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May/June 2010

Sustainability, Standards and Honeybees

An ASTM International Member Gets
Some Lessons from Nature

For many of us in the building science community, all this heady talk about sustainability, energy efficiency and new standards development is a welcome drink of fresh water after what seems like decades in the desert. Enthusiasm over an array of important building performance topics is palpable. We have been waiting for this opportunity, this reawakening, this renewed interest in these topics we know are so vital and important. “Not enough hours in the day” seems to be a frequent lament in the corridors at ASTM International meetings and at building science conferences around the world.

Everybody needs a break now and then, and I was looking for something that might give me a respite from the rigors of building science and standards development and code writing. Maybe something tranquil, something in nature.

My grandfather, like every farmer of his generation, kept a few beehives for crop pollination as well as for that sweet, seasonal reward of honey we came to love. My uncle carried on the tradition on his farm, and back in the Western North Carolina mountains I became interested in beekeeping. Get a few hives, do some basic care-taking, harvest honey — what could be more relaxing, more distant from building science and standards development? Well, the joke was on me.

In many ways beekeeping has not evolved a lot since the 1860s when Reverend L.L. Langstroth discovered a key “standard” that changed the beekeeping world forever. His discovery was a standard space of about 3/8 of an inch [100 mm]. He found that when this amount of “bee space” was maintained between all of the parts and elements of a honeybee colony, the bees would use that space as a sort of super highway from comb to comb and would allow Langstroth the luxury of more easily removing frames of comb from his colonies. The discovery for which he is known (although others have since laid claim to determining the bee space) led to standards for beekeeping equipment and hive management that have enabled farmers and gardeners across the country and around the world to more easily maintain and enjoy honeybees.

But the whole standards thing didn’t stop with the bee space. As I got into beekeeping I learned about the engineering marvel that is the honeycomb. Its optimal use of space and materials, and its incredible strength-to-weight ratio are mimicked in building materials and engineered systems everywhere.

I also learned about the thermal regulation in the hive and control strategies that would make almost any building manager envious. I learned about ventilation rates, evaporative cooling and winter heat generation strategies, used in concert with honey as both a food and thermal storage system. I learned about the standards of relative humidity and honey moisture content that the bees seek to achieve.

In short, I got a firsthand lesson on about 70 million years of standards, building science and sustainability, and I even was able to publish a technical paper on some of these building science lessons from the hive.1

This lesson is ongoing. Standing over a colony of about 50,000 creatures armed with barbed stingers, poison sacs and a passionate desire to survive can be quite the instructor. Experiencing firsthand their one-for-all approach to sustainability is humbling. Learning that honeybees are responsible for about one out of every three bites we eat creates an even deeper respect for our dependence on them. And, tragically, learning that they are dying and disappearing at an alarming rate commands our immediate attention.

For the past few years honeybees have disappeared at a rate of 30 to 40 percent each year. Dubbed colony collapse disorder, this problem has now made the front page of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. But we still do not know the cause of this disappearance and die-off. And while scientists around the world seek answers to this question, the problem is likely to be the result of a “perfect storm” of multiple causes. Some of these include invasive parasitic mites that feed on the bees and weaken their immune system, unintended consequences from new types of herbicides and pesticides, changes in diet due to expanding monocultures, an increasingly limited gene pool, increasingly virulent viruses and disease on top of already challenged immune systems — to name a few.

So with sustainability in mind, I encourage all ASTM International members to take some lessons from the honeybee. This is a small planet. Sustainability means long-term survival for all of us, from the buildings we build to the food and water we consume. We need to redouble our efforts to develop meaningful and lasting sustainability standards and codes. And we also need to redouble our efforts to save and protect our small, yet vitally important partner in our sustainability — the honeybee.


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