Insects: Interview with Annika Engelhardt
Everybody is talking about insects. Whether as a superfood of the future or a political topic: while pesticides and agricultural monocultures are responsible for widespread insect mortality across the countryside, urban honey is now quite the custom at many institutions. Courses for amateur beekeepers are in demand, town planners are considering new urban strategies for wild bees and even designers are dealing with the subject in various ways.
Within the scope of her master’s thesis “Municipal Bees” at Bremen’s University of the Arts, Annika Engelhardt developed mobile bee nests for wild bees, so-called “Hive Bombs” which she based on the principle of seed bombs from the guerrilla gardening movement.The hive bombs can be distributed and attached anywhere in urban spaces, for example, to lampposts.Once bees have begun using the hive bombs, they become wild bee nests within the meaning of the German Nature Conservation Act and may not be taken away or moved.In the process of developing the 3D-printed bee houses, the designer tested various materials such as chitin and bioplastic. In the end, however, she settled on wood filaments that are well-suited to the 3D printing method.We asked Annika Engelhardt some questions about her design process.
How did you alight upon the subject of wild bees?
The starting point for my project was how to integrate nature into our growing cities without taming it, so that we can create a kind of hybrid habitat for all kinds of life. I was inspired by two approaches: the green skyscrapers created by the architect Vincent Callebaut and the work of Joyce Hwang’s studio “Ants of the Prairie”. This looks into how we could integrate creatures, some of which we still call pests, into buildings and urban planning in such a way that they would become valuable aspects of our everyday urban life. In the end, I chose wild bees for an initial experiment for integrating wild life, because these bees face a tremendous threat and yet could be described as pacifists. In contrast to colony-building bees, most wild bees would rather seek out open spaces than sting a human. And although these bees are incredibly important for our survival, they often continue to be underestimated and receive little attention compared to honey bees.
How did the design process work?
Since the aim was to integrate wild nature into cities, it was important to me that the design process of the ‘hive bombs’ was not overly determined by what I felt to be ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’. There are some nesting aids for insects that come in the form of a ‘hotel’ – this may be a nice idea from our point of view, but it seems to me as if we are trying to turn the bee into a pet. Introducing nature also means not dictating how it should operate. This approach makes it quite difficult to design an object, since you can never completely ignore your own ideas. I was therefore concerned with how shapes are created in nature. In contrast to humans, nature does not assemble parts, but shapes develop as a result of natural processes, through growth, for example. The way something grows is influenced by various factors – genetic makeup, environmental influences and also a helping of chance. I’ve tried to adopt this design process for the ‘hive bombs’. Starting from different basic forms that are adapted to their later use, small tubes for the bees ‘grow’ by means of an algorithm that, while defining a few framework conditions, also permits chance and individual factors. I’ve tried to create a kind of digital DNA for shaping, an algorithm that always generates new forms, so that the result is detached from what I personally perceive as ‘beautiful’.
What can we learn from bees?
Nature is incredibly complex. There are very many different species of bee with very special characteristics regarding nesting sites, cohabitation and forage plants. Nesting aids allow us to be a little involved in this diversity by being able to observe what otherwise happens in secret. This also includes parasites that destroy the broods of bees in their nests. But just like bees, their counterparts also make an important contribution to nature and their numbers are declining sharply. Bees and other living beings are very dependent on the fact that not every corner of our environment should consist of tidy gardens and monocultures. They need small structures, disorder, wild flowering meadows, a kind of spontaneity that can do us good, too. Who, apart from allergy sufferers, does not have their heart gladdened by seeing a colourful flower meadow? If we make our environment bee-friendly, we are not only doing something good for nature, but also for ourselves.
What have you learned during the project?
Before embarking on this project, I hardly knew anything about wild bees. Most of us can distinguish bumble bees from honey bees quite well, but I was unaware that there are also two-millimetre small, inconspicuous bees. Also, I didn’t know that many bees do not live in above-ground nests or hives, but are dependent on sandy soils and steep slopes. During the design process, I also learned a lot about parametric design, and I kept coming up against the question of how to get people to become involved, even if they weren’t very interested in the underlying subject. That’s how I came up with the guerrilla approach of the project – a peaceful rebellion that anyone can have fun with.
Will the ‘hive bombs’ be available for purchase in the near future?
No, that’s not part of the plan for the moment. The material that the hive bombs are made of is a biodegradable wood PLA composition, but whether it really is a good material for nesting tubes has not yet been established. The project intends rather to explore possibilities, pique curiosity and to draw attention to wild bees in this way. And perhaps it will inspire others to think about how we could better integrate wild nature into our urban lives in the future and what that would mean for us.