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Pollinators

Pollination is sexual reproduction, plant style. Plants can’t move – much – so most of them need pollinators to help them reproduce (unless they’re wind pollinated, like grasses). Insect pollinators feed on the flower’s pollen or the nectar it produces, or both. As they forage, pollen sticks to the pollinators, who then carry it from flower to flower. The pollen fertilises the next flower’s “egg” (if it’s the same species) to make a seed that can grow into a new plant. This makes Pollinator Pathmaker an unusual artwork: parts are taken away by its audience, and new bits are added. 

A swollen-thighed beetle (Oedemera nobilis) on an oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) at the Eden Project. Photo: © Nathan Mansbridge.

Honey bees are not the only pollinators. The UK alone has at least 1,500 species of insect pollinators. Of these, 250 are native bee species, including 24 types of bumblebee, 224 solitary bees, 25 bumblebees, and just one native honey bee. These bees – along with other pollinators such as hoverflies, moths, butterflies, beetles, midges, wasps, and ants – pollinate many of our food crops, from tomatoes and courgettes to strawberries and apples. They also help the plants in our gardens and countryside to flourish.

Pollinators are a vital part of functioning ecosystems, not just for plant life, but as food for other organisms, too. Over the last 100 million years, plants and pollinators evolved side by side; now they rely on each other for their existence. Many of these flower and pollinator relationships are very specific. 

Modern humans have transformed the world to suit our needs, not those of pollinators. But pollinators are in trouble – and without them we are in trouble too. Over the last thirty years, global insect populations have crashed by as much as 25 per cent; in Germany, 75 per cent have vanished over the last 25 years. Find out more about pollinators at Eden’s Create A Buzz project.

Pollinator Counting

Pollinator Pathmaker is an artwork, not a scientific experiment. That said, the algorithm has been inspired and informed by published literature (such as research into how bumblebees memorise flower locations to find the shortest flight paths between them, known as traplines) and advice from experts.

A bumblebee fitted with a transponder for tracking its flightpath. Photo: © Lars Chittka.

The plants we've used have been chosen for their known benefits, so any garden planted with them is likely to provide plenty of forage and habitat. When the Edition Gardens are in bloom, we’re planning to monitor not just the pollinators, but also the invertebrates in our living artworks. We want to see which pollinators, and how many of them, they attract, and compare this to conventional or pollinator-friendly planting schemes.

Sign up to our mailing list for updates as we develop this part of the project, including how you can get involved through citizen science on your own DIY Garden. There are lots of programmes out there, such as the UK Pollinator Monitoring Scheme (PoMS), if you want to get started now. Get in touch if you can help us develop this part of the campaign.

Pollinator Vision

Insects see the world differently to us. When you create a garden on this site and start exploring it, you can turn on the ‘pollinator vision’ filter. It’s intended to invite you to think about seeing the world differently, but it's a huge simplification of a fascinating but complex journey into perception!

Digital rendering of a Pollinator Pathmaker garden, seen through the ‘pollinator vision’ filter.

Different insects can see different parts of the colour spectrum. Some can see ultraviolet (UV) light, revealing pigments and markings on flowers that we can’t see. We have trichromatic vision (red, green, and blue, or RGB), as do bees, but they see UV instead of red. Butterfly vision is not well understood, and is likely to vary a lot between species. They almost all have UV, green, and blue receptors, and some may have red too. Two flowers may appear the same colour to us, but to a bee or butterfly different levels of the flowers’ UV-absorbing pigments might make them appear different colours or shades. To add to the confusion, many of these insect species have polarisation vision too. It’s very hard to imagine what they see, since we can only approximate it in RGB.

Echium angustifolium. The flowers seem a fairly uniform purple to the human eye (left), but bees can see two UV absorbent patches at the top of the flower (right). Photo: © Jolyon Troscianko.

While bees’ compound eyes give them a grainy view of the world, their higher ‘flicker’ threshold means they can see individual flowers as they fly past, which to us would be a blur. They can also see polarised light, which helps them to navigate. Gardens look very different to pollinators.