big enough so people can see them more clearly,” Willey said.

Willey was put in touch with the elementary school after contacting the town of Carrboro about hosting a mural there.

“Every job has a ‘champion,’” Wiley said. “I need someone on the ground to deal with logistics.”

At Estes Hills, Willey’s champion has been Dan Schnitzer, 36, whose work for the school district promotes resource conservation and environmental awareness. Schnitzer and Willey agreed the Estes Hills mural should serve as a visual-arts version of “reading up.”

“If Matt had approached me to paint cartoon bees, I would have said, no,” Schnitzer said.

The bee mural is a natural fit for Estes Hills, which for two years has had a pollinator garden planted and tended by teachers and students. In the cafeteria, students recycle food wrappers and serving containers. Food waste is placed in its own container for composting.

Integrating activities like gardening and recycling into the elementary school experience can build what Schnitzer calls a “wave of massive change,” as these students bring these habits with them into adolescence and adulthood.

Willey’s bee mural seems to reflect a similar logic, depicting a dense cluster of honeybees in the shape of a cresting wave.

Estes Hills fourth grader Gavin Southwell says Willey told his class he would be designing much of the mural on the spot.

“He said all of his murals were going to be different,” Southwell said. “He chose a wave because the motion is, ‘moving forward for the good of the hive.’”

Southwell’s classmate Iliana Morgan says the bee mural is the first mural she has ever seen as it is being painted.

And why is Willey painting the bees so large?

“It brings more attention to them,” Morgan said.

“Bee noticed,” classmate Redding Grimes added.

‘Bigger pond’

The son of an entrepreneurial father and a mother who worked as an interior decorator, Willey said he hasn’t had a boss since he waited tables in college.

He began painting professionally in the 1990s, after moving to Washington, D.C., and blanketing his neighborhood with fliers offering his services. He then made the leap to the “bigger pond” of New York City to challenge himself.

“I’m more designed to work with people than to work for them,” he said.

A dying bee six years ago on the floor of his Manhattan studio fired both his curiosity and concern. He decided to draw attention – literally – to the honeybee’s place in the world by painting a few small bee murals for his interior design clients. That led to his current quest to paint 50,000 bees.

“When people talk or write about bees,” Willey said, “it stays in your head, but painting goes to your heart.”

In addition to Estes Hills, Willey is painting bee murals this summer on the Burt’s Bees headquarters in Durham’s American Tobacco Campus and on Carrboro’s Fire Station No. 1. Willey expects future murals will take him to British Columbia, Nepal and Australia. He figures it will take a total of 50 murals to paint the 50,000 painted bees. He has no timeline.

“It keeps popping into my head that the opus of this entire mission will end up in a very humble place,” he said.

For now, Willey’s workplace has been a brick wall on a school playground in North Carolina, where the June sun has his back all morning, then leaves him in shadow in the afternoons. Willey often paints until nightfall.

“You have to follow the momentum,” Willey said.

He paused, his voice dropping a bit, confiding.

“I’ll have to be dead to not be painting that fifty-thousandth bee,” Willey said.


Bees and beer Wednesday, June 22

Triangle Land Conservancy will host “Wild Ideas for Birds and Bees” at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 22, at The Frontier, 800 Park Office Drive in Research Triangle Park.

The free event, part of National Pollinator Week in Durham, will encourage people to about bird and bee issues and conservation efforts while enjoying free food, beer, and mead. Register at

“Pollinators are responsible for one third of the food that we eat,” says Matt Rutledge, associate manager of Stewardship at TLC. “In the Triangle and probably across the country, the greatest threat is habitat destruction. Development and certain types of agriculture can eliminate beneficial habitat for native pollinators. Invasive species can also crowd out native flowering plants that pollinators need for food, reducing both plant and pollinator diversity.”

Wednesday’s speakers are Paula Alexander, director, Sustainable Business and Development, Burt’s Bees; Emily Barrett, sustainability manager, town of Cary; Leigh-Kathryn Bonner, founder, Bee Downtown; John Gerwin, research curator of ornithology, N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences; and Laura Stroud, conservation and stewardship associate, Triangle Land Conservancy. The emcee for the event is Mz Polly Nator, Durham’s 2015 Beaver Queen.

After hearing from these experts, guests are invited to explore an Expo of organizations, groups, and businesses actively working in fields related to birds and bees. Mead will be provided courtesy of Honeygirl Meadery and Gizmo Brew Works will be serving their Beekeeper Honey Wheat beer.