Portland’s Bee Queen, Sara Mapelli, advocates for pollinators via daring acts of performance art.
Sara Mapelli dances with honeybees. More specifically, she periodically spends two hours covered in a “blouse” of about 12,000 bees, inviting friends and strangers to witness the event, and documents the experience in striking photography and video pieces. It’s part performance art, part meditation, part skin-crawling feat of courage. And as bee colonies worldwide collapse and vanish, Mapelli hopes to emphasize how the powerful pollinators support our agriculture and food systems. But ecological crisis aside—what does it feel like to wear a blouse of bees?
A newspaper page had a conversation with Sara Mapelli, she shared her unique and apple idea as follows:
Why bees in particular? Why are they meaningful to you?
“Though my childhood community was small and people were spread out, we were very connected. People found time to come together and create quilts, dance, and share delicious meals. At a young age, I was imbued with the notion of being a member of a team and working together. As I learned more about bees, I discovered that their world revolves on community. Each bee has a job to complete, and they take turns doing it to benefit the colony as a whole. That interconnectedness, the idea that if you take a piece out the group is incomplete and doesn’t function as well—that’s part of the message I want to share.”
I WAS TOTALLY IN LOVE from the beginning. I’ve never done any drugs, and it was like a superhigh. In Neskowin, I grew up on a farm with goats and sheep. We kept angora sheep since my mother was a weaver. As a result, I grew up alone in the woods. We lived on 11 acres and I was an only child. My life revolved on being a tomboy in the woods and loved the beach. I was raised to trust nature, yet I’ve met a lot of individuals who are scared of it. Dancing with the bees is like being a child again, with that sense of exploration and everything just being equal.
FOR ME, THE BEE QUEEN is a regal character, so she needs to be around beauty. It’s like the hive itself: We have this solo queen, but what’s the bigger picture? It’s a duet. We dance together. I’m kind of like the tree that moves in the wind, and they move with me. And they’re very powerful. They kind of move me in different directions.
How did you come up with the idea of the “bee blouse”?
“I was working on a particular picture project but hadn’t chosen an image yet. Then, when traveling through Columbia Gorge, [Washington], it occurred to me that I needed to get stung by bees. I had a vision for this bee blouse, but it took a long time for me to locate individuals who could help me make it a reality. I finally found an entomologist to collaborate with, and I’m in touch with beekeepers around the country.”
How do you get the bees to come to you?
The entomologist Michael Burgett [of Oregon State University] provided me with a bee pheromone like the one the queen bee emits, but his is equivalent to what a hundred queen bees would give off! Michael told me I’d be attracting bees for weeks after my performance, but the next day I didn’t have a swarm after me—probably because after that dance I sat in a hot tub and sauna.
Describe the scene of the bees coming to you for the dance—how it looks and sounds.
I started by placing the pheromone and a few bees on my chest. The beekeeper then lifts [a frame containing] the remaining bees into the air. As the bees land, I’m like a tree with a tremendous cyclone above me that grows smaller and smaller. They’re so loud; it’s a wonderful, enveloping sound. There’s so much movement—insects as thick as 8 inches [20 cm] move all over me, perhaps 15,000 of them! They weigh about 4 or 5 pounds [1.8 to 2.2 kilograms, as a whole] and their wings are very powerful, pushing and pulling. I’m listening and feeling them as I dance. We work together; it’s a complete duet, totally unscripted.
How does it feel?
It’s mostly irritating. It’s also a bit uncomfortable since their feet irritate my skin as some hang on while others crawl over them. It may get rather heated. But it’s all part of the meditation, part of the experience. With these wings, I feel like I could take off at any time, yet I’m also anchored by their weight and vibration. The discomfort is significant to me because it serves as a reminder to be present, focused, and attentive to the bees.
She dances so slowly and carefully because if she crush a single bee accidentaly, it will release pheromones and it will provoke a fearsome attack with stingers. I think somewhere on her body has landed the real queen.
Do you ever get stung?
I’ve been stung many times! The most likely time is during removal of the bee blouse. I don’t mind, I consider it medicinal. In fact, I’ve since started doing apitherapy. It’s really amazing ancient medicine, a huge asset to us. It’s another reason we must protect our bees.
Do you hear from people who think you are crazy to do this?
Sure, some people say, “I’d never do that!” So I say, don’t worry about it; you don’t have to! But for me, it’s become more than a job: it’s become a part of me, my body. It is, of course, educational: It allows me to speak with people about bees, their importance to us and to nature, and what people can do to help conserve them.
Final thought about being the Bee Queen?
There is magic and fantasy in what I do, that’s part of my job. Not just to heal and educate, but to inspire magic. The bees help me do that.
Sara Mapelli adds, “MY GOAL THIS SUMMER IS TO DO FIVE BEEF DANCES.” I’d want to combine my therapeutic work with bee dances, as well as form a community of individuals who are all working on the same problem. I learnt how to prepare the bees the last time I danced—now I know the secret and can do it with my own bees.
I think it is beautiful! It is a testament to Sara’s love and spiritual relationship with the bee. The haters just do not understand…or they are overlooking the bee’s divinity. I don’t think the bee dance is ‘sideshow garbage’ at all, nor that Sara is anthropomorphising the bee. It is sad that even amongst those that supposedly work hard for the bee’s survival, there is so much prejudice and discord.
She is amazing and courageous, Sara. A real fearless inspiration to beekeepers and future beekeepers alike. i have been thinking about beekeeping, but after watching Queen of the Sun, i am ready to go for it. Thanks for being so courageous and outrageous!