The Bee Queen Sara Mapellie wears 12,000 bees.

Image: Holly Wilmoth

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?

In my very first vision quest, when I left the sweat lodge, there was a bee on my back. And it just felt like, “Oh, we’re together.” We just stumbled upon each other and found each other. But I’m not one of those people that collects bee things or anything.

In 2001, I was doing an art project with a friend, and we were focusing on social constructs. I was driving home, and there was this iris garden and I was thinking, “I just need to be covered in bees.” I think I’d seen it on a postcard before. But I saw the vision, and it was me, covered in bees in a Beaverton cul-de-sac.

It took me three months to find a beekeeper who would help me—he was a professor of entomology at Oregon State University in Corvallis. So I called him up and asked, and he said, “Sure! Nobody’s ever asked me to do that before.”

First, we put on a pheromone that he’d invented. It was the scent of 1,000 queens. He said, “They’ll know that you’re a queen, but you’re not their queen. But they have to protect you.” We start by dumping a few bees on so they can tell the other bees where I am. Then they all grab on and hold on with their feet. I was stung a couple times. The first dance, I wore a petticoat and I had a few fly up there ... so the next few times I wore pants.

That first bee dance, we shot photos for two hours with the bees on. But it was just the most incredible feeling! I felt like, “Oh, this colony understands how I feel.” It was just a perfect equal resonator. And the fact that they are an organism as a whole, the way they communicate—it’s so fabulous. 

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. 

I was totally in love from the beginning. I’ve never done any drugs, and it was like a superhigh. I grew up on a farm with goats and sheep in Neskowin. My mom was a weaver, so we raised angora sheep. So I grew up in the woods—by myself, really. I was an only child and we were on 11 acres. My life was hanging out in the woods, being a tomboy, loving the coast. I feel like I was raised trusting nature, but I meet so many people who are afraid of it. Dancing with the bees is like being a child again, with that sense of exploration and everything just being equal. 

I’ve been doing healing work since I was 18. I call it Transparent Body Energy Realignment—it’s working with the energy field and cleaning it. I love to prep people for operations, or work with broken bones. It’s kind of like a human Geiger counter ... I can run my hand over someone and it shakes like crazy. It’s totally strange, but I’ve been doing it for so long, and it just works.

My goal is to do five bee dances this summer. I’d like to combine my healing work with bee dances, and find a group of people who are all working on a similar issue. Last time I did a dance, I learned how to prepare the bees—now I know the secret, and I can do it myself, with my own bees.

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