The Magazine

Natural Design

The birds and the bees and the engineering instinct

Jul 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 42 • By TEMMA EHRENFELD
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Louis Sullivan, an early advocate of office towers, called rooms “cells,” meaning the cells of plants, not those of monks or prisoners. Plants inspire architecture, as do structures built by animals and insects. Call them nests, hills, reefs, hives, or something else—homes in nature efficiently use the materials at hand to meet idiosyncratic needs. For the 120 color photographs here, the German wildlife photographer Ingo Arndt spent two years seeking out in-situ shots, as well as subjects for studio compositions. The close-up photography, and the concise text by biologist Jürgen Tautz, make this an unpretentious, intimate tour of inhabited homes. 

Beaver at work

Beaver at work

Only some of the photos are beautiful. Some are just odd or touching; a few are faintly disturbing. Tightly woven from poplar and willow seeds, the nest of the penduline tit looks like a Dr. Seuss mash-up of a pig snout and scrotum (hence “penduline,” for hanging). The shape invites curiosity as to the mysteries inside the bag. Ten scary pages show Australia’s tomblike termite towers—alongside nauseating shots of the glassy bugs. 

Animal architecture may be large, but is never grand. It is free of Howard Roark egos and history: For once, the words “organic” and “timeless” are truthful. Form does follow function. The fanciest structures are meant for seduction: While female bowerbirds of Australia and New Guinea build simple bowl nests where they hatch their young and feed them, the males are busy making bowers to impress the females. They first clean a patch of ground, then form a tunnel-shaped bower from parallel rows of small branches. They decorate the inside walls with feathers, berries, and blossoms—or, serendipitously, with bottle caps, glass shards, and plastic bottles—keeping the colors neatly separate. The bower is the backdrop when the male sings and dances to prove his worth.

Male weaverbirds have a harder job: Their nests must also be functional from the maternal point of view. Tying and twisting strands of grass with their claws and beaks, they leave the knots loose until the female makes her decision; she may choose a male as a mate but reject his nest, requiring him to start over. Sometimes the female will help finish up a preliminary nest. The weave is surprisingly strong: A baya weaver’s nest can survive severe tropical storms. Some weavers link as many as 100 nests into a fortress that may last generations. Long tubes allow the birds to enter but keep out tree snakes and other predators. 

Colonizing insects famously create complex worlds, but they can also maintain narrow bands of temperatures. Wasps often build nests under brick roofs, which can hit 120 degrees in the summer, but protect themselves with insulating layers of air between roughly hexagonal combs made of wood-based paper. Several hundreds of thousands of red wood ants, each the size of a centimeter, live together in one hill. Those that go outside absorb the sun and return home, closing up the entrance behind them, to act like heaters underground. In winter, the ants withdraw into the earth far below the frost, traveling paths laid out so as not to be flooded. The flat sides of the compass termite’s towers are hit by morning and evening light, providing warmth when needed, while the angle of the towers avoids the hot midday sun. 

Tautz, best known for The Buzz about Bees (2009), does not go into great detail about hives here. We learn that worker bees have glands that secrete wax that flakes off their bodies, providing the material for their precisely hexagonal cells, and that there’s just enough space between the combs for the bees to move. 

Mammals, to whom we come after birds and bees, generally aren’t masters of home-building. The exceptions are mice, who can build nests in high grass that protect pups from storms, and beavers, who regulate water levels in flowing waters with their dams and lodges. Humans go unmentioned.

Shell mollusks, like snails, create mobile homes that seem to be studies of geometry in lime, an important building material for human houses that comes from ancient sea creatures. Coral reefs are created by polyps no bigger than a centimeter forming gigantic colonies that share tissue and organs. Mounting on the seabed, they produce a skeleton of lime that grows a few inches a year and creates a protected habitat for plants, fish, and sea animals, which can hide in its crevices, attracting hordes of scuba divers.

Temma Ehrenfeld is a writer in New York.