Unboxing Modern Beekeeping
Words by Nic Dowse
Photos by Jamie Lozoff and Nic Dowse
This article is a prelude to Drawing Matter with Honey Fingers
Ever noticed the bizarre amount of similarities between modernist architecture and modern beekeeping? The parallels are far more significant than you’d imagine and they may be contributing to the decline in global bee health.
Modernism and beehive design:
In 1852, Pennsylvania (USA), the clergyman Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth patented a beehive design. His big innovation was the development of a feature that beekeepers now take for granted – removable frames of honeycomb. Prior to this, robbing honey was a messy and destructive process and it was quite difficult to inspect the health of the comb. Now beekeepers could easily remove frames from a hive, inspect them, extract the honey in a centrifuge and replace the frames back into the hive for the bees to refill with nectar, pollen and their brood. The removable frame was a simple concept but it changed beekeeping forever. To this day beekeepers refer to the use of removable frames, in hives such as the Langstroth design, as ‘modern beekeeping’.
Within three decades the ‘father of French architectural modernism’, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, AKA Le Corbusier, was born. Le Corbusier’s key architectural projects would become synonymous with the development and promotion of modernism and the building typology that would dominate architectural thinking until the 1970s – the International Style.
Like architecture, beekeeping has always reflected broader philosophical concerns and cultural trends. In many ways, beehive design anticipated design concerns that preoccupied architectural thinking for half of the 20th century and there are some uncanny parallels between the interests of its key thinkers.
Bodies in space:
Le Corbusier and Langstroth also shared an uncannily similar interest in the ways that bodies – both humans and honeybees – used and occupied space. They both became preoccupied by measuring bodies. These studies would inform the development of both modern beekeeping and the dimensions/scale used in some of Le Corbusier’s most iconic modernist projects.
Langstroth was not the first apiarist to design removable frames. Beekeepers in Europe and elsewhere had been experimenting with similar designs. But Langstroth was the first to patent the idea and, as so often happens, those other names have been forgotten and Langstroth’s name has become synonymous with the concept. Nevertheless, his observations were brilliant. The removable frame was a revolutionary concept but what is even more astounding is how he was able to remove frames. Honeybees (specifically the Western or European honeybee, Apis mellifera) love to fill all space in a hive and fix everything together with honeycomb and super-sticky propolis. Historically, this meant that comb had to be cut out of hives and was rarely returned. So, if this is the case, why weren’t the bees glueing the Langstroth frames to each other? What was the Reverend’s trick?
It’s because Langstroth understood “bee space”. Simply put, bee space is a gap of around 6 – 8mm. It is the space that is too large for the bees to fill with propolis, too small to fill with comb but just right for crawling around in. By designing a hive with this exact space between components – between the frames, the frames and the hive walls, and the frames and the roof – it became possible for the frames to remain unstuck and to therefore be removable. The bees built their comb inside the parameters of the wooden frame and regular inspections by the beekeeper kept the frames loose. So, modern beekeeping is premised on the very precise measurement of the body of a honeybee and how it uses space inside a hive.
Nearly a century later, in the 1940s, Le Corbusier was also preoccupied with creating a scale based on the dimensions of the body of another species – humans. This measuring system would inform the proportions of some of his buildings, interiors and even furniture. Le Corbusier’s system, the Modulor, was a scale based on the dimensions of a man with a raised arm. The scale of the human body leant itself well to buildings not only because of a practical fit, but also because the ratios of shoulder to elbow and elbow to hand. These ratios reflect universal geometric rules of proportion observed in the Fibonacci sequence and the golden ratio. Le Corbusier used the proportions in his much lauded Unité d'habitation (1952) project in Marseille, France. This apartment block has become a template for so much multi-residential building.
Le Corbusier’s Modulor scale, however, did not replace the imperial or metric systems of measurement and was quite justifiably criticised for its anthropocentric bias. The height of the man pictured was quite arbitrary. What is the average height of a man anyway? And how does that position women or children or people of various ethnicities with various heights and body shapes?
In other words, Langstroth’s “bee space” legacy has been more enduring than Le Corbusier’s efforts but both designers based a lot of their work on the study of bodies in their designed spaces.
