The Bee Barn - Lyons, Nebraska

The Good of the Hive just completed our biggest honeybees yet on the roof of a barn (on a relatively tiny farm) in the middle of big agriculture - GMO corn and soybean fields as far as the eye could see. Four bees, each over 21 feet in length, have seemingly climbed to the roof of a barn as if to say “Hey, don’t forget we’re down here!” And they are big enough to be visible from low flying planes (like crop dusters). We were invited to Good Taste Farms through an email from organic farmer, Jeff Cassler. He has 8 acres in an area where farms are more commonly in the 100s of acres. Because of this, he cannot keep his numbers at an organic level despite the fact that he follows the practices rigorously. Pesticides and herbicides drift. I was fascinated by the choice on Jeff’s part to have a small farm in the middle of giant GMO monocrop land in the first place. He didn’t inherit the property, he bought it 8 years ago. He works in the medical industry in Omaha and the farm is about an hour north. He currently splits his time between the farm and Omaha and is planning to retire on there in the future.


As an artist and small business owner whose mission is to draw attention to the importance of a tiny creature that is struggling in a very big world (I’m talking about the bees here, not me), I felt a kindred spirit-ness with Jeff. In a world that views anything less than global marketplace domination in the business world as failure, where do the little guys fit? I struggle with this balance every day and find that without a healthy heaping of faith each morning, I would have crumbled in year one. I flat out asked Jeff if he and his partner Diane could survive by the crops they could yield from their 8 acre organic farm… crossing my fingers that he would say yes so I could add another individual to my growing list of people defying the status quo for the greater good… And when I asked, I didn’t mean plant enough to sustain them in an apocalypse, I meant survive within the ‘business’ of farming and selling crops. He said “absolutely.” Jeff assured me that if he added a green house to allow for year-round yield, it was definitely possible. Possibility is like a drug to me and Jeff had just given me a fix.


So what about the bees?


Bees and pollinators are a complicated issue in rural Nebraska. Most of the land is what is known as ‘bee desert.’ There is very little there for them to forage. But at the same time, from a corn or soybean farmer’s perspective, corn is self-pollinated and soybeans are wind pollinated, so the symbiotic relationship of bees and flowering plants is not as necessary in Nebraska’s current big agri-culture as it is, say, in California with the almond crops. But necessary is a relative term. And just because the bees are what brought us to Nebraska, does not mean that pollination is the only thing the bees are about. There is an importance to their existence within a landscape that goes beyond what they are doing for humans and ‘our’ food systems. And the longer I do this work, I am coming to realize that the bees are not telling us that we need to save them to save our food systems. This is simply a viewpoint that allows humans to comprehend that there is a problem at all. I think (and I don’t often put my opinion in typeface) the bees are saying that there is an epic, unprecedented disconnection happening between all things. And it is the humans that are causing it. The natural order is off because we (the people) are putting too much pressure on growth. I am not talking about the farmers. Every single farmer I talked to was willing to go with the flow of what is best for the food systems and the American people’s agricultural needs. Even the crop dusters we were originally painting “at” are just doing a job that was created out of our currently flawed agricultural system. But the complexities of the problems are way beyond farmers and certain pesticides.  Pesticides and herbicides like neonicotinoids and glyphosates are a clear and present danger, but the root of the issue in my current understanding is in the ownership of the seeds. This is what scares me more than anything else… and I can easily project on that, this bugs the bees, too.  To an artist, there are only a few symbols of possibility and hope in the world. A starry sky in it’s vastness and unknowns, a baby (because we assume that because ‘they’ are new to the planet, ‘we’ are getting a fresh clean start, and third, the seed (and my new favorite).


Because the seeds of big agriculture are patented and treated with patented pesticides and herbicides we are allowing people to take control over the bulk of what we eat. And if you control what a person (or a bee) eats, you control them. I’m not even sure big pesticide companies know this is what they are doing, (I honestly think they believe that they are doing good business as they were probably taught in business schools of the 20th Century), but by marrying the treated seeds with herbicides that kill everything except the monocrop, complete market and human control is possible… In other words, the possibility of shifting and changing is controlled. And I could not look myself in the mirror as an artist or an American if I thought that was anywhere near okay.


A seed is a symbol of possibility. But it is also a real thing that can be used to control. People have been trying to control each other for millennia… nothing new there… but it is only in the last hundred years or so that we have started controlling nature. And what rang so clearly with me in Nebraska was that if the essence of the human spirit is compromised in any way, we are doing a tremendous disservice to each other. Business shmizness… If we tamp down possibility we tamp down the beauty of the human spirit.

Matthew Willey