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How it Works

Insect pollinators see the world quite differently from humans. Flowers may appear a different colour to a bee or to a butterfly or to the colour we see. This is because insects’ eyes sense different parts of the colour spectrum. And for some insects this includes ultraviolet light, revealing the alluring markings on flowers that are invisible to us, directing the insect to the pollen within. Gardens look very different to insect pollinators (read more about pollinator vision).

A foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) as humans see it (left), and in simulated bee vision (right). Photo: © Jolyon Troscianko.

Many plants need pollinators to help them reproduce, so they have evolved colours, patterns, shapes, scents, and delicious nectar to lure go-betweens to their pollen and transport it to other flowers of the same type. Co-evolution means that pollinators have evolved features to suit the anatomy of specific flowers, and flowers have evolved features to suit the anatomy of specific pollinators. ‘Different-shaped flowers suit different-shaped mouthparts’, as planting expert Marc Carlton explains. For example, small pea-shaped flowers attract solitary bees, while deep foxglove blooms fit long-tongued bumblebees. Some plants cater to many insects.

It’s not just the appearance of flowers that matters, but also when they appear: co-evolution results in flowers blooming when their favourite pollinators emerge, in what Eden’s beekeeper Rodger Dewhurst calls ‘mutualistic pulses’.

Pollinator species also have different foraging styles. Beetles explore patches more randomly, while bees and some other insects remember the locations of the flowers they visit, zapping along the most efficient flight paths, or ‘traplines’. Since a bee may visit 10,000 plants in a day, finding the fastest route between them is essential. 

Lars Chittka studies bees and their flight paths. Here you can see every flight made by four bumblebees over their lifetime. From Woodgate, Joseph & Makinson, James & Lim, Ka-Sing & Reynolds, Andy & Chittka, Lars. (2016), Life-Long Radar Tracking of Bumblebees. © 2016 Woodgate et al.

The loss of a single species of pollinator can mean the end of a plant species. Given all the many ways that plants and their pollinators co-exist, creating gardens that maximise pollinator diversity is not only vital, it’s also a complex challenge.

The Algorithm

Working with Eden’s horticulturalists, leading pollinator experts, and an AI scientist, Ginsberg devised a living artwork, built using a unique algorithm, to look at this problem – Pollinator Pathmaker. Creating this tool to design with empathy for other species is at the heart of Ginsberg’s artwork.

To encode a human emotion like empathy into an algorithm, she defined empathy in this case as designing planting that supports as many pollinator species as possible. The Pollinator Pathmaker algorithm follows a set of rules using the inputs – pollinator species and the plants they forage from – to calculate the planting design. It then selects and arranges plants to suit the different preferences of their visitors.

A planting plan created by the Pollinator Pathmaker algorithm.

Since the algorithm is made by humans, it can’t completely remove human biases such as taste. But an algorithm can help to dull the effect of these choices and design for other species, rather than us. 

Pollinator Pathmaker is an artwork informed by science; it’s not a scientific experiment. That said, read more about how we’re planning to count our pollinating audience.

Plant Palettes

The algorithm chooses plants from regional ‘Plant Palettes’, developed by the artist with Eden’s horticulturalists, pollinator experts, and by using published research and guides to pollinator-friendly plants. Most garden plants haven’t had their pollinators scientifically monitored, so we’ve worked with a range of resources, including our experts’ anecdotal evidence, to identify the pollinators of each plant we’ve used.

Aster amellus 'King George' and Verbascum nigrum are both used in the Plant Palette. Digital paintings by the artist.

The Plant Palettes are curated as a whole, to ensure there’s something for everyone, by using these rules:

  • Choose ‘different-shaped flowers for different-shaped mouthparts’. 
  • Ensure a range of plant species that flower across seasons to suit different pollinator species as they emerge.
  • Include species with seedheads over winter, providing habitat (and food) for other organisms.
  • Avoid any human-made cultivars (cultivated varieties) that are bred for traits that humans like – such as smell or lots of petals – but that result in less or no pollen or nectar, or that make these hard to access.
  • Include non-native plants only if they are locally appropriate and not invasive, troublesome, or over-competitive with other plants in the palette.

We’ve also added grass species for planting under some plants that lose their foliage quickly, providing extra habitat throughout the year and reducing weeding.

An algorithmically-generated garden transforming over the seasons.

Pollinator Pathmaker is based on a model of generosity: each commission of an international Edition – like the first Edition at Eden – includes curating a new regional Plant Palette that will then be added to use here on pollinator.art. Find out more about commissioning or join our mailing list to learn about new regional palettes coming soon.

Creating a Garden

Use the algorithm tool to generate a garden design. Once you’ve told us where your garden is, how big it is, and its soil and light conditions, you can play with the algorithm’s empathy tools.  

Prefer to use more – or fewer – plant species? Like a bolder pattern – or a more intricate one? Want to cater for more flight paths – or more patches? However you adjust the sliders, the algorithm will compute your plant choice to support maximum pollinator diversity.

Next, press ‘create new garden’ to explore your unique garden design. If you like it, share it, download the free Planting Instructions (including a certificate of authenticity for your editioned artwork), or start again.

Now plant it! The result is a dense garden filled with unexpected, unconventional, and eye-catching patterns, bold drifts of colour, juxtapositions of tall and short plants, and dramatic colour clashes. It’s not the sort of thing a human gardener would normally do, nor is it what you’d find in nature. Pollinator Pathmaker creates unnatural gardens, designed for nature.

Create your garden!