This preoccupation with designing around the scale of bodies was only one similarity between modern beekeeping and modernist architecture. Modernism was a post-industrial movement that promoted a break with the styles of the past that were often historic or nostalgic in sentiment. It didn’t lean on the past for its credentials. It was optimistic, it embraced minimalism and rejected ornamentation.
Box hives, such as the Langstroth design, embraced many of the hallmarks of modernism. Box hives represented a break with the beehives of the past. To this day, many agricultural aid agencies working in developing countries seek to “modernise” so-called inefficient traditional beekeeping methods such as the cylindrical woven hives, log hives and clay hives that have been used for millennia. Box hives often use industrially manufactured, prefabricated components that are easy to assemble, are modular, have standardised components and dimensions, and interchangeable parts.
Modern hives, like many other modernist buildings, even have flat roofs. This makes them easy for stacking on shipping palettes and moving with a forklift on and off trucks. This feature facilitated the industrial scale of beekeeping that has allowed beekeeping operations to work at a scale that was unimaginable in pre-industrial societies. Now, the big operators count their hives in the thousands. This is a long way from the small bee yards managed by apiarists of pre-modern beehives. And this is, arguably, a contributor to the problems faced by this keystone species today.
Modern hives, like many other modernist buildings, even have flat roofs.
The International Style:
In many ways box hives are to beekeeping what the International Style was to architecture. The International Style was developed in the West and championed the use of lightweight, mass-produced materials and utilised repetitive modular forms with flat surfaces. Think of all the towering concrete volumes with glass-curtain windows that came to dominate city skylines in the 20th century. This design approach grew to become the dominant form of architectural design – hence the term “international”.
There was also a social project associated with both modernism and the International Style. Modernism was optimistic and aimed to improve the lives of inhabitants through affordable, good design. The International Style, in particular, could house large communities on small footprints, relatively cheaply. The style became associated with social housing projects and this is reflected in metropolitan Melbourne by the various housing commission flats built during the 1960s in the International Style template – high density housing with progressive social agendas, towering above green parklands for all residents to enjoy.
The postmodern crisis:
In the 1970s, with the advent of postmodernism, the International Style was criticised for many reasons. The “brutalist” social housing projects popularised by architects such as Alison and Peter Smithson continue to polarise public opinion. While some adore the concrete form and lofty idealism, critics see a ghetto that concentrates social problems and is expensive to maintain. The ubiquitous International Style has also been criticised for displacing local design cultures and styles with generic, placeless architecture. Hand crafted, culturally loaded vernacular building styles developed over generations. They often used site-specific materials and responded to local weather conditions but they were replaced by generic concrete, steel and glass volumes. Modernism may have delivered light-filled spaces and informal living to the world but it often did so at a cost to local culture, with the force from colonial imperialism.
We see this with the box hives too, as box beehives replaced traditional beekeeping practices in many cultures. In the West mass-produced beehive components are affordable but in many parts of the developing world, where development agencies push modern beekeeping, hive components can be expensive. Whereas making hives from locally sourced and affordable available materials, such a wicker, mud, plastic sheeting and dung is usually far more sustainable. In addition, traditional beekeepers selected apiary types and sites due to the success rates of hives in those locations. Traditional Ethiopian beekeepers, for example, keep hives suspended in trees and claim that there are fewer issues with diseases among the branches than in boxes on the ground. This type of beekeeping also requires healthy forests, so Ethiopian beekeepers know their forests well and are, in many cases, advocates for conservation and biodiversity.
Global bee populations, and pollinator numbers in general, have been in decline for decades. These declines hit alarming numbers in the early 2000s and the term colony collapse disorder started to be used to describe bees that were, well, disappearing. The Langstroth has enabled industrial-scale beekeeping that has allowed millions of bees to be placed on crops saturated in agrichemicals and has concentrated hives in unprecedented numbers where disease can easily spread.
I doubt that the Reverend Langstroth intended this to happen when he patented his hive design, but we have to ask: has a beehive design that lends itself to industrial production contributed to the precarious state of global bee health?