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Why Bees? Foregoing the chance to indulge in a few puns, the answer is that they are the perfect subjects for slightly lazy photographers who prefer warmer weather and sunshine.
Among their positive qualities is the fact that they roll out in the warmth of the day (no need to leap out of bed in the cold pre-dawn) and they stop working as the light fades (so no need to stay out in the dark). Very thoughtfully, bees use attractive and colourful flowers for food so the photographer has huge bursts of colour to work with. Bees couldn’t care less about being observed so they don’t scurry out of sight at the first glimpse of a shadow. They are really cute and fuzzy, and a nice change from those less appealing insects with pincers and poisons; bees won’t sting unless desperate. I have spent upwards of a hundred hours with my nose less than five centimetres away from them and have never been stung.

Of course, if you are determined to avoid being stung there are stingless native Australian bees. These are smaller than the bees normally used in honey production, but they are not entirely defenceless and can bite. Some species can even create painful blisters. Of all the bees, the bumble bee is the easiest to photograph, their size and noise makes them easy to track with ears, eyes and the central focus point of your camera as they hum their way around a flower bed.

Despite all the positives, there are a few downsides to photographing bees. As the sun’s rays dip into the last hour of the day that makes photographs heavy with warmth, you will become busy with those last chances to take awesome photos. This is also the time when the female mosquitoes begin to look for blood. Eventually, you will notice that you have become the local blood bank. If you are out at dusk, or likely to be, plan ahead and put on some insect repellent.  

The other major downside is that you will need to use a specialist macro lens and perhaps extension tubes or close-up filters. I am trying to avoid thinking about the newer, image stabiliser version of my lens, but I know deep-down that I will eventually have to get one as the failure rate with macro photography is quite high. A stabilised lens would undoubtedly reduce the number of images that have to be rejected because of camera shake. I usually keep to a 100mm macro lens, expose using centre-weighted average metering (with a one-third stop of underexposure), the fastest shutter speed setting and continuous autofocusing using the central focus point.

Using the centre focus does mean I often have to crop a picture to get the best framing, but the linear-only outside points are not as good as grabbing and holding on to a small moving target. With a D-SLR that has more cross-type
AF points, it will be possible to increase the focusing capture area.

A Walk In The Park
You can also consider using an on-camera flash. I know many wildlife photography specialists use one as a source of fill-in light to help reduce the dark shadows created on sunny days or to give better light to a subject if the angle of the sun isn’t quite right. I am a little deficient in this practice, but weight has slowed my progress – not mine, the weight of the flash! For maximum mobility, I prefer to hand-hold my camera so the extra grams do increase the possibility of camera shake and, after a long session, arm ache. When I use a flash I also use the built-in diffuser to soften the illumination, but I would also like to try a snoot hood to soften it further.

A potential plus about photographing bees is that, when you have exhausted your own garden’s range, you will need to visit other places with lots of flowers. This puts you in the domain of public gardens and parks which are often spectacular to visit anyway and a great day out. However, a problem can be all the other people who are also there, wandering around and admiring the plants.

It’s great if your flower of choice is a tall species so that you can stand upright in an action pose, but not so good if the flowering plant is low down – do you go for the rear-end in the air, the thigh-wincing crouch or the lying-down approach?

Of course, you can cheat and spend a fortune in the nursery and buy potted plants which you can arrange at a comfortable eye height in the tranquillity of your own garden, but there is no guarantee your flowers will attract visitors.

As for the bees themselves, achieving great action shots means a bit more skill and planning than when taking pictures of them simply sitting on a flower. However, the basic static shot is one to get right first. Find a flower that the bees seem to stay on for a longer period of time before moving on. This gives you time to track the bee, work out the good angles and check the exposure histogram.

