September 6, 2013
In 1851, Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth invented a better beehive and changed beekeeping forever. The Langstroth Hive didn’t spring fully formed from one man’s imagination, but was built on a foundation of methods and designs developed over millenia.
Beekeeping dates back at least to ancient Egypt, when early apiarists built their hives from straw and clay (if you happen to find a honeypot in a tomb, feel free to stick your hand in it, you rascal, because honey lasts longer than a mummy). In the intervening centuries, various types of artificial hives developed, from straw baskets to wood boxes but they all shared one thing: “fixed combs” that must be physically cut from the hive. These early fixed comb hives made it difficult for beekeepers to inspect their brood for diseases or other problems.
In the 18th century, noted Swiss naturalist François Huber developed a “movable comb” or “movable frame” hive that featured wooded leaves filled with honeycombs that could be flipped like the pages of a book. Despite this innovation, Huber’s hive was not widely adopted and simple box hives remained the popular choice for beekeepers until the 1850s. Enter Lorenzo Langstroth.
Langstroth wasn’t a beekeeper by trade. As a minister, he presided over a flock instead of a colony. After graduating from Yale in 1832, when the school was still led by an ordained minister, the Philadelphia-born Langstroth went on to become a pastor in Massachusetts and then, a few years later, a principal at a women’s school. It was around this time that he took up beekeeping as a means to mitigate severe bouts of depression—because nothing eases the mind like the incessant droning of drone bees.
Langstroth pursued his hobby with the methodological rigor befitting his academic and theological background. He began by reading previous works on beekeeping and building hives following Huber’s designs, eventually experimenting with other types of construction. The process taught him the mechanics of beekeeping but also revealed that there was still some room for improvement. As Langstroth writes in his 1853 book Langstroth on the Hive and the Honey-Bee: A Bee Keeper’s Manual:
“The result of all these investigations fell far short of my expectations. I became, however, most thoroughly convinced that no hives were fit to be used, unless they furnished uncommon protection against extremes of heat and more especially of cold. I accordingly discarded all thin hives made of inch stuff, and constructed my hives of doubled materials, enclosing a ‘dead air’ space all around.”
This “dead air” gap—known today by the delightfully architectural term “bee space”—would have an added benefit. Langstroth discovered that bees would not build a honeycomb in a one-centimeter space—anything bigger, they would build a comb, anything smaller and the bees would fill it with propolis, the resinous composite also known as “bee glue” that bees make to construct their hives.
The notion of bee space, combined with the knowledge gleaned from the Huber hive, convinced Langstroth that “with proper precautions, the combs might be removed without enraging the bees, and that [bees] were capable of being domesticated or tamed, to a most surprising degree.” Realizing that honeycombs could be safely removed from the hive, Langstroth designed a system of removable frames that were suspended from the top of the box and set off from its sides by a one-centimeter gap. Thus, bees could build their combs in each frame, and the frames weren’t stuck to one another or to the box with propolis; they could be easily removed, replaced or moved to other hives without disturbing the bees or damaging the combs. Using Langstroth’s hive, it was now much easier to inspect and attend to the bees, and of course, to collect the honey. This was a very big deal in 1851 when honey was the primary means of sweetening food.
The hive was fabricated by a local cabinetmaker and fellow bee enthusiast Henry Bourquin, and the two men manufactured and sold the hive for several years. In a savvy marketing move, Langstroth opened his book on beekeeping with an advertisement for his hive enumerating its myriad benefits:
“Weak stocks may be quickly strengthened by helping them to honey and maturing brood from stronger ones; queenless colonies may be rescued from certain ruin by supplying them with the means of obtaining another queen; and the ravages of the moth effectually prevented, as at any time the hive may be readily examined and all the worms, &c., removed from the combs. New colonies may be formed in less time than is usually required to hive a natural swarm; or the hive may be used as a non-swarmer, or managed on the common swarming plan. The surplus honey may be taken from the interior of the hive on the frames or in upper boxes or glasses, in the most convenient, beautiful and saleable forms. Colonies may be safely transferred from any other hive to this, at any season of the year, from April to October, as the brood, combs, honey and all the contents of the hive are transferred with them, and securely fastened in the frames.”
Despite earning a patent on the design in 1852, other beekeepers began to copy Langstroth’s hive and the minister-cum-beekeeper spent years unsuccessfully defending his design from infringement. By the end of the century, Langstroth’s hive—or reasonable facsimiles of it—became the preferred hive for professional and amateur beekeepers, and it is still the most common artificial hive in use. And, in perhaps the greatest compliment that could be given to an industrial innovation, what was once a design feature—removable frames—is now, in most states, required by law.
