A “Pollinator Sky Rise” – a unique, ground-breaking combination of sculpture and science experiment – is now in place on the southwest shore of Como Lake. The Sky Rise is a joint project between Public Art Saint Paul and the University of Minnesota’s Bee Lab.
The Como installation is the first of its kind anywhere in the world. It is designed to experiment with man-made habitat for wild bees and butterflies, a research site for entomologists, and (eventually) a focal point of education for passers-by on one of the busiest walking routes in the city. “It’s a stellar art project, with lots of complexity, and demonstrates how artists are using their skills to address social issues,” says Colleen Sheehy, executive director of Public Art Saint Paul. The nonprofit – with artists Christine Baeumler and Amanda Lovelee in the lead – has been working on the project for nearly two years. “Christine is a leader in the region on environmentalism and community engagement,” Sheehy says.
Education and experimentation
The colorful Sky Rise is part of Public Art’s larger Bee Real Bee Everywhere initiative. That initiative includes the Office of Pollen Exchange, which is a custom-made cargo bike. The artists and their bike have made more than 125 visits to parks, libraries, and farmers markets this summer to educate the public on the challenges pollinators face and what individuals can do about it. That includes handing out nearly 700 seed packets so individuals can grow their own pollinator gardens. “Every third bite of our food comes from a plant that has to be pollinated,” Sheehy says, so our survival as humans depends on the survival of pollinators.
Bee Real follows the organization’s success with the Urban Flower Field in downtown’s Pedro Park. That project also combines art and science in trying to determine the best combination of plants to absorb heavy metals from the soil in an urban environment, while also making empty land more attractive and useful until an official park can be built.
Taking public art requirement to a new level
The Sky Rise takes an innovative approach on how to use the 1 percent of budget that public works projects dedicate to public art. The Como Lake installation is the result of money from the Como-Chatsworth street reconstruction project, which took place in Warrendale and South Como in 2015 and 2016. The city money matches funds Public Art received in a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
District 10 suggested the site, which is along the walking and bicycle paths near Horton, Nagasaki, and West Como Blvd. By ordinance, public art has to be adjacent to the construction zone. The city’s Public Works and Parks departments signed off on the location and the project details.
The Sky Rise itself is roughly 4 feet by 3 feet; mounted, it tops out at 10 feet. The height, Sheehy says, is one reason people shouldn’t worry about being stung. But the main reason is that the project is designed to attract wild bees while discouraging honey bees and wasps, which are more territorial and more apt to attack, she says.
More on the way
The Sky Rise structure is a series of butterfly and bee houses designed with input from Maria Spivak and her colleagues at the University of Minnesota Bee Lab. “These are essentially studio apartments for wild bees,” Sheehy says, and a deliberate effort “to make space for other species.”
Colleen Satyshur, of the university’s Bee Lab, points out that there are about 400 species of bees in Minnesota, and that honey bees are only one of those species. Two-thirds of wild bees tend to live in individual holes in the ground, not in hives. The rest live in decaying material such as dead branches, which are frequently discarded in urban environments. It is these kinds of wild bees that the Sky Rise hopes to lure.
Beginning next spring, entomologists hope, wild bees will nest in the small holes in the bee houses and fill the “rooms” with nectar and pollen for their offspring to feed from while they grow. The mother bees will fly off; the young bees will nest through the following winter. Entomologists willl track this cycle, Satyshur says.
The Sky Rise also has butterfly boxes with vertical slots that can provide shelter at night and during storms, she says.
The Sky Rise is constructed of wood and steel. It was fabricated locally by Blue Rhino Studio in Eagan. Eventually, Public Art will install an interpretive sign to educate passers-by about the sculpture, its purpose, and pollinators. Public Art also expects to install a Sky Rise in Phalen Park, and Sheehy says the university plans to install one on its Minneapolis campus.
Updated Sept. 13, 2017