Once you have cracked this type of shot, it’s time to get really creative. To stand out from the rest, you really need action; the proboscis extended or a side view with sunlight making the body almost luminous. Then comes the Holy Grail of bee photography; capturing the insect in flight. It’s preferable to photograph the bee approaching a flower with legs down, ready to land, using a slow enough shutter speed to capture the bee perfectly, but allow a blurring of the wings. Sometimes even a speed as high as 1/1500 second will work as the movement of the wings doesn’t become frozen until about 1/2000 second. The background is almost as important as the bee itself. It shouldn’t be too busy, preferably plain but bright – or even better – near black. Watch out for sunspots on glossy leaves which will ruin even the best bee portrait.

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Taking Off
The next challenge is to try for a shot of the bee leaving a flower. You’ll need to wait until the bee is fully laden with pollen and then, if you are lucky, it will leave a stream of golden dust in its wake as it lifts off. Another advantage of photographing a fully-laden bee is that it’s carrying a big load so its flight is a bit more ponderous and a little easier to track.

One method of capturing a bee in-flight is to prefocus on the flower, set a smaller aperture (to slightly increase the depth-of-field) and wait for a bee to track in. However, this is only really successful in locations where there are lots of bees because the chances of one obligingly flying in to your field of focus is quite low. I have managed some great wider-angle shots with this technique, using a 100-400mm zoom (sunny day, 400mm, f5.6 at about 1/3200 second and ISO 200). I’m afraid that I usually act in a paparazzi-style, looking for a bee with bloated pollen sacs and then tracking it within the area immediately in front of me until it leaves the scene.  

Once you have mastered the basics of photographing bees, it’s time to play. This means hunting for better angles, more colourful backgrounds and more interesting compositions. For example, try taking extreme close ups with dioptric lenses (a.k.a. close-up filters). Look for odd things, perhaps a backside or one leg with its pollen basket full of goodies. Experiment with a wider view. I try to think of magazine layouts that require space in the images for words or clean backgrounds on which to place type. Think about vertical page layouts too, not just horizontal.

Watch for interactions with other insects. Sometimes the bigger bees will literally bulldoze the smaller ones out of the way. Try and catch the resting ones as they clean up their legs and heads before flying off. See if you can find a bee covered in so much pollen that it has become a yellow fuzz ball. Some bees have small mites on their backs, but you don’t often see them until you are processing the photograph. The mites usually latch on to a queen bee and she will take them with her to a new nesting site where they help clean up the rubbish. However, if she becomes too overladen with them, she will have trouble flying. I once brushed a few off a struggling female bumble bee with a lens cleaning brush – after a few moments she took off and flew in a straight line rather than the drunken swagger she arrived with.

Unexpected Opportunities
There are many types of bee; the most frustrating of all being the one that dodges about in front of a flower patch, but rarely stops. In England it is called a wool-carder bee (Anthidium manicatum). It has proved as difficult to capture as the equivalent Australian species, the blue-banded bee (Amegilla cingulata) which vibrates in front of flowers to dislodge pollen and tends to visit several flowers before collecting any nectar. However, it seems to like tomato flowers so having a veggie patch looks even more like a good idea. I have spent many days working with one eye on the garden ready to snatch the camera and track it down. Additionally, its buzzing noise is a different to that of most bees and the irregular darting movements will often alert your subconscious eye before you know it.  

The best photo opportunities often come unexpectedly. On one occasion, I went to a BBQ at a friend’s house and, lo and behold, she had three or four blue-banded bees visiting a pink flowering shrub. Luckily for me I had my camera and, even more luckily, my friends know how much I longed for a decent shot so I was excused for an hour or so while the bees were feeding. Of course, if you are taking photographs of bees you will inevitably encounter all the other species that feed on nectar. Don’t dismiss the chance to snap a butterfly, or even the humble fly for that matter.

If you are in the type of garden which has plant labels, then include a picture of the label for later – the more information you can add to your captions the better. The final series of photographs to try for are those featuring the hive and honeycombs. These extra-special shots need to be arranged with an apiarist.  It’s a photographic target still on my to-do list!