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3-D Printed Flowers May Help Save the Bee Population

by Rick Anderson

Bees have been dying at an alarming rate in recent years, threatening to take down entire ecosystems with them. According to an article in the BBC , bees "pollinate 70 of the 100 crop species that feed 90 percent of the world, while honey bees are responsible for $30 billion a year in crops." It's safe to say that a dwindling bee population would have devastating repercussions. But an interesting project at the intersection of 3-D printing, robotics, and conceptual art has the potential to give nature’s hardest workers a safe way to get the job of pollinating plants done. Created by artist Michael Candy, from Brisbane, Australia, the Synthetic Polleniser is exactly that: a human-engineered method that offers bees a safer way to pollinate flowers so that they may bear fruit. Candy’s project uses 3-D printed petals designed to mimic the look of a rapeseed, and a series of tubes and motors pump out a man-made version of nectar that is capable of attracting a bee’s attention.

To do the work that gives the device its name, Candy’s pollenizer is a model in how to duplicate a precious resource efficiently. Excess pollen is lifted from the hind legs of bees as they fly through a pollen trap and then deposited in the Synthetic Polleniser’s artificial stamen. From there, motors move pollen to the “flower” in carefully regulated doses. The bees then do the same work they’ve done for millions of years, blissfully unaware of the role played by Candy’s project (all while an inconspicuous camera captures the whole process). When the bee flies off to another flower, it is carrying a sac of pollen, ready to begin pollination with the next flower it comes in contact with.

While it might seem like it’s easy to trick a bee, Candy tells Dezeen it actually took “several years to successfully coax bees into landing on the synthetic pollenizers” and that “the color and form of the unit are important for attraction, as bees have a variety of ways to identify flowers.”

An image of Michael Candy setting up his device in a field of flowers.

And though it might strike the casual observer as odd, an artificial method of pollination seeking to improve on natural methods isn’t too conceptually removed from the genetic engineering of plant life. To that end, Candy sees the potential for his Synthetic Polleniser and such designer crops to function in a sort of artificial ecosystem. “Perhaps in a future where designer crops are no longer able to produce pollen yet [they] still receive it—then the Synthetic Polleniser could rehabilitate the reproductive cycle of these genetically modified crops," he said.

For the time being, it seems Candy’s project is more of a thought-provoking piece of engineering rather than an item ready for mass production. Either way, you can take an up-close-and-personal look at his pollenizer in this video .

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