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Architects of Nature Series: Mind Your Beeswax

a close-up photograph of honeybees moving around a honey-filled comb
Honeybees hard at work.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is closed today, Monday, January 30 due to inclement weather. Any programs, tours, lectures or classes will not be held. If you are a ticket holder for a tour or an event today, we’ll contact you about rescheduling.

The Architects of Nature blog series is inspired by the outdoor exhibition Architecture at Home, located near the museum’s entrance on the Orchard Trail. This exhibition brings together a wide range of voices to explore how architecture can prompt questions about human-centered design, housing attainability, and environmentally friendly design. In this blog series, we ask ourselves: what can nature teach us about these themes? Here, we give props to the icons of nature’s architects, the honeybee.

 

Have you noticed the honey bee hives on our green roof and wondered, “What does it look like inside that hive?” If you are not a beekeeper (or very brave), you might not ever see the inside of one. But understanding how honeybee hives are constructed can provide great inspiration for architectural structures.

While humans respect and need honeybee hives for honey production, it’s important to remember that hives have a very functional purpose for the bees. Each hexagonal cell provides a spot for a new baby bee to incubate or for food storage. Multiple cells combined make up the honeycomb and the process of building these structures is truly unique.

 

A comb is a vertical sheet of wax formed by the worker bees of a colony. To build this comb, the bees secrete beeswax from eight glands on their lower abdomens. This wax hardens and flakes off in small pieces called scales. The scales are then chewed and mixed with secretions that convert to a plastic substance perfect for building honeycomb. The bees also create a resinous substance from pollen called propolis which helps to make the honeycomb waterproof. This “glue” is used to fill in cracks and crevices within the hive. It is so strong that it could offer Elmer’s Glue some serious competition.

a close-up photograph of honeybees moving around a honey-filled comb
Honeybees hard at work.

To shape the cells, the wax must get warm enough to make it pliable. Since bees cannot use handheld blowtorches to accomplish this, they use what they’ve got available–their own bodies. By inserting themselves in the wax, decoupling their flying muscles from their wings and then vibrating those muscles, the worker bees can generate enough heat to make the wax malleable. Research has shown that wax measured at areas of active construction were 15 degrees warmer than areas not under construction.

So how does honeycomb end up in a hexagon shape? Do the bees carve it out with a mini hand tool while they are vibrating? That’s fun to picture, but the answer is a bit more science based. When they pull their bodies out of the wax, it is actually circular in shape. Gasp! The hexagon shape comes from the science of physics. The cooling wax follows a universal tendency of physical forces to seek equilibrium. And in this case, that equilibrium comes in the form of a hexagon.

a close-up photograph of a hexagonal honeycomb structure with honey filling each hole
The perfect hexagons provide strength and storage space to the hive.

Okay, so we accept that honeybees are not using mini torches and hand tools. But why did nature choose the hexagon shape? If your mind has not already been blown by all these bee facts, then this should do it! Mathematically speaking, hexagons are extremely space efficient, offering maximum useable space to store the most amount of honey and brood (baby bees) with the least effort by the bee. They have very high compressive strength due to their foundation in triangles and are excellent at effectively dispersing heat. This all adds up to a truly sustainable structure.

So much so, that architects are looking to bees for inspiration. One Italian architect, Gianluca Santosuosso, has proposed a set of buildings which he calls the “HIVE Project.” His idea is to blend the attributes of the honeycomb with conventional housing while also considering the needs of flora, fauna, and environmental elements like wind and rain. Inspired by the lightweight nature of honeycombs and their efficiency of space, he believes the shape also lends itself to complete customization.

Rendering of an apartment complex structure formed out of honeycomb hexagons and green space against a blue sky background
Gianluca Santosuosso’s concept called the “HIVE Project.”
View from inside Fuller dome
R. Buckminster Fuller (1895 - 1983), Fly's Eye Dome, 1961, fabricated ca. 1980, Fiberglass-reinforced polyester, 38 × 50 × 50ft. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2015.15

The idea of looking to insects for architectural inspiration is not a new one. You can see a great example of this at Crystal Bridges. As the name might suggest, Fly’s Eye Dome, created by the architect R. Buckminster Fuller, was inspired by the compound eyes of flies. His structure is also based on maximizing useable space while minimizing the materials and footprint needed to create the structure.

Whether you are in the garden admiring a spider web, stumble upon a bird’s nest or beaver dam, or maintain your own honeybee hives, nature’s builders are all around us. How can our future homes be built to reflect all that nature has to teach us? How will you be inspired by nature’s architects?

 

Written by Samantha Best, outdoor interpretation specialist, Crystal Bridges.

 

Check out the rest of the Architects of Nature series: