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I have a hive-based, man-sized creature based on a honeybee. It still builds combs and produces/consumes honey, but (I think) honey wax isn’t strong enough to support the massive increase in hive size, necessitating an alternative building material.

The hives are built around the trunks of massive conifers, which are effectively Earth-like but larger. Building material is harvested from the tree during construction.

I am considering two types of materials for these uses- either a processed resin (like propolis in resin bees) or wood fiber/paper pulp (like paper wasps). If either option shows promise compared to wax when scaled up, which one would be the more likely choice?

The main factors I see affecting the choice are strength and the health of the parent tree, but other concerns would be useful to know as well.

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    $\begingroup$ why not both wood pulp plus resin makes for an extremely strong composite. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 1:51
  • $\begingroup$ Difficult to store honey in a paper container unless the paper is coated with waterproofing agent $\endgroup$
    – bobflux
    Commented Aug 23, 2022 at 22:06

3 Answers 3

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Resin

If the bees harvest wood from the bark in great quantities for these meganests they will open wounds in the tree which would let in other pathogens. If the bees harvest needles that does trivial damage to the tree which can easily regrow needles. The needles contain resin but also some cellulose and would be good nest making material.

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    $\begingroup$ Excellent. Needles should have been obvious as opposed to burrowing into the tree. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 0:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Neutralmouse01 - perhaps not obvious, but evolutionarily favored. The hives that did not inadvertently take down their own trees had better genetic fitness and so selection favored the needle gnawers. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 1:37
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Soil and saliva, like termites

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The closest real example of hives like you describe are termite mounds, which are often built around trees like you describe. They can be quite large, with diameters up to 30 m and 9 m high. These mounds, however, are not built from paper or resin, but mainly a porous mix of moist soil and termite saliva, though research has shown that they can use almost any granular material (preferably containing organic fibers).

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    $\begingroup$ I see we're following the XKCD/What If? convention of using giraffes as a unit of height measurement... $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 19:50
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Consider the Square Cube Law first (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Square%E2%80%93cube_law).

The issue

Bee-like creatures with a height of maybe 2m or 6ft (when standing erect) need to be constructed differently than a regular bee, and will probably need way more ventilation to keep cool (apparently, regular bees can run very hot - they use that as a weapon against hornets, clinging around the hornet so the hornet overheats and dies). A bigger bee needs more energy to move (Megachile pluto is 40mm long, a 2000mm man-sized bee is 50 times longer, having 2,500 times the surface area and 125,000 times the mass), so the "big bee" (and the hive!) need to have about 50 times the cooling requirement compared to Megachile pluto, and maybe 150-200 times that of a of a regular bee.

Obviously, the carapace (shell, exoskeleton) also suffers from the Square Cube Law, but you are addressing the material science part already in this very question, so let's handwave that away.

So, why not an extremely cold climate?

Yes, that might help, but other, non-bee-like lifeforms (like plants) will have a hard time to survive in the extreme cold. "Hard" is meant literally here, as everything would be frozen.

Hugely different climate zones in near vicinity also won't work very well, as the bees would need to move between hot and cold climates. However, it would make sense to erect the hive at a location where temperatures are generally a bit lower than in the surrounding areas.

A suggestion

I suggest a different layout of the beehive - not vertical walls of horizontally accessible honeycomb, but vertical honeycombs (vertical hexagonal "pipes"). This vertical honeycomb will be much stringer in the vertical direction, and I guess the tree will stabilize it against horizonal movement (to some extent). The "pipes" can go down to the ground, so the tree doesn't have to carry the complete weight.

Some of the vertical pipes could act as chimneys, using convection to get rid of excess heat (or a vertical water cooling system, if the hive is near a waterfall). Others are dwelling and storage spaces, interconnected to other "pipes" via holes in the walls (at irregular intervals, so no weak area with lots of holes in close vicinity would appear).

Still some issues

Even with vertical honeycomb tubes, storing a lot of honey inside them will hydrostatic pressure (uh, melistatic pressure, of course) on the walls and the "tubes" would burst (depending on how tall the honey column would be). Honey is about 1.43 times more dense than water, so a honeycomb pipe (regular honeycombs are actually cylindrical inside) with a diameter of 1m will carry maybe 1.12 metric tons for a length of 1m. Of course, pipes near the center of the structure will have compensating melistatic pressure coming from surrounding pipes, but the outside tubes will get all of it.

So I guess the hive will stretch out over a large area around the tree, maybe even encompassing more than one tree, possibly looking like a wider version of the Burj Khalifa (and not quite as tall...). Now, this makes it more difficult to get fresh, cold air into the cooling shafts...of well.

Now, finally, the material

A combination of wood and resin ("glued laminated timber", as used for the construction of the 85m tall Mjøstårnet, Wikipedia link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mj%C3%B8st%C3%A5rnet) should be good enough for an 85m high building (note that the Mjøstårnet has it easier, as it does not need to accommodate melistatic pressure).

Of course, in your case, we potentially deal with a combination of wood pulp and resin ("MDF"). MDF cannot withstand as much pressure as the glued laminated timer, or even ordinary plywood (and it possibly also needs a resin coating to keep it dry). So no 18 story building made out of MDF.

There's still the issue that plywood and MDF are both manufactured under heat and pressure. But I guess the man-sized bees have a unique body chemistry which they use produce MDF of superior quality even without pressure (heat may appear as a by-proiduct of the curing process).

Even with that fictional superior MDF, we won't get anywhere near 18 stories. MDF itself is about 50% heavier than laminated timber (yes, it needs to carry its won weight in addition to the honey), and I guess that it carry only 25% of the load (that's a guess, because I couldn't find any figures which deal with MDF as a load bearing material for tall buildings). So...a 3 story hive (less than 10m) might do.

To deal with the melistatic pressure, the material might be constructed like steel-reinforced concrete. Just not with concrete, but with that special MDF, and no loops of steel but of some very long flexible wood pieces (branches?) with very high tensile strength. Note that man-sized bees could also incorporate stones in their structure, using the superior MDF like mortar.

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