It looks like the interior of any new, still-empty condo development. The ceiling is white. The walls are a neutral gray. It has yet to be staged, save for a lone Dyson fan that whirs in the middle of the room.
You’re looking at a home designed just for bees. Developed by MIT’s Mediated Matter Group, which focuses on nature-inspired design and fabrication, the Synthetic Apiary is both a research facility and an architectural intervention in a natural world where our pollinating friends are struggling to survive.
The world is getting less and less habitable for bees. While three quarters of the world's crops are pollinated by species like bees, global bee populations are but half what they were in 1945. In fact, for the first time in history, several bee species have been added to the U.S. endangered species list.
"Our goal is to create a new artificial habitat for bees, not simply introduce them into our own," writes the Mediated Matter Group via email. "Habitat loss is one of the main reasons for the declining population—the Synthetic Apiary is our response to that fact. It is made for bees, for them to rebuild, flourish, and thrive."
The key word is "artificial." While apiaries are all manmade and can scale the size of greenhouses, they traditionally allow bees to come and go. MIT's apiary is completely sealed, meaning that bees can’t fly in and out to feed on real-world flowers before coming home for the night. The Synthetic Apiary is essentially a place where bees are raised in complete, protective captivity.
As such, the space has been carefully designed both for bee study and for their long-term health. The white and gray walls are not a coincidence. They make it easy to photograph and examine bee behaviors—a species that flies up to seven miles in the wild daily.
"Currently, most field studies face the challenge that bees are not easily trackable and can traverse great distances, so non-hive-based behaviors are very difficult to observe," the team explains. "This is a novel space that can allow for more true laboratory style observation and experimentation, so we . . . could more easily understand what causes individual and hive behaviors and events."
The rest of the space has been designed as a sort of bee paradise. Humidity and light levels are meant to mimic May, when beehives grow and flourish after the winter thaw. They’re provided with synthetic pollen and sugared water. The space itself has several subtle touches to ensure bees can live there safely. The lights were covered in fabric to mitigate the appeal of bright lights to the insects, and the injuries accrued by striking them repeatedly. This fabric, a mix of polyester and spandex, stretches between wooden crossbeams to block the crevasses and corners in the ceiling, preventing the bees from establishing hives that cannot be observed.
So far, the experiment has been successful, leading to what MIT believes to be the first bee born in captivity.
Could these internal habitats for bees scale to battle extinction? And if so, is it crazy to think that humans might actually share these environments with their bee friends? "In nature, bees and humans have coexisted for thousands of years—though of course in recent years this has been problematic," the team writes. "We do think it could be sustainable at scale, especially as we observe more behaviors and learn to automate tools in the space."
Though admittedly, such a future—where the environment is such a disaster that your condo building might have a bee unit—is hard to imagine, because who would want to knock on a neighbor’s door for being too loud, knowing a SWARM OF BEES was on the other side? Which is why it’s good that MIT is experimenting with non-human beekeepers, too—including the Kuka robot arms used in the manufacturing industry. "We could incorporate more robotics to deposit physical materials such as wax, or chemical signals such as attractants and repellents, to modify the environment and influence bee behavior in a planned and automated way," the team writes.
The ultimate goals of Synthetic Apiary are still unclear. Is it the future of bee research? Or a model for human-bee cohabitation? Or just a means to restore bee populations, breeding them like wolves in captivity, before releasing them periodically back into the wild to go back to work for our crops? Truth be told, it seems like it could be all of these things—that is, if we don't figure out a way to save our bees without inviting them into human-built housing first.
Slideshow Credits: 10 / Image: Mediated Matter Research Group; MIT Media Lab;