Matt Willey’s work began with an unlikely encounter: meeting a dying honeybee in his Manhattan studio.
With little previous knowledge of the prolific pollinators, Willey took time to observe the small creature in its final moments and forge a lasting curiosity that drove him to found The Good of The Hive, an international art project with the goal of hand-painting 50,000 bees in mural form across the globe.
“That day when I met that little bee, I hung out with her for like two and a half hours and really connected with her," said Willey. "And then after that I put her out in the backyard and came back in and started googling honeybees, and I came across some facts that got me super interested.”
Willey said one of the major influences that pushed him in the direction of conservation artwork was honeybee behavior known as “Altruistic Suicide," where a honeybee that recognizes its own disease will leave the hive in order to preserve the whole. Willey didn’t start The Good of The Hive right away, continuing his commissioned mural work for a handful of years while maintaining a personal interest in bees and their related challenges. Plans for the first step of the series began in Labelle, Florida after a friend recommended a honey company to contact for their own mural, who quickly quickly set to work raising funds and lobbying against local laws that banned mural work in the city.
With some donation work from friends and the prohibitive law out of the way, Willey set off to Labelle to begin his project.
“When I got there some amazing things happened. Someone put me up in their RV for 10 weeks for free, restaurants in town were giving me free food, the coffee shop wouldn’t let me pay for a cup of coffee,” said Willey. “Local beekeepers were dropping off little jars of honey and saying ‘Sell this to raise money for your project.’”
Once word caught in town and across the country, donations covered the expenses of the entire project. An unintended side effect of Willey’s work was the community connection that arose out of the work site.
“I just noticed that people were connecting, sort of energetically, two people would be standing looking the same direction at the mural,” said Willey. “I didn’t even realize that I was creating an echo of the experience I had with the bee, so by painting them really big on a wall I was basically doing what I did, which was bringing my face closer to the bee in my apartment that day.”
While the original mural wasn’t intended to kick off Willey’s series, a spectator asked if he would be able to paint the number of bees in a healthy hive, which can total as high as 60,000 on average. Willey settled on 50,000 after completing only 16 in his first project, and now The Good of The Hive consists of 8,000 bees across 32 murals. The projected timeline of completion is around 20 years from the start, though COVID-19 considerations and challenges have slowed the effort for now.
The community nature of The Good of The Hive is reflected in the selection of mural sites as well, with an emphasized focus on public buildings such as schools, museums and other public services. Some private businesses have commissioned their own projects, though Willey said he prefers the engagement and freedom that public works offer.
“The idea is to go to every type of place around the world, and to reach every type of human,” said Willey. “We certainly can’t go everywhere but there is a way, within the 50,000, painting us all into a healthy hive. That’s the goal, and it’s designed to take 15-20 years.”
In addition to Willey’s brush, The Good of The Hive is now planning a TV series on his efforts and bee awareness around the globe. The project is currently under development so details are scarce, but updates are planned soon. For more information regarding The Good of The Hive and the work of Matt Willey, visit thegoodofthehive.com