Whether you’re a full-on apiphobe or just don’t like getting stung, it’s only natural for humans to shun the thought of spending time surrounded by flying insects with poison glands. But for Sara Mapelli, wearing a blouse made from 12,000 bees is something that’s totally normal.
As the insects swarm around her naked torso, flitting up and around her face, arms and mouth, the danger is palpable. To an onlooker it seems that one sudden movement could potentially end in fatal disaster for Sara.
The danger is, of course, completely real – over the past 15 years Sara’s been stung well over 100 times. But she doesn’t mind; she actually welcomes each sting’s apparently medicinal properties.
Forty-something Sara, who’s based in Portland, Oregon, is known to her followers as the “Bee Queen.” The moniker seems entirely appropriate given how adept she is at playing the queen bee role.
Sara considers her meditative dances to possess healing qualities. She doesn’t do them alone; rather she performs for those who feel out of touch with the natural world or for people with a deep-rooted fear of bees.
The strange practice began back in 2001 when Sara was searching for a photography project subject. While driving past a farm near Columbia River Gorge, Washington, she was struck by an epiphany: she had to be surrounded by bees.
It might seem crazy to anyone else but to Sara the idea was perfect. All she needed to do was figure out a way to safely attract the bees to her torso, so she began contacting entomologists – insect experts – and beekeepers across the U.S.
Eventually she found someone who could help – Oregon State University entomologist Michael Burgett. He gave Sara a bee pheromone equivalent to that produced by 100 queen bees. If she covered her torso with the pheromone the bees would head straight for her.
During a performance as many as 12,000 bees land on Sara’s body. After they surround her she proceeds to dance around her audience, remaining covered in the black-and-yellow insects for up to two hours at a time.
Aside from the stinging Sara’s admitted that her bee blouse isn’t all that comfortable. “Their feet pinch my skin as some hold on while others climb over them,” she told National Geographic.
She does, however, take the pain in her stride, having explained that it’s “all part of the experience.” The discomfort she feels simply reminds her to stay in the moment and to remain attuned to the bees around her.
Being swarmed by 12,000 bees isn’t exactly a quiet pastime. “I’m like a tree with a huge tornado above me that gets smaller and smaller as the bees land,” Sara explained to National Geographic. “They are so loud; it’s an engulfing, beautiful sound.”
The bees, which are up to eight inches thick once they’ve landed on Sara, are capable of pulling and pushing her in different directions. She works with the insects by allowing herself to be controlled in what she calls a “totally unscripted” duet.
Sara is a practitioner of energy-therapy, a discipline that her audience are subscribers to. Some spectators have personal or emotional issues that are nothing to do with bees, and they find that watching the performer often helps.
She believes that her performances also aid the flying insects. “I hope to help the bees of the northwest,” Sara wrote on her website, “by encouraging them to swarm and become hardy in the ever changing environment.”
It’s no secret that honeybees are disappearing at an alarming rate; a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder. Sara hopes that her dances will raise awareness of the importance of bees to society.
But it seems there’s no gain without sacrifice. By allowing the bees to sting Sara is, to a tiny extent, contributing to their extinction. When a honeybee unleashes its sting it suffers a fatal abdominal rupture.
On the other hand, however, she’s showcasing bees’ importance – and specifically what they can achieve as a team – to her audience. It’s this sense of collaboration that she wants to foster among her spectators.
Some people inevitably think that Sara is a little crazy to do what she does, but she takes all feedback on the chin. “It’s more than a job for me,” she told National Geographic. “It’s become a part of me, of my body.”
Sara’s ambitions with the bees spread further than the northwest. She will soon be taking her performances to America’s east coast and Europe, where she hopes to attract more followers and raise the plight of everyone’s flying insect further. This woman’s mission, it seems, is very much taking off.