September 4, 2013
It’s been five years now since it was reported that, for the first time ever, more than half of the world’s population live in urban areas. Such a dramatic demographic shift comes with inevitable consequences – some predictable, like rising housing prices and greater economic disparity, and some less so, like the rise in urban honeybee population. With growing interest in sustainability and local food production combined with news stories and documentaries about honeybee colony collapse disorder, recent changes in laws, and the growing urban population, urban beekeeping is a full-blown trend. But it’s not just about the honey. The humble honeybee is starting to play a greater role in the design of urban living.
Bees can help maintain the green roofs that are becoming more common in big cities and thus, in some small way, contribute to a building’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating, which is a metric of sustainability promoted by the United States Green Building Council based on a system of points awarded for environmentally friendly features. In Manhattan, for example, the rooftop hives atop The Bank of America Tower, a 51-story glass skyscraper in the heart of Midtown, were recently featured in The New York Times. The towers’s 6,000-sq-ft green roof is a critical element of its LEED Platinum rating –the highest possible– and is sustained in part by two hives of 100,00 honey bees.
Buildings can benefit from bees in other ways. While some urban bees help secure sustainability credentials as green roof gardeners, others are security guards. In response to a 2010 article in The Telegraph about the recurring theft of lead from the roofs of historic buildings, architect Hugh Petter described the unique counter-measure taken by one building owner in York:
“The flat roofs of this historic building are now the home of bees — this keeps the hives away from the public in urban areas, provides delicious honey for the local community and acts as a powerful disincentive for anyone minded to remove the lead.”
Petter reports that once the bees were installed, the thefts stopped. Unfortunately, according to another recent story, such apian theft deterrents might themselves become the target of thieves. Due to colony collapse disorder, honey bees are so rare that bee theft is on the rise. A problem once common to cattle ranchers on the range is now a problem for beekeepers in Brooklyn. And until someone invents a branding iron small enough for a bee, there’s no way to prove that your queen bee was stolen.
More recently, a group of architecture students at the University of Buffalo decided that, rather than adding bees to their buildings, they would actually design buildings for bees. “Elevator B” is a 22-ft-tall steel tower clad in hexagonal panels inspired by the natural honeycomb structure of beehives and designed to optimize environmental conditions. Bees don’t occupy the full height of the structure, just a cypress, glass-bottomed box suspended near the top. Human visitors can enter the tower through an opening at its base and look up to see the industrious insects at work while beekeepers can tend to the bees and collect their honey by lowering the box like an elevator. If the stacked boxes of the modern beehive are efficient public housing projects, this is a high-rise luxury tower. Although it should be mentioned that the bees were forcibly relocated from their colony in the boarded-up window of an abandoned building and may very well have been happier there. But such is progress. Apparently even bees aren’t exempt from eminent domain laws. Perhaps this skyscraper for bees will mark a new trend in honeybee gentrification.
Architects have long been fascinated with bees. According to architectural historian Juan Antonio Ramirez architects as different as Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926) and Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) drew inspiration from bees and beehives. Ramirez believes that Gaudi’s use of catenary arches in his organic, idiosyncratic designs –first represented in his Cooperativa Mataronesa factory– were directly inspired by the form of natural beehives. He supports this claim is with the Gaudi-designed graphics that accompany the project: a flag with a bee on it and a coat-of-arms representing workers as bees – a symbol for industriousness and cooperation. Gaudi was building a hive for humans.
Noted minimalist architect Mies van der Rohe (whose work has been immortalized in Lego) was less inspired by the form in which bees built than by the ideal industrial society they represented. In the aftermath of World War I, a young, perhaps slightly more radical Mies was associated with a group of writers, artists, and architects known as the Expressionists. He published designs for innovative glass high-rises –the first of their kind– in the pages of the Expressionist publication Frülicht. Such buildings, Mies wrote, “could surely be more than mere examples of our technical ability….Instead of trying to solve the new problems with old forms, we should develop the new forms from the very nature of the new problems.” One of the most famous of these early unbuilt designs is the 1921 project nicknamed “honeycomb”. In Ramirez’s view, the angular glass skyscraper is evidence that Mies wasn’t only looking into the nature of the new problems, but looking into nature itself – specifically, to bees. Mies’s youthful belief that architecture could reshape society “brings him closer to the idea of the beehive, because in the beehive we find a perfect society in a different architecture.”
