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These fake flowers are an emergency food source for city-dwelling insects

To make sure urban insects have enough food, Dutch designer Matilde Boelhouwer is making them a buffet of artificial plants.

A new type of artificial flower doesn’t look realistic. But the flowers aren’t designed for humans–they’re for bees and other pollinators.

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A daisy-like shape, laser-cut from polyester and colored bright yellow and violet, attracts bees. A simple symmetrical shape attracts bumblebees; a bright pink, orchid-like shape attracts butterflies. Inside each “flower” a reservoir of sugar mixes with water when it rains. If an insect lands on one of the flowers, it has an emergency source of food.

As insect habitat shrinks–and insect populations are declining so rapidly that as many as 40% of all species may be endangered in the coming decades–Dutch designer Matilde Boelhouwer wanted to explore potential solutions. Insects face multiple threats, from pesticides and climate change to invasive species and the spread of deforestation and expanding agriculture. While the whole system needs to change, Boelhouwer recognized that one place to intervene might be cities, where sprawling concrete leaves little room for the food that insects need to survive.

[Photo: Matilde Boelhouwer]

“I began to research the reasons for the lack of food,” she says. “I saw that municipalities, for example, mainly choose low-maintenance plants in public space, which almost all the time are plants that don’t flower or are wind-pollinated…Also, cities are growing, and therefore we’re losing more and more space to buildings, leaving less room for nature.”

Her project, called Insectology: Food for Buzz, is designed to offer a simple source of food that could be installed on building facades and other areas where real plants can’t grow. Boelhouwer didn’t try to replicate specific flowers, but worked with entomologists to create designs that would appeal to different types of insects. “Color is chosen to the color preferences of each species and the sugar-water container is adjusted to the length of the tongue of each insect,” she says.

[Photo: Janneke van der Pol]

The flowers don’t have a scent, because insects use smell for long-distance navigation and she didn’t want the flowers to be too easily discovered; they aren’t meant as a primary source of food. “By not using scent, I kind of hacked their communication system and navigation, which [ensures] that they will not fly to these flowers twice, or it’d be a coincidence,” she says. Other features, like filtration systems in the flowers, are still in development, but the designs are intended to be maintenance-free and self-sustaining for a decade.

It’s not clear that the flowers would necessarily help; some beekeepers, for example, discourage the idea of feeding bees sugar water, calling it a form of junk food. Boelhouwer wants to see more real flowers in cities. But she sees the design, which she hopes to test in a pilot this summer, as a way to fill in the gaps where flowers can’t grow, and supplement food for insects in the way that bird feeders support birds in the winter. She also sees the project as a way to encourage people to grow more plants to support pollinators. “When I presented this project for the first time I noticed a lot of people still aren’t aware of this insect population decline and also don’t know what flowers can help,” she says. “In that case, this project also raises awareness, and creates dialogue on if and how we should preserve and protect local nature.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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