Can Urban Architecture Save Bees?

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014
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Vulkan Beehive Entry
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A growing architectural focus on housing bees in urban areas is demonstrating just how real bee colony collapse disorder is.

Architects around the world are designing structures to attract bees to cities and encourage pollination. Earlier this year, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts opened the world’s first Pollinator Bee Hotel in Toronto, offering “five star accommodation” for their buzzing guests. There is also a bee skyscraper in Buffalo, New York constructed by students from the local university.

Bees are a vital resource for agriculture; they are the world’s most efficient pollinators and are responsible for approximately $15 billion of crops each year (or a third of the food found on supermarket shelves) according the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) was first highlighted in 2006, when the USDA found that beekeepers were reporting losses of 30 to 90 per cent of their hives. While colony losses are expected in winter, this magnitude of loss was deemed unusually high.

Parasites and pesticides are linked to the decline of bees

Parasites and pesticides are linked to the decline of bees

Since then, and following an array of bee habitat initiatives, a 2014 USDA survey reported a drop in bee mortality of the 2013-2014 year of 29.6 per cent compared to 30.5 per cent the year before.

“Yearly fluctuations in the rate of losses like these only demonstrate how complicate the whole issue of honey bee health has become, with factors such as viruses and other pathogens, parasites like varroa mites, problems of nutrition from lack of diversity in pollen sources, and even the sub-lethal effects of pesticides combining to weaken and kill bee colonies,” said Jeff Pettis, co-author of the survey and USDA’s chief intramural scientific research agency.

The decline has been attributed to increased habitat loss, pesticides (specifically neonicotinoids) and the rise of varroa mites – a parasite that is present in the US and EU but has not been found in Canada or New Zealand. The problem has become so serious that the EU imposed a temporary ban on pesticides in 2013.

In contrast, Australian bee colonies are among the healthiest in the world despite Australia being the heaviest users of pesticides in the world per acre according to the University of Melbourne.

Although the drop in mortality is a positive, as is the fact that CCD does not seem to have afflicted Australia, two-thirds of beekeepers surveyed by the USDA still see any losses greater than the 18.9 per cent level as unacceptable and non economically sustainable.

All of these statistics highlight a threat to bee colonies which will in turn affect global food security, agriculture jobs and pollination across the green environment. These statistics have prompted architects to create sustainable structures to house bees particuarly in urban areas.

Many of these projects are designed to replicate the “hive” environment.

Norwegian design firm Snøhetta’s Vulkan Beehive is made up of two birch veneer hexagonal volumes that aim to house bees while also educating city inhabitants on the current threat of CCD.

“We want to give visitors information  on how they can contribute to the environment and create involvement around bees,” said Carsten Løddesøl, head of the workshop department of  Snøhetta.

Beekeeper Alexander Du Reitz approached Snøhetta, asking them to take on the project.

“He wanted to make an awareness project about bees and wanted to work with us…we were thrilled to be given this fun project,” said Løddesøl.

Løddesøl also recognised that while CCD is not as prominent in Norway as it is in the US, it remains a serious problem worthy of an architectural solution.

The Vulkan Beehive sits on a rooftop with its two lightly coloured hexagonal volumes adjusted in height and width to fit with the needs of the beekeeper.

“The honeycomb inspired pattern is laser cut and the laminated onto the rest of the veneer,” Løddesøl said.

Honeycomb patterned inspired by Mother Nature's beehive © Morten Brakestad

The honeycomb’s pattern is inspired by beehives found in nature © Morten Brakestad

“The hexagon shape is obviously inspired by the bees and the form echoes hives in nature. The shape is generated from two hexes that are pulled apart and then rotated in relation to each other and the surfaces you get between them,” he added.

Its location atop a Oslo food court was suitable for both its visibility and connectivity to the problem.

“(There is) lots of people, it’s a low building so it’s easily visible, a close relation to food and quality and a gastronomical institute (along with) a sympathetic landlord,” said Løddesøl. “It is a good space to show the relation between nature, bees, food and us.”

While the firm does not currently have any more bee projects in the pipeline, Løddesøl is keen to have them installed on all Snøhetta’s projects.

“The hive is ready, we just need someone to cultivate and run them,” he said.

The hives are constructed from birch veneer with a honey coloured laminate © Morten Brakestad

The hives are constructed from birch veneer with a honey coloured laminate © Morten Brakestad

Since the project’s installation, the bees have produced more than 80 kilograms of honey.

“That is good for two Norwegian hives,” he says. “They have now given up for the summer and gone into winter state. It has been a lot of press and buzz about the hives, therefore an added interest for the state of bees.”

Snøhetta’s project sets a benchmark for urban hive installation opportunities to battle the drastic decline of bees.

While Australia has a relatively healthy bee environment and is currently free of varroa mites, a series local organisations are dedicated to beehive initiatives and educating humans of the importance of bees in the environment.

Aussie Bee run a series of workshops (one the largest in Australia) and seminars on stingless beekeeping, pollination purposes and updates on CCD.

The Urban Beehive in Sydney aims to install beehives all over Sydney before the bee population dwindles too greatly, while Rooftop Honey in Melbourne is placing hives on unused roofs, balconies and gardens across the city.

As with green design, Snøhetta’s Vulkan Beehive demonstrates that architecture can contribute more than aesthetics and structural soundness.

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