Architecture’s relationship with bees predates green roof hives, Mies, and even Gaudi. As evidenced by a recent discovery at Rosslyn Chapel, perhaps best known as the climactic location of The Da Vinci Code, precedent for bee-influenced architecture can be traced back to the 15th century. While renovation the chapel a few years ago, builders discovered two stone beehives carved into the building as a form of architectural ornament. There’s just a small entry for bees through an ornamental stone flower and, surprisingly, no means to collect honey. Appropriately, the church is simply a sanctuary for bees. Una Robertson, historian of the Scottish Beekeepers Association told The Times that “Bees do go into roof spaces and set up home, and can stay there a long time, but it’s unusual to want to attract bees into a building…Bees have been kept in all sorts of containers , but I have never heard of stone.” Maybe the 600-year-old stone hive should be a model for urban farmers and green architects everywhere. Instead of adding a beehive to your building, why not design one into it?
Unfortunately, much like the urbanization of the world’s population, urban beekeeping might not be sustainable. Overpopulation and limited resources is a problem for every species. In Europe at least, cities such as London, where there are are 25 beehives per square mile, just don’t have enough flowers to support the rising urban bee population. Perhaps urban bees will ultimately suffer the same inevitable fate as humans: replacement by robot.
August 26, 2013
When I was a kid I had a “bug box” – a small, homemade container built from wire mesh and a couple pieces of wood. During the summer I’d try to fill this box with lightning bugs –fireflies or glow bugs, depending on where you’re from– in the attempt to transform the small translucent container into a natural lantern full of the insects whose biological incandescence was nothing less than a minor miracle. It never quite worked as I imagined. In, retrospect, the whole endeavor seems like a fantasy fueled by too many cartoons.
Or perhaps not.
Recently an international team of researchers looked to the firefly for inspiration in designing more efficient lighting. Building on previous research into the chemical reactions that powered the glow bugs’ glow, the team focused on the insect’s exoskeleton, which features unique shingle-like surfaces that reduce internal reflection, thereby allowing more light to escape. Using lasers to recreate the shingle shapes on the surface of an LED, the researchers were able to create a 55% more efficient LED. This is only one of the many, many ways that insect biomimicry is improving our products and our lives.
Biomimicry is a design principle that looks to reproduce systems, behaviors, or effects observed in the nature. After all, what we stupid humans have been working on for a couple hundred years –at best!– nature has been developing for eons. Though it sounds high-tech, biomimicry is by no means a new field. Inventors, artists, and scientists dating back millennia have looked to nature to advance human technological prowess. Birds are perhaps the most common example, but insects, the most diverse and expansive class of animals on the planet, offer designers literally millions of opportunities to unlock innovation.
With robot and drone technology advancing — and shrinking — rapidly, flying insects are a natural model for the killing machines, surveillance swarms, and nanobots of tomorrow. Researchers at the Center for Neuroscience Research at the University of Adelaide believe that dragonflies hold a secret for improving robotic tracking and targeting. Dragonflies, you see, have developed an exceptional ability to see moving objects in the dark – making them an excellent nocturnal predator. Research leader Dr. Steven Wiederman explains it: “To perceive the edges of objects and changes in light or darkness, the brains of many animals, including insects, frogs, and even humans, use two independent pathways, known as ON and OFF channels….But what we show occurring in the dragonfly’s brain is the combination of both OFF and ON switches.” The researchers are hoping to technologically reproduce this unique visual capability, which so far has only been observed in dragonflies. There are obviously military implications for this work that could improve drone recognition and targeting capabilities but the team also aspires to more benevolent applications such as neural prosthetics that might one day help people with visual impairment.
In recent years, bees have been dying and disappearing around the world. Colony Collapse Disorder, as the phenomenon is known, is a threat to the world’s food supply and a mystery that, despite much research and at least two documentaries, remains largely unanswered. In lieu of a solution, a team of Harvard scientists are looking for an alternative. Enter RoboBee, which is exactly what it sounds like: a robot modeled after the performance and behaviors of the honey bee. When complete, RoboBees will fly like bees, operate in unison like a colony, and most importantly, pollinate. But the potential for hive-mind robot insects is much greater. For example, such technology could be used in search and rescue efforts following disasters. Of course, that’s all much easier said than done. But advancements have been made. By looking at the movement of other flying insects, the RoboBee team have so far been able to create a nickel-sized machine capable of basic flight and they hope to see it swarming in five to ten years. This of course means that five to ten years after that, the RoboBee empire will have conquered Earth. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
Until that fateful day, biomimicry will continue to keep our lights bright, our planes in the air, our plants pollinated, and generally improve the quality of everyday life. Although I probably won’t have my bug-powered lantern anytime soon.
