Thanks to the vision of a nationally-known muralist who took the time to commune with a honeybee one afternoon many years ago, and the amazing kids in my neighborhood, one of my favorite spots in Washington, D.C. is now part of something bigger: The fight to save our honeybees.
Last week, artist Mathew Willey cut the ribbon on the larger-than-life mural he's painted on the brick wall facing Janney Elementary School's playground. A butterfly, composed almost entirely of bees. Bees like the honeybee that that sparked Willey's decision to paint 50,000 bees across the globe, to highlight the plight of our bees, and celebrate their actions.
Bees, Willey says, are everyone's. They are at our ball games, our picnics. They are on every street, in every neighborhood, every playground of the world.
Janney's playground, where I spent countless hours from kindergarten through fifth grade, was no exception the afternoon Willey officially celebrated the completion of the mural. The bees were enjoying the unusually warm November sunshine as he spoke to Janney's students, parents and a handful of special guests, about the bee that sparked The Good of The Hive.
"I was in my studio in New York City about nine years ago," Willey told the crowd. "And a little honeybee flew into the middle of my studio and was walking really slowly across the rug. And I got down on the floor with that little bee and hung out with her, for two or three hours, until she died.
"I didn't know that she was dying. All I knew was that because she was moving really slowly, I had this opportunity to really look closely at a honeybee. I looked at how big her eyes were, how she had actual little hairs on her eyes. I looked at her fuzzy legs and her cute little antennae. My whole life, I had never actually looked that closely at a bee. And it inspired my curiosity. That was the beginning of this whole project."
After the bee died, Willey said, he learned everything about bees that he could.
"There's a behavior of the honeybee called self removal from the hive. It's an altruistic action they take for the good of the hive. If a bee feels sick, they will exit, and fly into the abyss, for the good of the hive," he said. "It sparked an interest in me, in the balance between my individuality and the community. I thought, 'Wow. Do I do that?'"
The 50,000 bees, Willey said, symbolize the number of honeybees in a thriving hive. He painted his first bee seven years after he met the dying honeybee, with a mural in La Belle, Florida, in a town where murals were against the law, and there was no money to pay an artist. But La Belle was so taken with the idea of a bee mural that its residents changed the law, and found the money.
Someone has brought Willey to each mural location. At Janney, it was second-grader Sannah Hutchins who read about Willey's mission, and wrote to ask him to use Janney's bricks as his next canvass.
Janney is the second elementary school Willey's included in the Good of the Hive initiative. He was at first reluctant to include schools, the artist admitted during an interview a few days before the ribbon cutting. For the initiative to bring attention to the bees' plight, his paintings must be in a public place, and a school playground isn't ideal.
But when the 7-year-old's heartfelt letter reached him, he said yes, and he's loved his time in D.C., and been inspired by the Janney community's enthusiasm, energy, and, perhaps most of all, its curiosity, Willey said.
"Art, by its nature, inspires questions. And for every bee on this wall, there have been at least a hundred questions asked by you," he told Janney's students with a laugh during the ribbon cutting ceremony.
"The idea behind this initiative is really simple. I stand and paint bees and I talk to everyone about bees. And when I do those two very simple things, something magical keeps happening, and it keeps happening in bigger and bigger ways. Some of the first projects, I would be facing a wall, and I would turn around, and there would be two people that maybe would never talk otherwise, but they were standing there together, looking up at the wall, talking about the bees.
"To have people all looking in the same direction is so rare and so valuable."
Left, the Janney mural, which boasts honeybees in the form of a butterfly, tending their queen. Willey added monarchs, a hummingbird and a bumblebee to bring other pollinators into focus.
For more information on The Good of The Hive, and Matthew Willey's incredible journey, or to support the initiative, please click here.