Secrets of the Beehive

TEXT Brendan Cormier
GRAPHICS Brendan Cormier and Christopher Pandolfi
PHOTOS Sabrina Malach

Bees may have more to do with architecture than we think. In the past few years, these proverbial labourers have entered into the conversations of designers as a handful of projects and headlines have appeared highlighting their importance to our ecosystem and our own daily life. Rooftop honey farms and community apiaries are some of the design projects emerging in response to increased awareness about the ecological significance of bees.

For many architects, the idea of designing for bees offers exciting possibilities in environmental design. Wary of an already omnipresent greenwash manifested in architectural renderings, designers are seeking to raise the bar in sustainable thinking by pursuing what Italian architect Stefano Boeri has calls “a non-anthropocentric urban ethics.” This means going beyond an ethic that simply aims to satisfy the needs of humans to an ethic of satisfying the needs of all life forms.

Bees have emerged in the design world as one of the first species to be considered in this new urban ethic, confronting designers with two essential questions–“What exactly are the life needs of bees and how can we design with those needs in mind?”

The Importance of Bees

Ironically, bees are a good starting point in non-anthropocentric thinking precisely because we are so dependent on them. According to a recent report by environmental economist Nicola Gallai in the transdisciplinary journal Ecological Economics, it is estimated that bees are responsible for $218 billion worth of our crop production worldwide through the pollination services they provide. Roughly one-third of what ends up on our plate is in some way or another produced through animal pollination, and some plant species are wholly dependent on bees cross-pollinating their seeds during bloom season for survival. The almond tree is a good example. Every year in February, beehives are trucked in from around America to park in Californian almond orchards to ensure that there will be another season of almond trees, making it the largest “managed pollination” practice in the world.

The current interest in locally produced food has also exalted the profile of the bee, with urban agriculture and honey farming revealing the productive role that bees play in the city. The close relationship between humans and bees is one of the reasons many say that bees can play an important educational role in getting people to better understand ecological processes. Community groups and food activists have responded in kind by installing beehives in community gardens to play such a role.

In 2005, honeybee populations suddenly began to decline through a mysterious phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder. Beekeepers reported a 45 percent drop in the population of their colonies and until recently, there was no rational explanation for this die-off. The event had the media and several important thinkers postulating a dystopian world without bees–most notably in Douglas Coupland’s 2009 novel Generation A. The news also helped propel bees into popular conversation and is possibly responsible for some of the new bee-related design propositions we are seeing today.

Toronto: A Bee’s City

There is evidence to suggest that Toronto is becoming an important centre for bee-related projects and research. Several key figures are pushing a broader discussion around bees and expanding our collective imagination as to the future role that they can play in the city. In 2008, the Fairmont Royal York made headlines when it announced that they would start their own honey manufacturing on the 14th-floor roof garden. The story was widely circulated as it nudged against preconceptions of the downtown being a concrete island, and spoke to the bee’s versatility in searching out food sources and navigating to its vertigo-inducing home base. Local not-for-profit food distribution organization FoodShare mirrored the hotel’s efforts by implementing several beehives in local community gardens, and initiating a group called the Toronto Beekeepers Cooperative, which offers courses in honey harvesting.

York University professor Laurence Packer has also been instrumental in bee research and conveying the importance of bees to a broader public. Working with the David Suzuki Foundation, he helped release a small booklet, which profiles the 22 major species of bees in Toronto, as well as several other important pollinators. He urges the public to look beyond the honeybee to the larger, more complex and diverse world of wild bees. Together with his team of researchers, they are hoping to study how bee pollination can help sustain a burgeoning urban agriculture movement. The study would be one of the first to focus on the effects that wild bee pollination has on urban food production.

Finally, International Pollinator Week debuted this summer, further entrenching Toronto as a centre for all things bee-related. The event was organized by York University student Sabrina Malach and the week-long event included workshops, exhibits, lectures and a cabaret–all aimed at communicating to the public the importance of pollinators and fostering new partnerships and collaborations between pollinator enthusiasts.

Designing for the Bees

Having established the global and local significance of bees, and how bees are a logical stepping stone in non-anthropocentric thinking, the important question now is to ask what the implications are of designing for bees in the public realm?

At the basic level, promoting rooftop gardens, on-site hives, and native plant vegetation which wild bees thrive on, are seemingly easy steps in this direction–although there are technical, policy, and client obstacles that need to be overcome. Anecdotal stories have already pointed to beehives being placed too close to ventilation systems, thereby causing bees to subsequently invade the interiors of buildings. Also, the negative notion of bees as pests needs to be countered to convince clients that fostering a healthy on-site bee population is a good idea in the first place. Probably the thorniest issue, however, is a legal one. Most jurisdictions place spatial limits on beekeeping. In Ontario, the law requires that any beehive be placed a minimum of 30 metres from a property line. In a city where property widths are an average of 7 to 10 metres, this effectively rules out the idea of beekeeping in the city. Most new beekeepers simply ignore the law, but including mention of beehives in any set of drawings used in a building permit application is a quick way to rapidly become entangled in a bureaucratic mess.

Perhaps the more interesting question of designing for bees emerges at the urban and regional scale. Urban development can have many deleterious effects on local bee populations and some cities do substantially better than others in fostering a sustainable environment for bees. Berlin, with its verdant landscape and numerous plots of vacant land, has one of the healthiest populations of bees in Europe. Conversely, Phoenix, Arizona is a heavily paved and sprawling city, and has seen its bee diversity plummet throughout the course of its urban development. In Michael Klemens’s book Nature in Fragments: The Legacy of Sprawl, he documents how typical patterns of urban sprawl can help kill off whole species of bees in a given area. Because the foraging radii of certain smaller species are limited, a development pattern that includes a lot of pavement or hard surfaces can effectively cut off a bee from its nest, thwarting access to the plant sources it requires. Isolated parks and green islands are not enough to sustain populations, as inbreeding weakens the genetic code of the species. The alternative is to plant continuous
green strips in order for bees to thrive in urban environments.

It is evident that there is a mountain of work to do in order to properly plan and design with bees in mind. Official plans, land-use maps and strategic park planning all need to work together in hemming the negative effects of needlessly sprawling urban development and fostering healthy bee populations. Policies regarding beekeeping need to be altered, and green roof practices need to be refined. Most importantly, an education campaign needs to be sustained to get people over their fears and misconceptions about bees. However, such an ominous workload should not overshadow the strides that have been made by simply beginning to address the issue. Non-anthropocentric design thinking opens up new opportunities for ecological design innovation, and it is evident that bees have become the stepping stone to this kind of thinking. CA

Brendan Cormier received a Master of Science from the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar. He is part of the Toronto-based research and design collective called the Department of Unusual Certainties.