May 24, 2013
Human flight has become boring. Air travel is a testament to man’s ingenuity and imagination. In the words of comedian Louis CK, “you’re siting in a chair – IN THE SKY.” It’s amazing. And yet, in only 50 years or so, flight, something scholars and inventors have been investigating for centuries, has become a banality. Sometimes, even an inconvenience! And though we may have mastered the skies to the extent that unmanned aerial vehicles can be sent anywhere on the planet, there is still some mystery left to discover. For while drone technology may seem to be the only area where advancements in flight are being made, many researchers today, like Archytas and da Vinci before them, remain fascinated by something that seems much simpler: bird flight, and by the possibility of creating unmanned aerial vehicles of a very different nature.
Take for example, SmartBird (top image) a project developed 2011 by Festo, a global leader in automation technology. Inspired by the herring gull and the book Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Smartbird is a robot with articulated wings that function just like their biological inspiration, generating thrust and forward motion. With Smartbird, researchers wanted to decode bird flight to develop a machine that could take off, fly, and land using only its own wing-flapping power. The “mechatronic and cybernetic holistic design” was made possible by using lightweight construction materials and a unique mechanism that allows the wings to twist and torque in a way that approximates real birds. SmartBird is not necessarily the future of aviation, but was created as a proof-of-concept for technology that may one day be used to help create more efficient factory automation and new power generators. However, it’s natural flight movements and seagull “disguise” seem to imply more tactical uses.
More recently, researchers at the University of Maryland Robotics Center have successfully launched a “micro air vehicle” that has been in development for eight years. After many test flights, many crashes, and many adjustments, the Robo Raven, as it is known took to the skies for the first after the team made a design breakthrough in April. Their new design features programmable wings that can be controlled independently, like real bird wings, allowing for high velocity dives, rolls, and other aerial acrobatics. The silver mylar-winged robot is much smaller and much more abstract in appearance than the SmartBird, but its movement is incredibly realistic. So realistic in fact, that it has even fooled nature – several early models were torn apart by hawks. It’s really quite something to see. The project’s success was also made possible by recent advancements in manufacturing like 3D printing and laser cutting. The Maryland team suggest that one day, the relatively lightweight, cheap, and versatile technology of robot birds could potentially be used for agriculture and environmental monitoring. There are other possibilities as well, including surveillance – Robo Raven has already been outfitted with a POV camera. If these robotic birds become natural enough, the drones of tomorrow could be undetectable to the untrained eye.
But you don’t need drones or robots to survey of a city from the skies. New York architects Aranda\Lasch have shown that cyborg pigeons will do just fine.
Aranda\Lasch developed The Brooklyn Pigeon Project as an experimental biological satellite. A flock of trained pigeons, ubiquitous in New York City, were equipped with a small battery, video camera, and microphone, and flown in spiral patterns over Brooklyn. The project is both a documentation of flocking behavior and an attempt to craft a true birds-eye view of the city. The avian cartographers of the Brooklyn Pigeon Project are sensitive to environmental stimuli that their human counterparts can’t observe. Their flight patterns are affected by sound, smells, and their ability to sense the Earth’s magnetic field form. The resulting maps differ dramatically from the purely technological “grid” of modern GIS systems to provide a unique perspective on the city that, in the words of the designers, “contrasts directly with the way the city is increasingly recorded and represented today.”
The Brooklyn Pigeon Project has a precedent in the work of pharmacist, inventor, and amateur photograph by the name of Julius Neubronner who, between 1907 and 1920, developed dozens of miniature cameras designed to be attached to carrier pigeons via tiny leather harnesses. While initially created as little more than a hobby, Neubronner anticipated that his invention would have military uses and indeed his pigeon photographers were briefly enlisted and deployed to safely take photographs over enemy lines (part of an ongoing effort to militarize animals, as noted in ion’s history of animal soldiers). Although slightly more unweilding than the BPP cameras, Neubronner’s device is perhaps more ingenious.
It’s exciting to think that the avian world still has much to teach us. We still strive to capture the world as experienced by birds – the way they so elegantly move thorough the skies, see the ground, and detect the invisible forces that surround us. New research, combined with new manufacturing technologies, is bringing us a little closer to the day when the familiar airplanes and intimidating drones filling our skies will be replaced by autonomous, naturally flying, all-seeing, robotic birds. Despite centuries of investigation, we’ve only just started to unlock the secrets that nature perfected over eons.
