Nature & Outdoors

Muralist Matt Willey

Blue Ridge Explorers: For the Good of the Hive—and Humanity

By Tamara S. Randolph

Say you see a honeybee. What questions come to mind? Perhaps, “What’s her favorite flower?” Or, “How far away is her hive?” Knowing that honeybees have been in the news lately because of their dwindling populations, you might also wonder if the bees you see are healthy—if you might be doing something in your own yard that can help them, or perhaps even harm them. It’s this kind of curiosity that leads to research, to knowledge, to action.

When it comes to taking action to help bees, and honeybees in particular, people all over the world are joining forces. This is good news for our planet’s most prolific pollinator, who is partially responsible for making sure billions of human beings have food on the table. Here in western North Carolina, a unique partnership between an artist (who until recently lived in Asheville, NC) and a local educational institution is blossoming—together, they hope to educate the public on the plight of bees.

Meet Muralist Matt Willey

Matt Willey’s fascination with bees started at ground level. In 2008, he had an encounter with a single bee on the floor of his art studio, and that encounter made him want to learn more about bees. As he studied them, he built on his limited knowledge of the threats against them. He sifted through data on colony collapse disorder, a set of mysterious ailments that continue to plague bees; he honed his awareness of “altruistic suicide,” an act in which a sick bee intentionally dies away from its hive in order to prevent anything dirty or diseased from making its way inside. With all this research, he developed an understanding that bees are anything but self-centered—they think collectively; what is most important to them is the health of their entire hive.

Willey sees bees as the perfect bridge between humans and nature. So, through creativity and determination, he made it his mission to help bees, and thus the planet. In 2015 he founded The Good of the Hive®, a global art project, adventure, and organization “based on my personal commitment to hand paint 50,000 individual honeybees in murals around the world,” says Willey. Why the target of 50,000 bees? “That’s about how many bees it takes to comprise a healthy hive,” he adds.

The artist began with a single mural on the side of a family-owned honey company in Florida, where he painted the first 17 bees. Since that first mural he has painted nearly 30 murals across the country, with a handful right here in NC. So far, more than 5,000 hand-painted bees, depicted much larger than life, swarm the walls, floors, roofs and ceilings of structures that include everything from skate parks, to the brick sides of fire stations and elementary schools,to the exterior wall of Burt’s Bees global headquarters in Durham, NC. One of his latest notable projects is a mural on the wall of the Great Ape Houseat the Smithsonian Zoo in Washington D.C. “The mission is to get people curious about the planet we live on through the lens of art, bees and storytelling,” says Willey. “And my vision, if all goes as planned, is a world filled with people that see and experience the connectedness of all things.”

Mayland Makes the Call

For those who live in the CML region, you’re likely familiar with one of our area’s most star-studded venues, the Mayland Earth to Sky Park (ESP) in Burnsville, NC. Owned and operated by the Mayland Community College Foundation, Earth to Sky is an environmental educational park that includes the celebrated Bare Dark Sky Observatory and the Glenn and Carol Arthur Planetarium, the latter still under construction. While on a bright clear day, the site exposes some of the region’s most spectacular mountain views, when the sun goes down, the Park is one of the darkest places in the state. In fact, the Earth to Sky Park and Bare Sky Observatory have the distinction of being the first International Dark-Sky Association (IDA)-certified Star Park in NC, and Mayland is the only higher education institute in the US to operate a certified IDA park.

In the early days of development, Mayland placed much of its focus on getting the “Sky” portion of the Park up and running. However, over the last year “Earth” has gained ground, thanks in part to Margaret Earley-Thiele, Executive Director of the Mayland Community College Foundation.

In 2020 Earley-Thiele happened upon one of Matt Willey’s murals on the wall of a bee keeper’s shop in Weaverville, NC, and thought to herself how a bee mural would fit in quite nicely with both the ESP mission and its physical landscape. “So I cold-called Matt and told him that we would love to have him paint a mural at Earth to Sky,” says Earley-Thiele. “He was jazzed about it because he had just been reading about how dark skies were important to bee hive health.” Bees are very sensitive to light pollution, and recent research suggests that the surge in night lighting worldwide is yet another real threat to our beloved bees. Given the dark skies at ESP, Earley-Thiele and Willey agreed that the Park would be an ideal location for the public to make this connection between dark skies and thriving hives.

