For The Good of the Hive
There are a lot of ways to start the conversation of environmental protection and climate change, but few are quite as eye catching as what The Good of the Hive is doing! Matthew Willey was inspired by one honey bee and it changed his life. Now he spreads the word of environmental awareness and the need for bees in huge stunning murals around the world. Without insects/bees/animals our earth, as we know it, will be forever changed. Among many issues, plants will not be able to pollinate and food will not grow. Matthew found the perfect metaphor in the honey bee. Honey bees have to work collectively to have a healthy hive, just like humans need to come together to insure our beautiful planet survives. To learn more about The Good of the Hive and bees, please read Jejune’s exclusive interview below.
The Good of the Hive — what a name. Can you please tell us how you came up with it, and what it means to you?
The name comes from a behavior of the honey bee I read about in 2008, called altruistic suicide or ‘altruistic self-removal from the hive.’ When a bee feels sick, if it is in the hive, it will exit the hive and fly off into the abyss for “the good of the hive.” They take this drastic action because they are hard-wired to understand that their immune system is collective. It is not based on the individual bee; it is based on the health of the hive. When I learned about this behavior, I realized that human health is also based on the collective, but we rarely act like it.
How long has The Good of the Hive been around? What made you decide to start it?
The Good of the Hive has been around for four years. Originally, I just wanted to do one mural to raise awareness about the importance of honey bees, but so many amazing things happened in doing that project that I decided to try to turn it into a full initiative to paint a symbolic healthy thriving hive in murals around the world, and it worked.
There are so many insects that are being influenced by climate change. Why Bee murals?
In general, people don’t have a good emotional relationship to insects. There, I said it. But we do have a pretty strong existing relationship with honey bees because of honey. For this reason, they act as the gateway bug in sparking curiosity for the natural world. These tiny creatures are mesmerizing once you start paying attention. Honey bees are the pollinator that people are most familiar with. I use that existing relationship to bridge people to the issues we all face. I have even started referring to them as animals at this point because ‘bug’ has negative connotations and we now know they are as important as air and water. This issue is not just about declining populations of insects. It is about food systems and balance. These little creatures are a crucial link in the chain of biodiversity we need to sustain us. For me, as an artist and activist, my goal is to shift perception. I paint big bees, so people will literally ‘see’ the bees’ beauty and get curious about them.
Can you please explain the significance of wanting to paint 50,000 bees? How far along are you?
50,000 bees is an average number in a healthy thriving hive. The Good of the Hive is about cultivating radical curiosity for the nature that surrounds us. I use the honey bee and her hive as a symbol for our own relationship to the world around us. I am painting a giant global metaphor for humans and our societies. The bees are telling us to pay attention to life in a different way.
How do you choose where you want to put up your murals?
There are a lot of factors that come into play like their fundraising capabilities. People come to us with a lot of options for locations, and I usually get a gut feeling that someone is serious or has the potential to help us raise more awareness. Sometimes it is the story of the place that sparks my interest. Sometimes it is a really beautiful wall or space.
While you are painting, you are also doing interviews with the locals. Can you tell us a bit about that and what you want to do with these interviews?
We try to bring the community into the project as much as possible. We incorporate filming and videography into the work because there are so many interesting people everywhere we go. People are the real story. Zach Ellis is our incredibly talented photographer and videographer. We are working together to tell the stories of the incredible things that happen around the creation of the murals through social media and film. It's powerful to see what each mural does to the community around it as it develops.
Do you have a favorite mural to date?
I have several, but I prefer to keep that to myself. Honestly, I love aspects of every single one. The work is truly exhausting at times, with extreme heat and long hours in the sun, but on every site there is always an abundance of joy. Something happens when the bees begin to appear on a wall. I cannot explain it. You simply have to experience it.
Where is your current project, and what is special about this location?
We are currently in Narrowsburg, NY. It is a tiny hamlet in the Catskills. This particular community is filled with incredibly kind, community-oriented people. There are many artists and art activists in town. They have a huge honey bee festival every year on September 28th. It is also the first Post Office I have ever painted, so that is fun. But the best part of this project has been jumping off the rocks and swimming in the Delaware river after a hot sweaty day of painting. It is bliss. I honestly could move here. The place itself is spectacular and the people that are drawn to living here are wonderful.
Where are you off to next? And why there?
We’re heading to Tennessee next week to paint a railroad trestle. This is a project that appealed to me because it is relatively near home and the surface is a unique one. The trestle is along a newly established greenway where they are having other murals and public art displayed. Usually I don’t know exactly why we are going somewhere until halfway through the project. At some point on every project I realize why we are actually there. It is always different than the initial reason. I noticed this happening on the first mural in LaBelle Florida and it seems to have happened on every mural since.
Were you always very passionate about the environment and climate change?
No. I suppose I always thought about it and had some concern, but the passion came later for me. I was inspired by meeting a honey bee on the floor of my apartment in 2008. She was walking slowly across the floor, rather than flying, so it offered an opportunity to study and connect with a bee. I literally got down on the floor with my magnifying glass and hung out with this little bee for two hours until she died. She became my muse and has been guiding my curiosity ever since. In 2015, I began sharing environmental awareness through my art.
It recently came out that we only have 18 months to make major changes, or our world as we know it will be permanently damaged. Do you think we can make the changes needed?
There is more than one way to look at this. It is likely we are not going back to what the world was. There is too much irreversible change happening based on the systems we have altered already, such as species that are going extinct, for instance. Once they are gone, they are gone. That is just fact at this point. But with that said, there is still time to change our behavior and start heading toward positive change. There is joy and connection to be found in the process of repair. It isn’t like a house falling down all at once. It is like the porch sagging and then a hole happens in the roof, etc, etc. Humans currently are pretty divided. But the environment is something we can all come together around. This is why I love the symbol of the bee and her hive. If people can be inspired to get curious, they will find the beauty in working together again. When humans are inspired, we have the capability to do things that have not yet been done on earth. In my work, I have found that there are a lot of amazing people already working toward change. My effort is to help in a different way. I believe with every fiber of my being that possibility abounds.
What do you say to the naysayers of climate change?
I don’t really meet too many naysayers. But I do occasionally meet a pessimist. I will likely tell them a story of something unique that happened in doing this work. There are hundreds of stories at this point. No matter what, climate change or denial of it, we are nature ourselves. We are all connected through, and to, the environment. The Good of The Hive offers opportunity to become more curious and face the issues that scare them. It is a portal for connecting with other humans even if you don’t give a crap about the earth.
How would you like to see the average person make a difference/get involved?
I think the simple things are the best place to start. Let go of your manicured green lawn. Create pathways and gardens of pollinator habitat in your yard. At the very least, let the dandelions and clovers go wild! Never, ever spray a pesticide in your yard. Vote for politicians that put environment first. Quit your job and start a movement, and if that is a bit much for you, find someone doing something amazing and support their organization by giving or raising money for them. The Good of the Hive is one way to help! We are not a non-profit, but we can take donations through a fiscal partner to help bring about radical curiosity and a deeper awareness to the world. But if water or pollution or plastic is your thing, find a way to support the people out there doing the work.
Cover image by Zach Ellis, image © The Good of the Hive 2019