Bees as the World's First 3D Printers

B Code Biological 3D printer R3


Bees are the world's first 3D printers. They work in a material made from their own bodies, formed at body temperature, with a material that is safe to eat and is biodegradable and even recyclable.

Natural Raw Honey Comb

I set out to create a 3D printing system that would allow me to generate collaborative sculptural objects that would use the best of nature's materials without harming the bees in the process.

The Processes of Manufacturing

3D printing is what people call this process now, but Additive Manufacturing, as it is known in the engineering and prototyping industries where this technology was first conceived, has been around for more than 40 years. 

The term "3D printing" simplifies the concept so that one can imagine a conventional printer, one that prints on a flat plane consisting of X and Y axis, then add to that a vertical, up and down motion, the Z axis, so that as the material prints, it adds layers one on top of the other, making it 3 dimensional. Simple as that.

Objet 3D printer is creating parts for B Code interfaces

Components for b code printed in clear resin on objet

Additive manufacturing is similar to how things are formed in nature, in that parts are built up rather than removed from a larger part as in more traditional, Subtractive Manufacturing techniques such as cutting, stamping, and chiseling. Think of heat, beat and treat as the methods of the industrial revolution, and you understand Subtractive Manufacturing.

Molds for R1 and R2 of B CODE were formed by Subtractive Manufacturing processes, first with a laser cutter then a 5 axis CNC router. 


The vast array of Additive Manufacturing systems are where it gets interesting. I'm not going to delve too deeply here for the sake of my readers, but know that there are print heads that deposit heated monofilament, printers that use lasers to direct heat and sinter powders into a solid form, extruders that deposit concrete and clay, and even systems that glue and cut reams of paper, sheet by sheet, to form their "prints". 

The B-code Biopolymer Printer

I first became involved with Additive Manufacturing some ten years ago in the prototyping industry. At the time we called it "growing" a part, which is a great way to convey this concept, so similar to how nature builds its things. It was the idea of growing parts that became the basis for my development towards a biological 3D printer.

The 3D printers I have designed take the principles of additive manufacturing and pushes the technology further, towards a more sustainable and ecologically friendly method of printing forms. B-code is revolutionary in that prints are made using a biopolymer that is fully edible, biodegradable, and completely sustainable, without dependency on petroleum, emitting no carbon, and producing no waste.

With the B-code printer, a biopolymer is extruded from a nozzle, in this case the bee's mouth, and is "drawn" in a long thread, one layer deposited atop another and air cured. The extruded biopolymer is made of beeswax, a long-chain alcohol plastic similar to ethylene, formed of esters of fatty acids secreted from the glands of young adult bees.

The chemical formula of beeswax is C15H31COOC30H6I, and contains over 300 individual chemical components, including palmitate, palmitoleate, oleate esters and of long chain aliphatic alcohols. This biopolymer is similar to other early thermoplastics used by humans before more toxic and persistent petroleum-based plastics came into use, including latex, shellac, gutta-percha, horn, and tortoiseshell. Bees print in hexagons with a 2mm deviation, those hexagons gradually deform into circles. The hexagon and circle shapes are no accident, but the result of millions of years of trial and error through evolution, those shapes being the most efficient and strongest use of any material due to its tensile strength and a reduced overall surface area. This allows honeycomb to hold more than 50 times its own weight in honey, pollen and bees.

Bees work using a simple logic similar to codes used in modern computing, including binary code, if-then statements, and go to statements. I call this set of instructions B Code. The set of feedback signals that prompt bees to begin building comb include triggers such as a nectar flow, when the amount of available nectar exceeds the demand of the population, and that population begins to grow as a result of those extra resources. The first signal of a nectar flow is crowding, a binary yes or no output. A Yes output results in the next set of choices, and those are determined by a set of programs that are very deterministic and difficult to change. Distance to nearest comb, depth of cell and cell width are determined by algorithms generated by the dimensions of the bees themselves, a truly Vitruvian architecture. The space between combs equals the distance a bee can reach from where she is standing, known as Bee-space. Cell widths are determined by bees measuring with their forearms, and the depth of cells are determined by Queenlength, the length of the queen's abdomen.

