From termites in Africa and their insect-scale skyscrapers to the innocuous honey bee and their intricate hives, nature has been “3D printing” for longer than we can measure. A former Gizmodo editor imagines a scenario where we turn bees into living concrete producing 3D printing machines. But what are the ethical ramifications of co-opting nature and turning it into an exploitable labour resource?

bee wall 3d printing

Science fiction stories are full of tales of humanity’s hubris turning apocalyptic when we mess with mother nature, and the scenario envisioned by former Gizmodo EiC Geoff Manaugh and his friend John Becker is no different. In it, honey bees are engineered to produce a concrete like substance and used to build, repair or enhance existing structures. He imagines them getting loose and becoming rogue concrete 3D printers, and details the havoc that they would play in our cities and environment.

beehive bottleCalling the scenario science fiction suggests that it is a technological advancement far beyond our capabilities, but that simply isn’t true. We’ve already found ways to entice bees to produce honeycombs in specific shapes, and silk worms to weave massive structures for us. DARPA has even genetically engineered a goat that produces spider-silk proteins in its milk. There are many people that believe the ethics of this type of genetic tampering are dubious at best, but it isn’t as if we haven’t been manipulating nature for thousands of years.

honeycomb bottle bee 3d printing

The very concept of farming crops and domesticating animals is a form of genetic tampering. Granted, these are genetic changes that happened over the course of thousands of years due to the process of evolution, but the fact that we’ve got better and more efficient at changing nature to suit us doesn’t change the fact that we’ve always done it. Every animal strives to control its environment, even in ways that are destructive to their neighbours, and in this humans are no different. However we are, simply put, much better at it.

3d printing bee lamp

But does our very ability to ponder the ethics of it similarly change the equation? An invasive plant species that spreads, overruns and decimates a local habitat cannot ponder the moral implications of their continued expansion. But humans have more choices than that, and our very ability to be so good at manipulating our environments comes from our capability to ponder concepts like the moral implications of our actions.

bee plastic

The plastic material that Plasterer Bees (Colletes) use to build cells in their underground nests.

As 3D printing becomes a larger presence in our lives, its influence is only going to spread, and I have little doubt that we’ll begin to explore the very ideas that Manaugh and Becker put forward. After all, their essay was inspired by an actual bee native to New England that is capable of producing a natural plastic polymer. I have little doubt that someone is thinking very seriously about how to exploit this bee plastic, so I don’t believe that this scenario is especially far fetched.

I would suggest reading the entire essay as it’s quite riveting, and while it poses questions without offering solutions these aren’t the types of problems that have easy answers. But they are the types of problems that we need to be willing to talk about.

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