Do not try this at home. Not that anyone would.
Oregonian artist and energy therapist Sara Mapelli, known as the Bee Queen, wears a squirming coat of thousands of honeybees over her topless torso—a performance aimed at helping others conquer fears and commune with nature.
The healing, meditative bee dance is one aspect of her alternative medicine practice, and her audience—often people who fear bees or feel disconnected from nature—goes home less afraid and spiritually reinvigorated, Mapelli says.
Mapelli spoke to National Geographic about what first drew her to be with bees, how people respond to her unique art-form, and what it feels like to have up to 15,000 of the stinging insects swarming her body. (Also see "Honeybee Dances Map Healthy Landscapes.")
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 get together, making quilts and dancing and enjoying wonderful meals together. I had that sense of being part of a group, working together, instilled in me at an early age. As I got to know bees, I realized their world is all about community. Each bee has a job, and they take turns doing different things to help the 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.
How did you come up with the idea of the “bee blouse”?
I was doing a special photo project but hadn’t decided yet on the image. Then I was driving by an iris farm in Columbia Gorge, [Washington], and it came to me that I needed to be covered in bees. I could visualize this bee blouse, but it took me a long time to find people to help me make it happen. I finally found an entomologist to work with me, and I’m also connected with beekeepers all over the country. I plan to do a bee-dance tour in Europe next. (Read "Quest for a Superbee" in National Geographic magazine.)
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! [Queens use scent to control the hive.] 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. But at least every other day I hear a honeybee buzzing in my ear.
Describe the scene of the bees coming to you for the dance—how it looks and sounds.
First I put the pheromone on my chest along with a few bees. Then the beekeeper lifts [a frame with] the rest of the bees into the air. I’m like a tree with a huge tornado above me that gets smaller and smaller as the bees land. They are so loud; it’s an engulfing, beautiful sound. There’s so much movement—sometimes 8 inches [20 centimeters] thick of insects moving all over me, maybe 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. (See ten amazing photos of bees.)
How does it feel?
Mostly it’s itchy. It’s also a little painful: Their feet pinch my skin as some hold on while others climb over them. It can be very hot. But it’s all part of the experience, part of the meditation. I feel I could take off any time with these wings, but also I’m rooted by the weight and vibration of them. The discomfort is important to me because it is a reminder to be in the present moment, to stay focused and listen to the bees.
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 [using bee products, including venom from purposeful bee stings, to treat illness]. It’s really amazing ancient medicine, a huge asset to us. It’s another reason we must protect our bees.
Who is your audience?
Mostly so far it’s been my clients [of energy-therapy work], and I ask each one to bring another person as support. They sit in two circles, an inner one and outer one, and I dance in the middle, moving from person to person.
I’ve danced for people who were really afraid of bees—one lives in the city and is just terrified of nature in general. I was so proud of him. He wrote to me later, a beautiful testimonial about how the experience helped him to get over his fear. Many people come to me for deep intense personal issues. When I approached one of my clients with the bees [during the dance] he leaned back so astonished, but then came a huge smile as he realized he was safe. It was like watching someone transform. He was so heartfelt and emotional afterwards.
Do you hear from people who think you are crazy to do this?
Sure, some say ‘I would never do that!’ So I say, that’s okay, you don’t have to! But it’s more than a job for me: It’s become a part of me, of my body. Of course, it’s also educational: It gives me a chance to talk to people about bees, how important they are to us and to nature, what people can do to help preserve them. (See "Obama Unveils Plan to Reverse Alarming Decline of Honeybees.")
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.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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