These Robotic Flowers Could Help Fight The Bee Die-Off

Source: Fast Company, Jesus Diaz
Photo: Courtesy of Michael Candy

The first prototype could help pollinate specific flower species, like rare orchids.

A few years ago, Brisbane, Australia-based media artist Michael Candy had a great idea. To help scientists track bees–a globally threatened species that is nonetheless crucial for the environment and our own survival–Candy wanted to build a network of synthetic flowers. Now, after years of research, he finally has his first working prototype.

Candy told me over email that his original idea consisted of many networked synthetic flowers that would let scientists track bees and study their behavior using a system of dyes and cameras.”That way,” he says, “we would know what bees visited what areas and when it happened, a useful and non-invasive technique to gather quantitive data.” The idea got to the final round of the Bio Art and Design award in the Netherlands, but it was never funded.

Instead, he decided to pursue its development on his own, working with a Melbourne-based urban beekeeper named Nic Dowse of Honey Fingers and other local communities.

Candy says that the current prototype flower system is fully operative. The flowers look similar to the actual flowers they try to represent, with a system that pumps the pollen into its synthetic stamen, or the part of the flower that contains the pollen at the end of its filaments. Bees confuse them with actual flowers, so they simply continue to gather their pollen–which pollinates other real flowers–and continue through their workday.

But though his design is functional, he warns, it “only exists as a conceptual intervention.” In other words, it’s not the massive tracking network he first envisioned. One possible application for this version, he told me, would be to “encourage the reproduction of rare or endangered orchids.” That would involve building a robotic version of those species and pushing pollen into them to increase the chances of the bees pollinating the natural flowers.

I don’t know how I feel about a massive network of camera-tracking flowers in the wild. Maybe I’m being pessimistic (not hard, given the internet of things‘ horrible security problems), but that vision seems as scary as the swarms of hackable robotic killer bees in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror episode Hated By The Nation. I actually asked Candy about the episode. His reply? “That episode was no doubt inspired by the Japanese research group that used drones to successfully pollinate flowers,” but his synthetic flowers wouldn’t be able to do that because the cameras wouldn’t be in the flowers but positioned like CCTV cameras. (“Maybe not in his version,” was my mental response to that, “just ask the Chinese government about that!“) They wouldn’t harm the environment either, he said: “Mankind, is doing a flawless job on that already.”

True. We’re doing a phenomenal job of both screwing up the environment and tracking humans. Perhaps any potential misuse of similar technologies is something that we should worry about later. As Candy points out, we have more pressing matters to solve now: “It’s depressing to think we even need to spend time researching these pollinating drones, but in places like China some crops are pollinated by hand and with the decline of bee population we may need to look to alternatives sooner than we think.”

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He’s a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.

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