May 17, 2013
“Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
So says Orson Welles as Harry Lime in the 1949 film The Third Man. Welles added those lines himself to a script based on Graham Greene’s original story. And though he may have been a genius, Welles was wrong about the history of the Cuckoo clock. “When the film came out,” he told Peter Bogdanovich, “the Swiss very nicely pointed out to me that they’ve never made any cuckoo clocks!” Indeed, although often associated with Switzerland, the cuckoo clock was more likely invented in Germany sometime in the 17th century. I use the word “likely” because the origins of the cuckoo clock are unclear and its invention is still a topic of debate among horologists.
For a long time, the cuckoo clock was attributed to Franz Anton Ketterer, a clockmaker of some repute from the Black Forest village of Schönwald. It was believed that Ketterer created the cuckoo in the 1730s, inspired by the bellows of church organs to adapt the technology in lieu of the chimes then typically used in clocks. This oft-cited theory first emerged in a relatively popular 1979 self-published book The Black Forest Cuckoo Clock. For such an iconic timepiece, there is surprisingly little written about the cuckoo clock, but, as recently noted by the National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors, modern scholarship does not support the Ketterer theory. While the full origins of the cuckoo clock remain unknown, evidence dates similar, though more primitive, objects to at least the mid 17th century – around 100 years before Ketterer’s supposed invention. In any case, the familiar cuckoo clock that we know and love today, the clock that hangs in our grandparents’ houses, was certainly developed and refined by the talented craftsman and clockmakers of the Black Forest.
In traditional cuckoo clocks, the “coo coo” sound is derived from a system of bellows pushing air through two wooden whistles to recreate the distinctive two-note call of the common cuckoo. The gears of these traditional cuckoo clocks are regulated by a pendulum and system of two or three weights, traditionally shaped like pinecones, that steadily drop over a period of one day or eight days, depending on the model of the clock. One weight, along with the pendulum, is dedicated to keeping the clock gears running while the other weight controls the avian automoton. Clocks that play music in addition to chirping will have a third weight. After a century of development that saw wood replaced with brass and metal, two distinct styles of cuckoo clock emerged from the Black Forest to dominate the market: The ornamented, house-like “Bahnhäusleuhr” or “railroad house” and the Jagdstück” or “Hunt piece” or “traditional style” clock, which features elaborate, decorative hand carved nature scenes adorning a simple encasement.
So why a cuckoo? The common cuckoo, native to Europe, had long served as a natural marker of time, a welcome harbinger of Spring whose familiar calls denoted the coming of the new season and warmer weather. Writing eloquently on the cuckoo in his 1849 book Natural History: Birds, English naturalist Philip Henry Gosse described the joy felt upon hearing the first coos of the season:
There are few who do not feel a thrill of pleasure when it falls upon their ear. But more especially when, for the first time in the season, it is heard in a lovely Spring morning, mellowed by distance, borne softly from some thick tree, whose tender, and yellow-green leaves, but half-opened, are as yet barely sufficient to afford the welcome stranger the concealment he loves. At such a time it is peculiarly grateful; for it seems to assure us that indeed, winter is past.
Over the centuries since it first emerged from the Black Forest, the cuckoo clock has remained largely unchanged. Traditional clocks can still be bought and are a popular souvenir. But of course, there are now a much wider variety of styles to choose from, including striking modern clocks that look more like abstract sculptures than timepieces. However, my favorite contemporary cuckoos are those that pay homage to traditional hand-carved “hunt piece.” Although all details have been stripped away and the elaborate carvings flattened onto a single surface, these modern cuckoos are instantly recognizable solely by their familiar silhouette.
From “cuckoo” to “tweet tweet,” this next modern cuckoo clock is truly cutting edge. It was created by the London-based BERG design consultancy, who have a knack for integrating physical objects with digital network technology.
Designed especially for Twitter, #Flock is a series of four cuckoo clock objects that each literally “tweet” in response to a unique notification from the social media service. Berg’s method involves stripping an object down to its basic essence while maintaining a user-friendly, humanist design. Ornamentation was dropped in favor of a clean, minimalist design, an almost Bauhaus-like Bahnhäusleuhr. #Flock is a distillation of the cuckoo clock to three characteristics: craft, time, and alerts. #Flock is currently a limited edition exclusive to Twitter, but it alludes to a possible future where our digital lives are made manifest in the form of finely crafted objects and we interact with our invisible networks through real, physical things. But will it catch on? Will the cuckoo transform from the herald of Spring to the herald of retweets, emails, and likes? Only time (and tweets) will tell.