A few years ago, a group of Mexico-based creatives started a project called Refugio. Their goal was to use design as a tool for supporting local biodiversity, and to make cities more hospitable to native pollinating insects.
As a continuation of this work, they recently developed the Make it Circular Challenge winning project, Apidae: a system of breeding boxes designed to raise a particular species of bees known as Meliponini. This species is known for producing phenomenal honey and being the main pollinator of many native foods in Mexico, as well as being essential for the conservation of the ecosystems they inhabit. Besides providing shelter for the bees, the Apidae system also includes a kit to fabricate ‘potes’ and ‘piqueras’, which support the development of young hives.
Ahead of his talk at WDCD Mexico GNP 2023 this October, we asked co-founder Gabriel Calvillo to tell us more about what he’s learned about co-creating with nature, his approach to circular design, and why he dreams of ‘interspecies collaboration’. Read our interview below, and click here for tickets to the festival in Mexico City.
Hi Gabo! We’d love to know a little bit more about you. Where are you from and when did you first become interested in design?
I am from Malinalco, a small town in central Mexico, but I have been living in Mexico City for more than 15 years. I’m actually not aware of when my interest in design began, I grew up in an environment surrounded by creativity, my mother is a graphic designer and my father an architect.
Can you tell us more about Refugio? How did the project come about?
Refugio is a project that has been taking shape for at least 6 years. It all started when I received a grant from the government (Secretary of Culture) that allowed me to start designing objects that benefit different insects. Back then I started learning about native bees, especially solitary bees, I really had no idea what world I had entered into. About 3 years ago I founded Refugio together with my 3 partners, currently we focus our work on the conservation of native pollinators.
What are the biggest challenges facing bees in urban contexts today?
Bees face many challenges, but as strange as it may seem, cities are becoming safe places for many species. Especially when compared to the rural environments that surround them, where pesticide use and deforestation are the norm. Taking this into account, possibly the biggest challenge for native bees in cities is the lack of native flora, as well as the fact that the protection of the European honey bees is prioritised over the health of native species, usually due to lack of knowledge.
‘Design is an excellent tool to improve our relationship with nature. Not only through the creation of objects that can directly benefit other species, but also through the creation of tools that allow people to engage with biodiversity conservation.’
How do you go about designing objects for (and with) bees?
For us, design is an excellent tool to improve our relationship with nature. Not only through the creation of objects that can directly benefit other species, but also through the creation of tools that allow people to engage with biodiversity conservation. We also explore the possibility of creating collaborative interspecies projects, in which humans build the foundation and bees continue the construction, with the intention of building mutualistic relationships with other species.
What role does circularity play in the process?
Circularity is essential to our design process, especially because we believe that emulating nature is the best thing we can do. It is important for us to contemplate the temporality of the different objects that we design, for example the wax structures of the Apidae project are made with the wax produced by healthy hives, which are reintegrated into the natural cycle when placed in a young hive. On the other hand, the breeding boxes must fulfil a much longer cycle, since a hive can live more than 50 years. We seek to achieve this through the design of boxes made entirely of local wood.
You PAY SPECIAL ATTENTION TO raising Meliponini bees, a species that is native to Mexico. Can you tell us why?
Refugio’s work has focused mainly on solitary bees, species that we can find almost all over the world. But a few years ago we started working on Meliponini bees, species with enormous value, not only ecological, but also cultural. We made the decision to work with them because they represent the incredible biocultural diversity of Mexico, the result of thousands of years of coevolution. We believe that it is important to make visible and strengthen efforts to conserve these species, as well as traditional ecological knowledge about them.
‘Circularity is essential to our design process, especially because we believe that emulating nature is the best thing we can do.’
What is something you learned from bees that you’d like to pass on to others?
Bees have taught me a lot, it’s hard to think about just one thing. But they have possibly taught me more than anyone else about the complexity of nature and the importance of thinking systematically.
Can you give us a sneak peek on what you’re working on next?
We continue working and experimenting around the creation of objects for raising Meliponini bees. But we are starting to focus on how these objects can improve working conditions not only for bees, but also for beekeepers. We are working with a traditional wax making technique known as cera escamada.
All images courtesy of Gabriel Calvillo and Refugio Bees. Want to catch Gabriel on stage at WDCD Mexico GNP 2023? Click here to learn more about the festival and visit our ticket shop.