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.
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!