50,000 bees on the walls


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.