The royal queen in the center of her worker bees


Building comb is just one of many tasks performed by bees, who take on various tasks as guilds, these guilds malleable and determined by factors including age, resources available, and population. Bees will also repair damage to their honeycomb and improve its structural integrity over time, which is how I came to this series of works, where I modified existing comb and then inserted it back into the hives for the bees to finish. 

Young bees whose job it is to form wax scales, consume copious amounts of honey to produce biopolymers from the long chain fatty acids of processed honey. Bee's wax glands are located under plates that form the ventral shield of a bee's abdominal exoskeleton, called sternites. Liquid wax is pushed out of these glands onto plates under the exoskeleton, and then stamped into scale shapes before air drying. These stamp plates are called mirrors.

Young bee producing wax scales (in hands covered in propolis!)

Wax scales are clear and colorless, 3 mm across and 1 mm thick, and they become opaque after bees masticate the scales with their mandibles. Beeswax is workable at a temperature between 91 and 97 degrees Fahrenheit, and hives are generally kept at 92-93 degrees, particularly where brood are being raised. When bees need to make changes to the hive, they simply remasticate and reform old comb and generate new hive configurations as necessary.

Redemption 3, collaborative sculptures

Think about this: bees build their homes, nurseries, and factories from a biological plastic that is manufactured by their own bodies, using their own body temperature and body chemistry, with a material that is reusable and poses no demand on other ecological systems or resources. Honeycomb is nearly colorless when first formed, but over time it takes on more color with oxidation, bee life-cycle activity, and contact with pollen grains.

B Code, Iterations and the Process of Building a Printer

I needed a mold to keep the bees on my seed prints and prevent them from doing that they do, which is sting intruders. I also wanted to document the comb-building process, so I set up experiments to see how easy it was to photograph bees behind a glass wall. This proved nearly impossible. 

The first prototype  included a camera housed inside the hive cover. 

b Code R1

Bees have a color spectrum as wide as humans, but their color range is between ultraviolet and orange, and they can't see far into the red spectrum. I wanted to document the comb-building process without disturbing the bees, so I chose to light it from within using red LED's in the 655 nm range.

Putting a camera in a hive is problematic, as you may guess. Bee hives occupy a certain volume, and that volume is determined by thermoregulation rules for the size, material used to house the bees, and the strength of the hive population. We're talking volumes around 5 liters. This makes it tricky to get a camera inside and still maintain an optimal focal point. Plus, the camera has to be sealed in the hive so bees can't escape. 

R1 turned out to be a failure when winter rains caused massive condensation on the acrylic box and started to drip down onto the bees. So I scrapped the idea of putting the camera inside the hive, but then had an idea- what if we light the comb from the inside, as I had done with the sculptural pieces? This would help reduce the terrible glare I'd been getting before from the acrylic. This is how the idea for the bubble dome of Version 2 came to be, since spheres are the least reflective of forms. This allowed me to pull the camera from the hive for full freedom of movement and maximum potential for catching the building of honey combs in progress. 

B code Print bed, R 2

B Code version 2 was formed by pulling PETG plastic over two half-dome molds in a vacuum former, then assembling the two halves to enclose the hive. While version 2 was lovely in its clarity and form, this proved difficult to reproduce, difficult to maintain the hive (there were no ports to reach one's hand into) and difficult to assemble. Bees require approximately 5 liters in volume for the best thermoregulation and honey production, and I needed some way to contain that volume in a way that could be disassembled when not in use. Adjustments would need to be made, queens to catch, and various other "beekeeping interventions" that require being able to open the forms to get to the bees. 

Version 3 was inspired by a fellow artist at Autodesk's Pier 9 workshop, who made a curving wall of plywood by assembling many small pieces in a faceted pattern. It made me stop and wonder if I could facet my round form, and that first thought immediately conjured up a Buckyball. After researching this truncated icosahedron from, I concluded that it would indeed be the optimal choice. 

Introducing B Code R3

B COde R3 with hive