As light passes through the illuminated beeswax sculptures of artist and biologist Jennifer Berry, it highlights the honeycomb structure. Layers of the delicate material create geometric forms and the natural pattern of the comb is revealed in the shadows. These sculptures are the result of a particularly ingenious 3D printer Berry has developed, the B-Code biological 3D printer, which allows her to collaborate with some unlikely artists: bees!
Although Berry was a practicing beekeeper and, as an artist, frequently explored the relationship between nature and human development, the idea of collaborating with bees didn’t come to her until she began her artist’s residency at Autodesk in the summer of 2013. To familiarize herself with the lab and its tools, she built a better bee vacuum as her first project. Testing the new tool meant relocating a colony of bees, which, as a side effect, left Berry with a bunch of small pieces of honeycomb. How bees think and behave is a topic she had long been interested in, so she cut the extra honeycomb (not especially useful to the hive since it was drained of honey) and placed it in the hive to see what the bees would make of it.
“A few days later I opened the hive to pull out the pieces, only to find that the bees had fused the small squares of comb to one another, had repaired and smoothed all the damaged edges, and had started rebuilding on the comb. It was beautiful,” Berry recounts. She kept this beautiful object on her desk at the lab where it attracted a lot of passing attention.
Initially, Berry was hesitant to focus her residency on making more of these honeycomb collaborations with her bees, but she came around to the idea. “Over the years I’ve learned to embrace the ephemeral nature of the honeycomb and the fact that each piece we produce together will have a short and beautiful life outside the hive. The work has always been about inspiring curiosity and wonder, rather than creating a permanent work of art,” Jennifer explains.
To better collaborate with the bees, Berry needed to create the B-Code Biological 3D printer. The B-Code is a specially designed plastic enclosure for the hive that encourages the bees to build their comb into the sculptural forms imagined by Berry while still maintaining an ideal internal environment for the bees in terms of temperature and humidity. Vents can be added and removed to the spherical design of the current iteration of the B-Code to create passive environmental control, but plans for more complicated iterations of the B-Code plastic enclosure will need mechanical environmental controls to prevent moisture build up.
Bees won’t build directly on the plastic enclosure, so all Berry needs to do is place forms coated in beeswax or arrangements of cut honeycomb and the bees will grow the sculpture from that. Bees, it turns out, are very predictable in terms of their behavior. They will always build their honeycomb in 4-6mm hexagons and, if given loose honeycomb, they will work to turn that honeycomb into something functionally useful for the hive to use. When the beeswax sculpture is somewhere between being visually appealing to humans and useful for the bees, Berry will remove the comb and prepare it for display.
This might not sound like the 3D printers you’d normally encounter when talking about additive manufacturing, but Berry makes a pretty compelling case for calling it a 3D printer. She explains it this way: “If you can imagine each bee as an individual print head with its own set of code, determined over time by evolution, and the internal space within the plastic form as our print bed, with gravity as one of the principal constraints [since bees will always build comb in hexagon patterns with beeswax on a plane 90 degrees to gravity], then you can get a sense of what I mean when I refer to B-Code as a biological 3D printer.”
In the process of creating the B-Code, Jennifer has learned so much more about how bees behave within a hive because the design allows her to observe the hive as a whole. It is, as far as Jennifer knows, the only attempt to keep a hive in a completely clear sphere as a permanent home, something which has tremendous scientific potential beyond her artistic collaborations with bees.