Skip to content

In Conversation with Pollenize

Driving both environmental and societal change across Plymouth and beyond, Flatspot caught up with local skateboarder and Pollenize co-founder Owen Finnie to discuss the project’s humble beginnings, innovative AI cameras, and their growing community projects and school schemes. A Pollinator Conservation with a network of 11 community apiaries located across iconic sites including the Devonport Column, Royal William Yard and the National Marine Aquarium.

In Conversation with Pollenize

Flatspot: Hey Owen. If you wouldn’t mind introducing yourself, detailing your relationship with Plymouth and explaining what Pollenize is?

Owen: My name's Owen, I am one of the co-directors at Pollenize. Pollenize is a Pollinator Conversation Social Enterprise based in Plymouth. 

We started Pollenize in 2018 and it was kind of born out of a challenge and an allergy to pollen. Matt, the other co-director and I, we went to put a beehive in an allotment, but for a load of reasons we weren’t allowed to put it there, so it forced us to look at different spaces in the city, the underused ones, sort of underutilised places. We approached those iconic or cultural institutions in Plymouth and asked if we could put bees in their spaces, primarily on rooftops. Then the idea was to put the beehives there as a bit of an engagement piece where we could take people beekeeping, because we felt that the challenges that we faced with knowing where to keep bees, how to access the money to finance it, and also the knowledge of how to keep them, we thought there's probably other people that have similar interests or similar challenges.

So, yeah, we've created these little spots around the city where people come to do beekeeping with us essentially. And that’s probably the very beginning of where I guess the idea for Pollenize came from. It was kind of born out of a challenge, but then became a business through that process.

In Conversation with Pollenize

Flatspot: That sounds great! In recent years, it has become increasingly widely recognised that bees play a vital role in helping sustain the planet’s ecosystems. Could you explain why this is?

Owen: Honey bees, because we've been keeping them for such a long period I think like all the way back to ancient Egyptians, it's quite a well known practice or like animal husbandry in society that people have kept bees and they understand what bees perform as a service. They pollinate flowers, trees, shrubs and our crops as well, so people are well accustomed to what honey bees do. 

Climate change is really in people's faces at the moment and with the changing climate there’s certain things - in terms of growing regions and how certain pollinators will thrive in certain temperatures - all of these changes, I think really brings to the forefront how important they are to those particular ecosystems as well. If you remove the pollinating insect from the food chain lots of things can't survive, they can't thrive.

Food security is a really big thing globally. On a global scale and on a national scale, I think people will be looking at how to sustain a growing population when it's exponentially growing and how the practices we use for farming may not be the most sustainable ones. I think that goes hand in hand with providing more biodiverse spaces for other pollinating insects to thrive in as well. We spoke about vertical farming earlier, how in urban spaces connecting people to those processes is really important. Obviously the more green architecture or green infrastructure you create, it's going to attract pollinators to those processes as well.

I think all of that stuff is high on the agenda at the moment. How do we get people more attached to processes in nature and bring that into cityscapes? In a way, that's what Pollenize is doing a little bit. It's trying to bring honey bees into the urban environment so people can understand the processes that they perform.

In Conversation with Pollenize

Flatspot: The last time we visited, you blew our minds by explaining how you were using AI software to accurately track the bees’ daily movement and activity. Why is this research important and how does it work?

Owen: Across all of our sites in Plymouth, we've got what we call an AI beehive. On the front of the hive there's essentially a camera pointing at a frame, and that's what the bees exist on, where they store their food and where the queen lays her eggs, but when the bees come back into the hive, in order to maximise the efficiency of how they forage, they'll do a thing called a waggle dance. That waggle dance is a form of communication to the other bees in the hive, basically telling the others where to go and forage so that as an organism they maximise their ability to go out and gather resources and bring it back to the hive.

The dance itself isn’t random, it’s kind of done in relation to the vector of the sun. It's all very scientific how it happens and a university in Germany has actually decoded the waggle dance in laboratory conditions. They’ve understood that the way the bee moves on the frame, certain waggles will dictate distance and the vector to the sun and everything. 

We wanted to capture it in real time in the fields and where we keep the beehives. The reason why we wanted to do that is to understand where the bees are going so we can understand where they’re foraging in general and the distance they’re travelling. The preferential foraging radius of bees is 3km-ish and they can go up to 10km if they need to. By using the algorithm, if they’re going 3km, we could possibly suggest that the forage is good. But if they're going 10km, we could say maybe it's a stressed environment and there isn't enough close by. It could initiate a data-led conversation about how we could increase plantings closer by or we could encourage the council to have a better strategy for planting for pollinators.

We want to use it as a bit of an engagement piece as well. So people can just understand where bees go, what they go to and at what time of day. We could say at 12:00 on the 12th May a bee performed a waggle dance and it went to Devonport Park from Royal William Yard and it’ll give you a metre-squared reference of where it's gone. So we could probably safely say that if it went to Devonport Park and we got a metre-squared grid reference, that's probably a lime tree it's been feeding on. We can then ground truth that, come back to the hive and look at the pollen as well and do a pollen analysis on the hive as well.

