The science of nests

Medium Lichen Nest by Joe Hogan at The New Craftsmen

The science of nests

Words Jude Rogers

Investigating the theory behind nature’s most impressive homes – one twig at a time…

When you put your nest together, what do you do? You look at the structure before you, and fill it with things that your wellbeing practically requires: physical assemblies for resting, for cleansing, for feeding. You populate it with items that aim to strengthen your connections with your fellow beings, that make statements about mutual interests, shared loves, your unit’s commonality and strength. Here we are, our nests say, putting tiny imprints of ourselves onto the world.

But if we made the actual structures themselves – the walls, the halls – what would we do? In nature, other creatures – ostensibly not as advanced as us – do this all the time. It’s easy to forget how we can learn deeper lessons from these creatures, from animals that keep building structures to help their families, and their species, survive. When architects and planners take their lessons on board, they do so for the wider human good – in science, engineering, and in the lessons of living itself.

In 1975, Karl Von Frisch published Animal Architecture, a book about the creativity and ingenuity of animals that make their own structures. It is full of delicate diagrams, and beautifully faded photography. Von Frisch was already a Nobel Laureate for his work in the field of animal behaviour; he was the first person to discover how bees communicated with others through dancing. This book describes how many animals’ building habits of are often about cooperation, and how innate this drive is.

‘When we stand before great churches, temples, pyramids… our minds are filled with awe and admiration,’ Von Frisch writes. ‘But can we discern greater merit in our capabilities than in those of the master builders who unconsciously follow their instincts?  Spiders build their webs, bees their combs, and termites their mounds without being shown how… building activities are ruled by inherited instincts to a greater extent than many people believe.’

The ideas behind animal architecture have kept energising experts.  One of them is Professor Philip Ball, author of Patterns In Nature: Why The Natural World Looks The Way It Does, and former editor of Nature magazine. The interest in the individualistic behavior of nest-building birds has obviously prevailed, he begins, and this is perhaps unsurprising for humans who decorate our homes in ways that are not essential for survival. (After all, a good nest for us, is, like most things in life, about sex. Gaze at my good tastes. Admire my credentials. Get fluffing your wings and fluttering over.) But ‘eusocial’ animals, he argues, are the more intriguing creatures in our midst.

Eusocial creatures are creatures that operate at the highest level of organisation of animal sociality: these include bees, wasps and termites. ‘The idea of the hive mind we know now – that begun with eusocial creatures,’ Ball explains. ‘There’s always a strong division of labour with these creatures – some creatures reproduce, others don’t – but they all work together for a common purpose.’ There are arguments within biology that humans have tendencies towards eusociality, Ball adds, although he doesn’t wholly agree; to these ears, it sounds like its defining characteristics suggest a more idealistic vision of what we humans could be. Eusocial creatures conventionally look after their offspring together, often beyond strict family boundaries, and allocate reproductive responsibilities to maximise different skills. Together they also create the most intricate, communal homes, the beauty of which have long intrigued and inspired people.

Larch Nest with Lichen by Joe Hogan for the New Craftsmen

Larch Nest with Lichen by Joe Hogan for the New Craftsmen

Take the hexagonal structures of honeycombs, which fascinated Antoni Gaudi in late 19th and early 20th century Spain (it’s important to remember these are not only made to store pollen and honey, but to protect a bee’s larvae). Gaudi’s parabolic arches, and the honeycombed windows at the Palacia Guell in Barcelona, took influence from the geometrical patterns made by bees, giving them strength and weight. In early 20th century France, modernist pioneer Le Corbusier also read Von Frisch’s writing on bee dances; the idea of individual living cells forming a bigger living machine intrigued him, and ultimately helped mould his architectural ideas. Look again at his famous units with this in mind, and they look oddly natural in their design. Many recent buildings are still inspired by the honeycomb’s hexagonal structures: Barry Jackson’s modular prefabricated living spaces, Hivehaus, for example, designed to maximise wall and window space, while companies like Holland’s B-and-Bee use tessellating hexagons to provide humane stackable sleeping spaces.

Honeycombs as homes have always fascinated scientists due to their engineering and economy. As early as 36 BC, Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro proposed what became known as the Honeycomb Conjecture: that a honeycomb’s shape wasn’t simply an accident of nature’s golden rules, but about efficiency in the use of small spaces. It took until 1999 for mathematician Thomas Hales of the University of Michigan to prove why a hexagonal pattern was used for this purpose, above other easily-tessellating polygons like the square or the equilateral triangle (in short: he stressed how this shape had the smallest perimeter, allowing many unit areas to be packed together in one plane, and proved that the bulging in of honey-laden hexagons was countered by the positive effects of other hexagons bulging out). More interestingly to us non-experts, perhaps, is how the bees achieved this structure: young worker bees producing pinhead-sized slivers of wax, with more experienced workers positioning them carefully. The bees did this simultaneously to make the optimum place in which to live and be together.

But symmetry isn’t necessary for collective living, says Professor Ball. Termites also work together, industriously, on their huge dirt mound homes, which look irregular from the outside, and house labyrinths of twisting, bending tunnels inside. No termite has a blueprint ingrained genetically, essentially, for what their home should look like, but their structures are all constructed to allow air to circulate, and regulate temperature in hot climates: an environmentally tuned-in architect’s dream.

‘Air on the outer, thinner edges of the mound heat up quickly, while inside the air stays relatively cool,’ Ball explains, adding similar science in recent decades to buildings. Take the work of African architect Mick Pearce, and his famous 1996 design for the Eastgate shopping centre in Harare, Zimbabwe: the concrete outer walls are porous, allowing air drawn in from the outside to be either warmed or cooled by the building itself. Ten years later, he built Council House 2 in Melbourne along similar principles. Air is filtered, and energy and water is conserved. Animals are teaching us how to protect ourselves, in other words, using some of the oldest lessons in the world.


‘Architects today are recognising the parts of the natural world often have their own peculiar order, and that they’re worth embracing,’ Ball concludes, before introducing a final, interesting link between animals and humans. ‘It’s a little like the work of [20th century American writer and thinker] Jane Jacobs in urban planning coming back into vogue – recognising that some social networks between people might seem peculiar, but they are important to recognise, and that some structures people live in just work well, despite how they look.’

Appreciating the strangeness of our lives, animal and human. Thinking about a sense of togetherness, and how to build that idea in itself, instinctively, efficiently, beautifully. Tiny imprints of ourselves shining out of our structures, done to the best of our individual talents, for the common good. With all this in mind, let’s keep building.

The nests pictured here are by weaver Joe Hogan, via The New Craftsmen.

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