The new mural will be painted on the cylindrical wall, 40 feet in diameter, around the new Glenn and Carol Arthur Planetarium, a unique canvas for a one-of-a-kind mural. “The idea of the bee mural really ties the ‘Earth’ into our Earth to Sky Park,” says Earley-Thiele. Another earth- and bee-centric project at ESP that has taken shape over the last year is a huge new pollinator garden, blooming for the first time this spring. “The paths through our pollinator garden create the shape of a butterfly,” she shares. “Throughout the garden we’ll have information on plants and pollinators, including honeybees, and why they’re so important.” In the center of the garden is an outdoor classroom, where visitors can participate in a variety of naturalist-led classes.

Bee Involved

In May, the public will have a rare opportunity to watch this revered artist at work as he paints his very first bee at the Earth to Sky Park. The Good of the Hive team will also be filming Willey’s work and the people he reaches through his art, so this is a terrific opportunity to be part of a documentary in the making. While Willey will be departing for Ireland to complete a commissioned mural after his initial visit to ESP, he will return to the High Country in October, at which time the public will have a full month to see the mural through to completion. Days and times to view Matt Willey at work will be posted and updated daily at mayand.edu/ESP. Children’s activities and artist presentations related to the mural are also being planned, as well as an outdoor class on beekeeping, so be sure to visit the website regularly.

There’s so much happening at Mayland Earth to Sky Park this season and throughout 2021, so grab your favorite humans and buzz on over.  

Tamara Randolph is a N.C. Certified Environmental Educator and Blue Ridge Naturalist. She is the founder of Carolina Explorers: Adventures in Nature, a monthly educational day camp for kids in Banner Elk. You can reach Tamara at tamara@NCexplorers.com.

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Be Kind to Bees (and other Pollinators) – Spring is a busy time for honeybees. They’re on the move, pollinating flowers, as well as many of the fruits and vegetables we enjoy. Research compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture concludes that one out of every three bites of food in the U.S. depends on honeybees and other pollinators. These pollinators help contribute to food diversity, food security and food profitability. You have likely heard that honeybee colonies worldwide have been dying off at an alarming rate in recent years—the High Country is no exception.

While all of the different causes are not completely understood, a large body of evidence supports the idea that certain insecticides, known as neonicotinoids, or “neonics,” have contributed to the problem. “And it’s not just bees we should be worried about,” says artist Matt Willey. “Neonics are fast becoming known as the pesticides responsible for killing birds and other insects in record numbers, poisoning our water supply, and turning our food toxic.” In essence, they can be bad for humans, too.

We can help give honeybees—and numerous other species—a better shot at survival with these simple acts:

  • Choose local foods grown with fewer pesticides | Farmers’ markets in our area offer many foods that are grown without the use of harmful chemical pesticides and herbicides. Ask your favorite farmers about their agricultural practices—most are happy to share!
  • “Feed” your local pollinators | Plant native wildflowers in your yard to attract honeybees and other pollinators. There’s a great list of native, bee friendly plants for our region on the Xerces Society’s website at https://xerces.org/pollinator-conservation/plant-lists/. Additional information is available through the N.C. Cooperative Extension website athttps://www.ces.ncsu.edu/and the N.C. Native Plant Society at https://ncwildflower.org.
  • Use fewer chemicals to keep your yard looking nice | Honeybees are sensitive to all kinds of chemicals. One of our earliest spring bloomers is the dandelion. While many of us love our pure green lawns, knocking out dandelions with herbicides can have a detrimental effect on bees, who rely on these and other flowering “weeds” as an early spring food source. Instead of considering dandelions as enemies, embrace them for their burst of vivid yellow, as well as for their edible properties—all parts of the dandelion can be eaten, from root to blossom, and they’re healthy, too (as long as they haven’t been exposed to herbicides).

For those weeds you just can’t live with, apply the following tried-and-true “bee-safe” weed killer you can make and use at home.

“Bee-safe” Weed killer

  • 1 Gallon Apple Cider Vinegar
    • 2 Cups Epsom Salts
    • ¼ Cup blue Dawn Dish Detergent
    • Mix all ingredients in a garden sprayer and apply to unwanted weeds. This do-it-yourself spray works best on hot, sunny days. Experiment with small patches of weeds until you arrive at the results you want.

Weed killer “recipe” courtesy of the Honey Hole of the Blue Ridge in West Jefferson, NC. www.the-honey-hole.com

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