Since 3-D printing technology has become more accessible, the magic of manifesting an object before your eyes has yet to lose its luster. When Dewar’s decided to create a sculpture to mark the launch of its Highlander Honey whiskey, however, it took the concept of 3-D printing to a whole new level, employing the services of nature’s original three- dimensional crafters: bees.
As we reported in June, Dewar’s corralled the hive-making power of 80,000 bees to literally print a honeycomb sculpture of a Highlander Honey bottle and a bust of Dewar’s drinking man. Impressive as it was, the "3-B Printing Project" left us wondering, how exactly does one art direct a swarm of honeybees?
This was the question The Ebeling Group faced when the production company enthusiastically accepted an assignment from New York agency Sid Lee to create a sculpture that’s “printed” by bees. The company behind the "Eyewriter Project," The Ebeling Group has developed a reputation for saying yes to impossible projects.
The first step to bringing this project to life was to understand how bees actually do what they do. With exactly zero beekeepers on staff, TEG sought out the skills of local master beekeeper Robin Theron. By nature, bees are designed to build honeycomb hives, but as it turns out, they build the structure of hexagonal cells inward so that their queen can populate it with eggs. This doesn’t really work when the intent is to build up layers of beeswax into the shape of a bottle as a visual metaphor for the honey goodness Dewar’s now offers.
So to invert bees’ instinct to build inward, the Ebeling team created a 3-D model (printed the, er, conventional way) that could be used as a template for the bees to build on. Essentially, they turned a beehive inside out. To help orient the bees, the sculpture was wrapped with a base of honeycomb wax with a very lightly textured hexagonal pattern. “That gives the bees a structure to build up from,” says TEG producer Martha Smith. One of the most important elements of the sculpture was enclosing it in a clear casing. While this provided an incredible bird’s-eye view of the hive building process, the 3/8-inch gap also mimicked the enclosed space of a normal hive.
Mick Ebeling, CEO, creative director and executive producer of TEG says one of the other challenges was creating the appropriate paths for the bees to enter and exit the hive. “You can’t just lock them in a warehouse; they have to go out into nature to get the pollen,” he says.
Once the contraption best replicated natural conditions, it was flooded with thousands and thousands of bees. Knowing very little about bees at the outset, Smith says it was interesting to learn that bees have a life cycle of just over a month and they only work for three to four weeks. That meant some bees had to be “retired,” and new colonies had to be brought in.
“The one thing we didn’t account for was that bees don’t follow timelines. It took them longer than we anticipated to build that much comb. And we needed more bees,” says Smith. “We added more and more until the got really efficient at building the comb, because these sculptures were larger than your average hive. So what was expected of them required more time and more of them.” The entire process took about six weeks, and two rounds of bees were required—the first of which needed to be removed entirely before the second group of colonies was introduced. As well, in order to prevent the honeycomb from becoming full of honey, as is its function, the queen bee was kept sequestered to prevent her from laying eggs.
Once the bees completed the wax structures, it was time for the film crew to shoot the reveal—those who weren’t allergic to bees, that is. “When we were filming, we had the crew in bee suits because they were in there with bees that we’d intentionally let loose so we could get the nice shots of them landing on the flowers and the tools,” says Smith. “The bees that were actually building the comb, they’re very focused on their job. They wouldn’t fly out and just hang out somewhere else. But there were these other bees that were out doing their other business. Their job is not to build the comb.” Several EpiPens were on hand as a precaution, and the three-day shoot was supervised by the Humane Society to ensure the safety of the bees.
Ebeling says what he likes most about the project is that while it seems cutting edge, it is, in fact, incredible low tech. “It’s technology almost. It’s about being presented with crazy ideas and figuring out how to execute them.”