Durham News

50,000 bees on the walls

Artist plans to paint 50,000 honeybees around the world

Matt Willey talks about his Good of the Hive Initiative to paint 50,000 honeybees (in about 100 murals) around the world. He's painting 3 this summer in Durham, Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
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Matt Willey talks about his Good of the Hive Initiative to paint 50,000 honeybees (in about 100 murals) around the world. He's painting 3 this summer in Durham, Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

Bees the size of small dogs crawl over a brick wall on the fringe of downtown’s American Tobacco Campus.

Most of them cannot fly – they haven’t had their wings painted on yet.

The bees are the product of muralist Matt Willey’s paintbrush and have been commissioned by Burt’s Bees, whose corporate hive exists just behind the brick.

Willey, 46, a New York City transplant who sleeps in Asheville, has embarked on a bee-themed mural marathon. 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, www.thegoodofthehive.com, the number represents the population of honeybees in a healthy hive.

Bees bigger than bricks command attention, which is Willey’s intention, ever since he first read about declining populations of pollinating bees in the United States.

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

The mural is a nature-scape superimposed over the Lego-like masonry of the American Tobacco architecture. The artwork puts bees and people eye to eye.

On a recent weekday morning downtown, a group of four kids and two moms out on an app-driven geocaching expedition took notice of the mural.

“I like the way that the bees are gathered together,” said Piper Barnes, fifth-grader-to-be. Piper was impressed by how the mural bees reflected the group behavior visible in the bustling “live-hive” of real bees that Burt’s Bees maintains right around the corner from the painting.

Durham recently was certified as a member of Bee City USA, an organization born in Asheville that promotes pollinator-friendly cities.

Paula Alexander, director of sustainable business and innovation at Burt’s Bees, contacted Willey about a mural after his crowdfunding video drew her attention.

“I’ve helped him get through hoops,”Alexander said.

“Every job has a ‘champion,’

” Willey said. “I need someone on the ground to deal with logistics.”

When work on the mural began in late April, Alexander asked Willey whether the 400 employees at Burt’s Bees could help him paint.

“I wasn’t open to the idea,” Willey said, “until I said yes to it.”

Willey and Alexander settled on having each employee, from the general manager on down, paint an individual petal of the flowers that will line the bottom of the mural.

“Once we compartmentalized (the participation), I loved it,” Willey said.

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

Matt Willey, painter

Willey has had to divide his time between finishing the mural for Burt’s Bees and finishing a mural for Estes Hills Elementary School in Chapel Hill. Both murals happen to be on brick, which, according to Alexander, Willey has likened to being “a bit like painting an English muffin.”

‘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 he moved to Washington, D.C., and blanketed 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,” Willey 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 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.”

Willey plans to paint his next bee mural on the side of Fire Station No. 1 in Carrboro. He expects future murals will take him to British Columbia, Nepal and Australia, and figures it will take 50 murals to reach his goal of 50,000 painted bees. He has no time line.

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

Steve Bydal: stevebydal@gmail.com

Bees and beer Wednesday

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

The free event, part of National Pollinator Week in Durham, will encourage people to think about bird and bee issues and conservation efforts while enjoying free food, beer and mead. Register at www.triangleland.org/explore/wild-ideas.

“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 its Beekeeper Honey Wheat beer.

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