Neri Axman, an American architect and designer, has built an artificial apiary to study how bees build structures such as hexagonal and waxy honeycombs and operate inside the hive.
Developed in collaboration with The Mediated Matter Group, the Synthetic Apiary II allows researchers to track and monitor bee behavior using computational tools. By studying bees and their honeycomb structure, researchers can gain insight into how to use designed environments in human architecture and design.
To be or not to be
Global biodiversity is declining faster than ever before, and one million unprecedented species on our planet are now in danger of extinction. Perhaps most troubling is the widespread decline of bees around the world, which is affected by a variety of factors: agricultural chemicals, disease, and habitat loss.
Bees, as plant pollination agents, account for almost 70% of our food production. Without them, we would not have the fruits and vegetables that make our lives on earth. This is something we may never have considered when buying honey, which most people think is the main product of bees. They may even be needed to support regenerative food systems for long-term space missions. Beekeeping, educating about their health, and improving non-standard bee environments have become increasingly important for their survival and ours.
To achieve its research goals, Synthetic Apiary I designed a controlled environment in which seasonal bees can grow all year round. Light, humidity and temperature are designed to simulate a permanent spring environment in which bees are fed artificial pollen and sugar water and are regularly assessed for health. As a platform for biological research, this allows longitudinal studies of behavioral dynamics at various scales – from the organism to the building scale – including bee health, honey-making behaviors, and bee-human interaction.
Indicative of the success of the environmental and nutritional conditions of this laboratory environment, which has been engineered for bees, is the queen’s ability to adapt her biological cycle to the new environment that causes it to lay eggs. In this regard, Axman says:
We were very excited to videotape the first birth of a bee in an artificial apiary. This proved the ability to change the entire cycle of bee behavior from winter to spring, and is the first demonstration of sustainable life in a completely artificial apiary.
Looking back over hundreds of years, humans have observed natural life systems that are fascinated by their social-biological dynamics and are constantly learning from them. Many insect communities exhibit collective behavior called crowding, and while constantly striving to achieve common goals, They prioritize the group over individual survival. Often, groups of these social organisms use participatory behavior for relatively large constructions. For example, ants create very complex networks by tunneling, and bees use wax to build hive structures.
Among these small architects, bees are known for creating beautiful and intricate wax beehives that can accommodate tens of thousands of people, and all work together in an innovative display of social behavior. Honeycomb architecture encompasses a range of phrases related to congestion intelligence, emerging behaviors, and social organization. Bees work from top to bottom to create functional nest structures using only abundant and organic resources, without using any design. Instead, their collective action creates a structure that fits the needs of the colony. The specific design behaviors, actions, and decisions that drive this emergency design process remain relatively unknown. If we could better understand these factors, we could learn how to incorporate them into our construction practices.
These studies examine computational analysis data on beehive structures
Nest construction is a dynamic process that involves complex adaptations to disturbances caused by environmental stimuli, not merely a set of predefined behaviors created toward specific construct shapes. Thus, each environment acts as a signal that can be sent to the colony to begin the process of joint construction.
Determining the morphology (structure and shape) of the constructed nest generally involves visual observations and physical measurements of structural features – methods that are limited in scale of analysis. In contrast, wax structures made by bee colonies at Synthetic Apiary II provide a more comprehensive digital reconstruction of the hive structure through high-performance X-ray CT scans. Geometric analysis of these shapes provides information about the hive design process, preferences and constraints when tied to inputs, and thus insights into the invisible intermediaries between bees and their environment.
Developing computational tools to learn from bees can make it easier to start a conversation with them. Nesting behaviors and their social organizations, which have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, may reveal new forms and methods of formation that can be used in our human endeavors in architecture, design, engineering, and culture. In addition, with the understanding of the established basis and language, co-construction methods with bees may be developed, which make it possible to use new biocompatible materials and create more efficient structural geometries that modern technology alone cannot achieve.
To design a way out of the environmental crisis we have created, we must first learn to speak the language of nature. While most architecture and design are concerned solely with human needs, we urge designers to embrace nature-based design and take responsibility for the impact that structures have on other living systems.