News - May 21, 2015

Synthetic flower on Bio-Art & Design shortlist

Roelof Kleis

What sort of landscape do you get when bees forage on artificial flowers full of coloured pollen? Is it like a Van Gogh? The idea led to a place for researcher David Kleijn on the shortlist for the Bio-Art & Design award.

The project which Kleijn and Australian artist Michael Candy want to implement together is called Synthetic Pollinizer. And if the pair end up as one of the three finalists in the BAD Award tomorrow, the will get to create the synthetic flower. Because then they get 25,000 euros to implement the pollination project.

The BAD Award is a bio-art competition run by Dutch science organization NWO and others. Artists and designers collaborate with scientists to create a work which brings art and science together using living material. The Kleijn/ Candy duo aim both to portray and to analyse the pollination process. There are still many unanswered questions about pollination, particularly by wild bees. How, for example, do individual bees get around in the landscape and what is a plant’s catchment area? The Australian Candy developed a hightech synthetic flower to help answer such questions. Visiting bees are lured to a platform where they get nectar (sugar water). As they eat, a mini-camera hanging above the platform takes photos. At the same time some paint powder (the ‘pollen’) drips out of a reservoir onto the bee. Once that is done, the feeding stops and the bee flies off. Carrying the coloured powder.


The photo is crucial for recognizing the pollinator. Kleijn: ‘A group from Leiden developed software which recognizes bees from the pattern of veins on the wings’. So the photos provide information about the species and the numbers of pollinators in the area. The paint powder gives away the location of those pollinators. ‘So that gives you information about the home-range of the bees.’

Using several flowers, each with their own colour powder, will in theory produce a colourful landscape. In theory, stresses Kleijn. In practice, time will tell whether it works that way. ‘And you are sure to come across all sorts of things you have no idea about at the moment,’ predicts Kleijn. And that will be decisive in the question whether the design can be of use to science in revealing new information. At the moment the main focus is on the artistic side, says Kleijn.

Candy and Kleijn met at a matchmaking meeting in The Hague earlier this year, where the invited artists could meet 16 selected scientists. In this case, contact was made with Candy through a skype call. But it didn’t take long to make the decision. Kleijn: ‘Michael Candy already had in mind that he wanted to do something with pollination. So it clicked right away: this is it.’