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Re-use, insulation, solar power: What bees can teach us about architecture

The latest in our series about energy efficiency features sees low-energy passivhaus specialist Justin Bere on the lessons learnt from creation of apian-made environments

Recycling old wax comb to generate extraordinary architectural wonderworlds.
Recycling old wax comb to generate extraordinary architectural wonderworlds. Credit: Justin Bere

The Apis Mellifera (western honey bee) has been an advanced social species for 200 million years according to the late Edward O Wilson, which is 40-50 times longer than our social history. The honey bee has learnt to build homes perfectly suited to their needs, so it might be worth seeing what lessons we can learn.

  • Retrofit first: In the wild, a honey bee colony makes its home in a cavity of an old tree trunk. Its fitout can be passed down the generations. As part of their education, youngsters are taught high-quality maintenance techniques.
  • Sustainable homes: The colony uses its own body heat to stay comfortable through the winter months, and it generates body heat from the honey it stores and eats. So the size of the colony’s home is very important; it relates to the amount of food it can collect in a given summer, the rate at which it can grow, the speed at which its queen can lay eggs and the body heat the colony can generate in winter. If the home is too big it will be too hard to heat. If the temperature drops too much in the hive, the honey will get thicker and more difficult to consume, and eventually the colony can die of cold, starvation or disease. If too small, the colony won’t be able to store enough honey to last it through the winter. Size of home matters.
  • Democratic institutions: The choice of cavity to make the colony’s home is a tricky democratic decision that is taken by a jury of bees that starts with a shortlist. In the end, the whole colony turns up to see the award-winning new home and start the fitout, but if the wider consensus is that the jury didn’t get it right, the whole colony will be off again within a day or two.
  • Honeycomb – an incredibly light weight structure.
    Honeycomb – an incredibly light weight structure. Credit: Justin Bere
  • Double-sided structure for strength and economy.
    Double-sided structure for strength and economy. Credit: Justin Bere
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  • Low embodied energy enables a reliance on 100% solar energy: The colony’s home structure is strong, solid and old; a tree produced by decades of solar energy in an era before any of the bees in the colony were alive. The colony’s fitout is sparing in its use of materials, making it incredibly light in weight compared to its volume. It uses home-made wax produced by bees and often inherited by several generations. It can be cleaned out, polished up and re-used for generations, or it can be produced at amazing speed if all the mature bees in the colony fly off to make a new home, leaving the youngsters with no mortgage and the advantage of a lovely home and few worries except to learn to fly, organise themselves and store enough food for the winter.
  • Low operational energy enables reliance on 100% solar energy:  The colony’s food is almost entirely the product of the last 12 months’ solar energy. In a good year when nectar and pollen is abundant, the hive thrives and splits to form a new colony, which it needs to do to survive in friendly competition with other colonies. When food is scarce, the colony just ticks along and manages on less. Less solar energy = less industry.
  • A draught-proof insulated home: Bees use wood fibre for insulation and are draught-proofing fanatics. All summer generations of young apprentices produce a sticky glue called propolis to seal up every little crack, gluing the timber components of a hive together, as every beekeeper knows. They also mix wood fibres into a paste with propolis to make a better gap-filler while saving on propolis.

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