The idea behind the camera is just purely for research purposes and trying to turn that research into an engageable piece of science for the public to get involved with too. That's the project we're currently running with Capgemini, they’re a big computer and cloud consultant that we won an in-house competition to work with. They’re helping get our cameras sorted, helping to decode the waggle dance and helping us build a map to increase public engagement. 

In Conversation with Pollenize

Flatspot: Pollenize has been involving the community by hosting mass sowing days and informative talks at local schools. How did these events go and what is the aim of getting the people of Plymouth involved?

Owen: One of the really big projects we delivered in April 2022 was to give every single primary and secondary school a packet of our native wildflower seeds. We were funded through Crowdfunder and we unlocked extra funding through Plymouth City Council and a climate emergency fund. That enabled us to distribute just over 37,000 seed packets. Each was hand filled and had a little insert explaining to the kids how to log the coordinates of their seeds and all of the extra events that would follow the sowing during the half term period in April. 

The main idea behind it was that they’d increase the forage for pollinators by planting stuff, but also the kids would learn a valuable lesson and understand the connection that if you plant something, something will come and pollinate/visit it. It was a pretty big project because there were 90 schools and that’s a lot of seed packets! The idea behind the map was to enable the kids to log it, so there's a bit of a connection to the citizen science part of it where everybody can be involved in producing data for the good of the environment. There was also a little QR code on the back of the packet which linked them to the map straight away. With 37,000 seed packets, we've got about 600 locations on the map, so not even 1% is done. So that comes back to working with Capgemini, so we can understand why the project wasn’t effective.  

With schools, we do go into schools and do little talks too. Sometimes an assembly, sometimes on a smaller scale, just talking about what we do and the importance of pollinating insects and what they can do to make a difference where they live as well. Essentially they’re going to inherit all of our bad decisions for the environment so if we give them the right tools to make informed decisions to do better for the environment that they’re going to live in - that’s the main idea behind going into schools.

For the public, same idea behind going into schools, everybody's got a windowsill at least, or everyone's got like a small bit of courtyard that they can put some plants in. So we were like, let's just bring it straight back down to where we live and just encourage people to do something where they live. And there's a mantra, ‘think global, act local’. We just tried to encourage that a little bit with what we're doing because you can just do something where you live and it's quite easy. Planting some seeds in the ground, in a way, is one of the most accessible ways to do it as well. 

In Conversation with Pollenize

Flatspot: What does the future of Pollenize look like and what do you hope to achieve with the organisation?

Owen: We're a really young company, we're only five years old. I think the next few years will be about really growing the team, so it takes some of the weight off what Matt and I do. It’ll allow us to grow the business more. 

The grand plan is that I don't want to really be working until I'm at retirement age, so I'd rather just get to a point where the business is really healthy and it can be run by people that are trusted, that are employed by Pollenize and that Matt and I would like to leave it to - that’s many years on. 

I think just grow a really healthy team and expand outside of the South-West, go a bit further afield and nationally. We have a beehive in Edinburgh and we have a beehive in the Isles of Scilly gathering data, but we'd like to really implement the more business revenue angle where we go and [I haven’t really touched on it yet] perform biodiversity surveys - buts that's another service we're exploring. And also the beekeeping stuff where we put bees in corporate places and take people beekeeping - we want to expand that further afield really, I think that's the main goal, and we can only do that with a larger team.

It just means having a really good foundation in Plymouth and not rushing into it too quickly because I think you can get over excited with having really grand plans. You know, if you haven't got good foundations, I think it will just fall underneath you quite quickly.

In Conversation with Pollenize

Flatspot: Bringing it back to skateboarding, we can’t forget about your shared part in the ‘Pizza Video’ shot at Civic. Could you tell a little more about that and maybe what your favourite Plymouth filmed skate clip is?

Owen: No way, that’s a really good question! There was a crew of us that hung out at Civic and we ended up making a video - I think it was James Matejka, that was the main guy filming, and I shared a part with Josh Parrett. The Smiths’ ‘Sweetness’ was our track and we were really digging it at the time! Yeah, it was just a really cool video because back then we didn't have phones that could capture everything. It was really cool being part of that. I think the thing I was most chuffed about was Mount Hawke and doing a flip to noseslide down the hubba there.

I think one of the funniest [skate clips] has got to be of this guy called Kevin Curran. He did the 11 set, the ABC set. He almost nailed it the first time, but absolutely slipped out and just looked at the camera and is like “ah man, my ass is dead”, it’s just a really funny clip! There's been loads of cool tricks coming off White Wall, like people pelting along it and doing cool stuff off it.

Flatspot: Thanks Owen for taking the time to speak with us - we’re excited to see what the future holds for Pollenize and the public projects.

In Conversation with Pollenize

Follow Pollenize on Instagram here. Learn more about their community and biodiversity services here

By entering your email, your are agreeing to Flatspot's Privacy Policy