Every year, the AZ Awards, organized by Canadian design magazine Azure, celebrate cutting-edge architecture and interior design from around the world. The expected all-white buildings and futuristic furniture got nods at the most recent ceremony in downtown Toronto, but the $5,000 top prize was given to something decidedly more unusual: a man-made beehive erected on a derelict industrial site in Buffalo, N.Y.
The 22-foot-tall stainless-steel tower was dreamed up by a team of students from the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning. It was their solution for relocating a massive colony of bees found in the wall of a nearby office building. Because global bee populations are in peril (due to invasive parasites, climate change and pesticides) and are extremely vital (bee pollination, according the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, is responsible for cultivating 71 per cent of the world’s most plentiful crop species), calling the exterminator would have been unconscionable.
While singularly elegant, the project in Buffalo is not alone. So-called bee hotels are becoming more prevalent as a way to encourage the winged creatures to repopulate, and designers are taking up the challenge of making the structures visually stunning as well.
This month, for instance, Aleksandra and Yvonne Popovska, sisters and architectural designers, along with Yvonne’s husband, Leland Dadson, unveiled their winning entry in Design by Nature, a juried public art competition in Toronto. On display for the rest of the summer at Evergreen Brick Works, an environmentally focused community centre in the city’s Don Valley, the sisters’ design doesn’t look anything like a conventional apiary. It’s made from 200 sheets of cardboard, laser-cut and layered to create a place for nesting. “Bees don’t like to be too hot,” explains Aleksandra, “and the cavity creates a nice protection for them, like the hollow in a tree.”
Essentially all paper, it sits outside, surrounded by gardens. But because it is coated in locally sourced beeswax, the corrugated pile is rain resistant and sustained only minor damage in the city’s recent flooding.
Yet what really distinguishes the Popovskas’ project is that it’s meant to house mason bees, not the everyday honeybees that live in the Buffalo tower. Mason bees are solitary, nest in whatever cracks and crevices they can find, and rarely, if ever, sting. Dave Hunter, a mason bee expert based in Woodinville, Wash., describes them as “incredibly gentle,” even “cuddly.” He also praises their prodigious pollination skills, saying: “A honeybee might pollinate 15 flowers per day, while a mason bee can pollinate up to 2,000.”
In a sense, a four-foot stack of cardboard sheets is perfect for mason bees because the corrugations give them so many little places to burrow. And the Popovskas have interspersed cardboard tubes to provide a variety of burrow sizes. Although bee hotels are similar to birdhouses – if you build it, they will likely come – the sisters used an artificial scent to help attract the insects. The smell tricks the critters into thinking that other mason bees have previously nested in the crevices, making them suitable places to live.
But Hunter points out that, unless you have a ravine’s worth of plant life for the bees to feed on, as is the case at the Brick Works, having such a large hotel may not be practical.
For interested backyard mason beekeepers who want pollinators for their flower patch, Hunter offers much smaller bee houses through his website, crownbees.com, that can provide homes for just a handful of bees at a time.
Coquitlam, B.C.-based Margriet Dogterom, who has a PhD in biology and runs the pollination-products website beediverse.com, offers similar kits and agrees that, for most homeowners, a few bees go a long way.
“Even half a dozen bees will have an effect on fruit producers,” she notes, citing the example of a client with an apple tree. “One summer, the tree produced no fruit. Then she put out a bee house, and the next year there were 20 apples.”
This piece originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on Thursday, July 18, 2013.