Bees are essential to our economy. A 2012 Cornell University study estimated the contribution of honey bees (Apis mellifera) to U.S. crop production at $17.1 billion. Though the number of commercial honey-producing bee colonies in the United States is relatively stable, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a survey conducted by research organization Bee Informed found that beekeepers lost 44 percent of honey bee colonies in 2015–2016. Some loss is expected year after year, but this was the second time (along with the 2014–2015 season) that bee deaths in the summer—when the insects should be at their healthiest—were comparable to winter losses. In short, honey bees could use our help.
Directed by associate professor of media arts and sciences Neri Oxman, the Mediated Matter research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently unveiled its investigation in creating synthetic apiaries in the built environment. “It is time that the inclusion of apiaries—natural or synthetic—for [bees to] be considered a basic requirement of any sustainability program,” Oxman says. A conventional apiary comprising multiple beehives is located outdoors, often near flowers or crops. The Mediated Matter’s apiary was indoors, offering a controlled space for “seasonal honeybees to thrive year-round,” writes the team on its website.
The group first observed honeybee hives placed on the roof of the MIT Media Lab to gather data on interior temperature, humidity levels, and bee activity to create the initial set points for a synthetic apiary. On Nov. 9, 2015, the researchers, which include Markus Kayser, Sunanda Sharma, Jorge Duro-Royo, Christoph Bader, and Dominik Kolb, moved the bees into a custom-made apiary inside a North Cambridge, Mass., building.
Everything about the 2,200-square-foot room was meticulously controlled. Room surfaces were stark white, either covered in fabric or painted white, to allow the researchers to observe and track its active inhabitants, and to ensure the bees’ metabolisms were operating normally. “Like a petri dish, the apiary was designed as a bare minimum space to contain the experiment, but not get in its way,” Oxman says.
Interior conditions were also controlled. Relative humidity was fixed at 50 percent and temperature at 21 C. Instead of a single light source, which may have drawn swarms of bees and introduced heat hazards, the team aimed to diffuse the light “to emulate the physics and chemistry of a natural environment within a synthetic setting,” Oxman says. “We attempted to design a space that would deliver optimized degrees of brightness to map the outdoors.”
The team provided the bees pollen and nectar substitutes, and experimented with introducing color in the space with artificial flowers against the white fabric. Project collaborator The Best Bees Co., a commercial beekeeping operation in Boston, evaluated the insects’ health and wellbeing weekly to assess whether a population could be cultivated and thrive inside a synthetic apiary. The results were promising.
Synthetic Apiary from Mediated Matter Group on Vimeo. Minute 2:33 captures the first birth of a honey bee in the synthetic apiary.
After an initial acclimation period, during which the beehives’ population dwindled, the optimized apiary conditions, bolstered by the absence of natural pathogens—bacteria, fungi, and viruses—led to a surge in bee population and productivity. With data that Best Bees’ beekeepers tracked on its proprietary beehive-monitoring software, Bzzz, a queen bee in one hive transitioned from a non-egg laying state, or “winter mode,” to an “egg laying springtime state” in 10 days “with noted increases in brood (eggs, larvae, and pupa), adult bees, and even honey production,” says Best Bees’ founder and chief scientific officer Noah Wilson-Rich. (With synthetic pollen, the bees produced synthetic honey, or “concentrated sugared water,” Oxman says.)
During the project’s three-month duration, the team estimates between 13,000 and 15,000 bees were born in the synthetic apiary. On Feb. 9, 2016, the bees were moved out of the apiary and into Best Bees’ Urban Beekeeping Laboratory and Bee Sanctuary network, with a main site located in the Boston’s South End.
Oxman says one of the project’s goals was to “observe and modify the behavior of the bees environmentally” in the hope of ultimately incorporating computational design into crafting manmade beehive structures and forms in the synthetic apiaries. In the Mediated Matter group's synthetic apiary, the bees constructed their own beehives in the apiary, as they would naturally.
Moreover, Wilson-Rich says, the synthetic apiary informed how “humans can improve bee health, and continue their life” as well as demonstrated how any researcher can observe bees in a controlled space for future studies. Regionally, he notes, bee losses are up to 80 percent each year, which could lead to a potential extinction in as short as three years. “This structure is for a future world that is very likely to happen,” he says. “It is a contribution in our own way to address the plight of the bee.”