Learning from the Hive




St James Parish, Louisiana


“Sometimes we get trapped, and then we reconnect with how things should naturally work”
Matt Willey Mural St James Parish
Photo: John DuPre

Why did the scout bee come to St James?

In April 2022, two bees met up in Louisiana. One of them scouting for a new place for her hive, the other happy to make a friend during rough times. Sounds familiar?


But why here?

In a beehive, the supply and demand of pollen, wax or honey work in perfect symbiosis. There is just the right amount of workers for the task, and if an imbalance is discovered, all bees work together to re-establish equilibrium.

Humans, on the other hand, have become experts in producing too much of what we don’t need. Think about plastic packaging, for instance.

In St James Parish, close to New Orleans in Louisiana, USA, like in many other petrochemical hubs around the world, new plastic production facilities continue to be permitted based on the failed speculative idea that humans need to produce more plastic packaging

  • As our businesses & lifestyles become smarter, do we really need to produce more plastic packaging and fossil-based materials?
  • Can we really recycle our way out of the plastic pollution crisis?
  • What would the hive do?

Check out Matt’s journey in the video below:


Around the world, petrochemical hubs continue to see new production facilities permitted. Nicknamed “Cancer Alley” for the above-average rates of cancer there, St James is located in the area home to a high concentration of polluting industries.


Despite this, the state has plans to expand this chemical corridor with dozens more factories – with the social and environmental impacts that will have on fenceline communities.

Photo: John DuPre
Photo: John DuPre

Meanwhile, the need for plastic packaging is set to decrease in most countries, as supply chains are getting redesigned towards reuse and package-free business models.


The latest policy moves and consumer insights are clear: the idea that population growth requires producing more plastic packaging is outdated and artificial.


Still, this is the narrative that drives much of the permitting process when local governments approve the construction of new petrochemical plants.

The two bees remind us of the urgency to reconnect with nature’s way of life.

What to do in the face of material overcapacity?

“The mural is located at 110 Karl Stein Rd, Vacherie, Louisiana, on a small building that sits about 100 yards from the edge of the Mississippi River. The area is known as St. James Parish and often referred to as “Cancer Alley” because they have some of the highest cancer rates in the United States.

Driving toward the location, historic plantation sites set a profound tone that gives way to massive industrial petrochemical plants and tankers that come into view from the bridge into Vacherie. It is a bit like driving onto the set of a sci-fi movie. But as I began painting, I met people setting up for a bar-b-que in the park nearby – just people out for some social time after church. This is not a sci-fi movie, this is home.

This mural is about the possibility that exists through curiosity and connection. My work is never meant to judge or protest or label something as a victim. My work is an echo of an experience I had with a bee that changed the paradigm of how I see the world around me. Innocent curiosity led to an experience of connection that revealed a problem. As soon as I viewed the problem as mine as well as the bees, it was no longer something ‘over there’ to ‘fix,’ but rather it became something to change in me.”

                                                                                                                                                                        – Artist, Matt Willey  Learn more about the impact of petrochemical industries in the region

“If a worker bee is overproducing wax or honey, other bees have been known to approach that bee and gently headbutt her to remind her she is getting out of balance with the hive. If the queen gets information from forager bees that there are not enough resources outside the hive to feed all of the brood, she will slow egg production to bring the hive back into balance. A key factor is that she doesn’t make decisions alone, she enacts change when the hive decides it is necessary.”


In Alexandria, in the DC metro area, Mason & Green’s are one provider of that shift. Mason & Greens brings the community of Alexandria and its surrounding areas the ability to shop plastic-free, knowing that their buying power is going to support the shift away from the throw-away culture that has crept in all around us.


No plastic, and little to no waste generated when a product has met the end of its usable life.


Across the US, in San Diego, California, Earthwell Refill is providing the same opportunity to its own community. As indicated by their name, Earthwell Refill follows a use and refill business model – instead of throwing away your plastic bottles after one use, you can refill them again and again.


Refill products are sold by weight, so you can get exactly the amount you’d like – treating your pocket as you contribute to the zero-waste shift.

Like bees pollinating, these success stories are growing, spreading, and shaping our lifestyle in a fast-growing number of countries. They also convey new opportunities for creative business models that many are starting to embrace as not only environmentally friendly, but economically wise and socially just.

Just like bees, it seems we have working solutions. What does it take to pollinate further?

Photo: Meg Morgan

Civil society organizations are working for environmental justice in the region

In focus: RISE St James

The grassroots organization RISE St James is hosting a petition opposing the proliferation of the Formosa Sunshine Project, a 14-facility chemical manufacturing complex proposed for construction in St. James Parish, Louisiana – a textbook case of environmental racism.

Photo: Julie Dermansky

The Sunshine Project would be built on a 2,500-acre site, mostly sugar cane fields located directly adjacent to a residential area and one mile from an elementary school that serves an almost entirely Black student population. 

People in the St James community are already dying at a rate 50 times higher than the national average, in large part due to pollution, and the proposed project would make this situation far worse.


Requesting Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards to stand with the residents of St James.

How else can I get involved?


In 2023, the whole hive will be coming to St James. Help fund their journey.

About this Story

Producer: Camille Duran

Artist: Matt Willey

Coordination & Media: Megan Neill Andrés

Creative & Operations Support: Laura Weiland

Operations Support: Tatiana Quiroz Marín

Photography & Videography: John DuPre

In partnership with #BreakFreeFromPlastic.

Funded by the Cosmic Foundation & the Plastic Solutions Fund.

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