Can bees help save the planet?

By Andy Welch

A Potential Solution to Plastic Pollution

When plastic was invented in the 1950’s, it seemed like a pretty good idea as it was strong, waterproof, and cheap. But we all know the downsides of materials which don’t bio-degrade, and the billions of dollars which would be required to remove all the plastic waste from our oceans.

But it could have all been so different if scientists had instead looked at the natural world and considered biomimicry.

While honeybees live in hives, many species of wild solitary bees build their own tiny nests. And they build them with a natural material they create, which is strong, waterproof, flame retardant, and stable up to over 200 degrees Celsius. So, it has the potential to provide a fully bio-degradable alternative to plastic. Scientists are trying to work out how to make it.

Scientists studying the solitary bees also noticed the bees would sometimes add to their nests by chewing up bits of plastic they found lying around. At first, they were impressed as it seemed like the bees were adapting to living closer to humans, but further study showed that nests built using plastic weren’t as breathable, so the nests often became uninhabitable due to mould. So, while we can certainly benefit from copying the bees, it looks like bees are better off if they don’t try to copy us.

Redesigning Wind Turbines

As well as providing a potential alternative to plastic, bees could also help with the energy crisis. In 2021 wind turbines generated about 6% of the world’s electricity, and with generous subsidies in place in many countries, this is only likely to increase. You might think wind turbine design had been pretty much mastered, with the “big-propellor-on-a-stick” design being the favourite.

But it turns out it’s more complicated than that, as if the blade turns too fast in high winds, then not only does it become inefficient, but it is also at a much higher risk of failure. So, what you really need, is a design which can adjust to varying wind speeds. And it turns out bees solved this problem millions of years ago, as bees have flexible wings which can change shape dynamically based on the wind conditions.

This makes them more efficient in both low and high winds with a recent study showing that wind turbines based on this design could be as much as 35% more efficient.



Biomimicry: Unlocking Nature’s Potential to Solve Human Problems

Bees might also be able to help with the global issue of anti-biotic resistance, with some estimates suggesting the problem could cost between $300 billion and $1 trillion annually by 2050.

Bees also face problems with bacterial infection inside the hive, and one solution they came up with is to create a natural substance called propolis. Trees and flowers create sap-like resins, which they use as a defensive coating to protect against pathogens and fungi. Foraging honeybees scrape the resins off plants and carry it back to the hive in the pollen baskets on their back legs. They mix it with saliva and beeswax to create the sticky propolis, and they use it to fill in any cracks in the beehive, and to seal it off from predators.

Apparently, the name ‘propolis’ comes from the Greek ‘pro’ meaning ‘in front of’ and ‘polis’ meaning ‘city’, and was coined by Aristotle in about 300BC, when he noticed honeybees were using it to defend their hives.

The resins used to make the propolis also give it anti-biotic properties, and honeybees use it to mummify anything too large for them to move, such as an invading mouse, whose dead body might otherwise rot and spread disease.

Scientists studying bacteria, found that when they begin multiplying in the body, they create a protective layer called biofilm. But research has shown that propolis can not only help stop bacteria creating this defensive layer but can also break down existing biofilms. Without the bacteria’s defensive wall in place, the body’s natural defence mechanisms have a much better chance of defeating the bacteria.

Another example of how biomimicry and the natural world might help provide answers to human problems!



Andy Welch is a data and analytics specialist, who provides technology and data science support to The World Bee Project. This includes helping to manage the World Hive Network data sets as well as providing analytics support for The World Bee Project's global research projects