Solitary bees find solace in concrete habitat

LafargeHolcim’s Ductal division collaborated with Brooklyn-based design firm Harrison Atelier and The Frank Institute at CR10 on a technologically innovative project to help learn more about solitary bees and their nesting behavior. The Pollinators Pavilion will double as an education center and a habitat for the native, stingerless bees at Stone House Farm, a 2,500-acre regenerative organic farm in Livingston, N.Y.

RENDERING: LafargeHolcim
Pavilion i

PHOTOS: Harrison Atelier
Pavilion ii

Solitary bees are responsible for 70 percent of global non-agricultural pollination. However, much of their habitat is under threat due to development or urbanization, and there is limited research on the advantageous potential of the bees or their behavior. The pavilion will help shed more light on the specific preferences of the 20-plus varieties of solitary bees native to the region.

Recalling the ovoid bristling form of solitary bees’ compound eyes, the Pollinators Pavilion is constructed of more than 300 cast concrete panels arranged on a supporting wooden scaffold structure. The mostly 12- x 12-in. panels were fabricated at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Ductal educational workshop space by Harrison Atelier interns and supervised by a Ductal manager for quality assurance. Ductal Ultra-High Performance Fiber-Reinforced Concrete was selected for its durability as the paneling system houses hundreds of nesting tubes for solitary bees as well as a solar-powered monitoring platform. Additionally, Ductal UHPC was one of the few materials that could be cast into intricate shapes, such as the thorn-like form of each panel, as well as provide full-waterproof protection.

Each panel’s pointed form serves as both a rain canopy and a storage space for the monitoring platform. Motion sensors at the base of the canopy, when triggered by insect movement, prompt an endoscopic camera to photograph the insect. The images harvested by each panel feed through microprocessors into a database for a machine-learning system that seeks to identify the species without trapping and killing the bees. Further, the varied positions and orientations of the panels allow the testing of diverse living conditions of solitary bees to optimize future manmade habitats, previously a little-researched area.

“As an architectural object, the Pollinators Pavilion seeks to amplify the presence of solitary bees. Their nesting tubes dot the surface of the dome’s wall panels and offer a visual census,” says project architect Ariane Lourie Harrison, founding partner of Harrison Atelier and coordinator at Pratt Institute’s Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Design. “Additionally, the monitoring system gives the Pollinators Pavilion its program as a new type field station. As an educator, I am interested in new models of design research that intersect with and contribute to scientific research.”

The Pollinators Pavilion was awarded third place at the New York City Media Lab Tech Expo of 2018 and at the Pratt Institute Research Open House of 2019. The project was also awarded a two-year “AI for the Earth” grant from Microsoft.