Embodied & Operational

Cross-posting from buildincentive.com

On distinctions and relationships of abstract terms

We became parents to a beehive this past March.

While we stay distanced, the bees cluster together. The natural hum of the colony a constant reminder of what it meant to be “in-person.” Those alley-way perches for impromptu hangouts. Those intimate rooms for deep discussion, intonating conversation over a shared meal after a hard day’s work.

Of course, beyond the social interaction, routines continue–  for both the bees and for us. Sharing chores to clean house. The daily flight to stretch one’s limbs and pick up food for the family. Complaining to each other when it’s “too hot” or “too cold.” Dancing around excitedly when we hear good news.

H installed a surveillance camera over the hive this week. You know, to engage with the bees at all hours. So now we can watch and talk to them in soothing voices whenever we want. 

Night vision is so cheap these days!

The beehive is a microcosm of structure and operations. Of collective prioritization, decision making, and coordination. The bees’ world is one of tradeoffs: capex vs. opex. Should precious energy be spent on structural, embodied efforts? Or, should effort instead be spent on operations?

We can learn a lot from the bees.


Honeybees create their iconic structure, the honeycomb, in coordinated rhythm. Worker bees secrete beeswax– in crude terms, digested honey– from wax glands on their abdomens. These waxy flakes are then chewed up by the bees, rumbled and tumbled with the oils of pollen, and heated up for greater workability in construction. It may surprise you, but comb building is circular. The beauty of mathematics and the rule of minimal surfaces pulls these circular cells into the hexagonal beeswax structures we know. The comb is embodied honey.

In the human world, this ubiquitous structure resembles our own attachment to pervasive building materials, like concrete, steel, glass, and timber. Just as the honeycomb represents embodied honey, however, our building materials represent embodied carbon. 

The embodied nature of OUR structures represents the upfront carbon emissions from producing industrial building materials– namely cement and steel. Together, these materials make up roughly 10% of global CO2 emissions.

We can take inspiration from the bees and the beauty of science to manufacture and deploy lower carbon cement and steel.


As we’ve seen from the bees, structure also impacts operations. The hexagonal shape of honeycomb allows for maximum storage with minimum perimeter. In other words, more honey can be stored for a given area. Better design and implementation of the structure, better use through operations.

Think about the teams you’ve worked on; team structure impacts your operations, which in turn impacts your success. Same for the hive: hive structure impacts hive operations, which in turn impacts hive goals.

Honeybees build their brood– i.e. they reproduce and grow their young– with nectar and pollen. Bees convert nectar into honey, their critical staple for building society. (Eating pollen adds necessary protein, too.) Not only does honey help to build the hive’s structure, as we learned earlier, but it fuels the hive’s operations. Honey can be stored and used as needed to feed the colony.

For humans, the structure of our buildings also impacts operations. For example, structural design and materials impact thermal requirements within our homes. And heating and cooling are major contributors to greenhouse gases on their own. Cooling with refrigerants (e.g. air conditioning) is a stealthy contributor to climate change; the F-gases released during operations and equipment end of life can pack more global warming punch than CO2.

We can take inspiration from the cooling tactics of bees, like flow-mediated, decentralized fanning to cool the hive.


There are plenty more lessons to explore here. But here’s one that’s top of mind—

H and I are beekeepers. Which means: we are property managers. 

(OK OK I’m taking WAY too much credit here… I’m just the landlord; H is the true beekeeper.)

In fact, this offers a good analogy for the real-life incentives of building structures. H is a property manager who believes in the operations and maintenance of the hive. He spends time and energy to make sure their infrastructure is set up for success. (He lines their porch with cut flowers from the neighbors’ garden, for goodness sake!) He even selected and sited the hive itself: its design, material, and other specifications.

(Yes, I’m lucky; H is a winner.)

I, on the other hand, am a ruthless landlord, less willing to invest in the bees’ maintenance. I just want my benefit of delicious honey and complexity-learning– no questions asked. I never asked the queen nor her worker bees for THEIR thoughts on the situation. I didn’t care much about the implications of site and structure to ongoing hive life.

But these considerations within the jurisdiction of the landlord, like site and structure, DO have major impact on the operations of the tenants. Or of the bees in our case. So what’s going on here? How do our misaligned incentives, as property owner vs. property manager vs. facilities manager vs. tenant impact the ultimate health of the hive?

In this series, we’ll investigate these discrepancies together. Who benefits? Who loses? What does this mean for structural vs. operational solutions? And how can we actually build and maintain things together? 


Further reading on bees


Cover photo by Daniel von Appen on Unsplash