The global award in photography and sustainability

Matthew Brandt

Honeybees is a project that began at the beach where I stumbled upon a swarm of bees—hundreds in the wet sand, dead and dying—scattered across the Santa Monica shoreline. At the time, the news was filled with bold headlines about colony collapse disorder—worker bees were disappearing from their colonies, causing honeybee colonies across North America to collapse and die, disrupting the natural cycle of pollination and procreation. As this dire ecological mystery was just coming into public awareness, I was confronted with the physical reality of a hive’s collective death in a surreal scenario. As a way of remembering this profound experience, I decided to walk along the beach and collect the carcass of each dead bee that I saw.

One year later I photographed these bees and made a print out of their bodies using an antiquated 19th century photographic process called gum-bichromate printing. As I made more of these prints, I began collecting bee carcasses from local Californian honey and bee farms. Throughout my time working on this project, I have not met a single beekeeper that hasn’t lost a significant number of hives in the past 5 years.

Witnessing a dying colony undoubtedly charged my own sense of mortality and, perhaps more generally, I believe creative drive stems from an anxiety of death. Honeybees pollinate our crops, and without them our lives would be much more difficult. Albert Einstein famously declared, “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.” Simply put, bees help us survive in a beautifully balanced symbiotic cycle, and now there is a rupture in this order. That day on the beach, I stood witness to this rupture. In a futile attempt to sustain order, I held on, literally, by collecting as many dead bees that I could find before their bodies drifted, disintegrated, and disappeared into the ocean.