Photographing Honey Bees


Now, I know that not everyone loves honey bees the way I do.

If you’re one of those people that don’t like bees, it’s time for a lesson in honey bee appreciation.  One friend confided that when she sees a bee, she thinks “stinger.”  I suggested that she consider an alternate viewpoint, and instead think “honey.”

Wasps can be ugly, aggressive, and mean.  Not so with bees.  If you look at bees as angry bugs that sting, you’ve got it all wrong: they are furry little insects that make honey for us.

If you’ve been stung by a honeybee, it’s most likely because you stepped on it, trapped it, got it caught in your hair or otherwise hurt or threatened it.   They are very task-oriented and can be agitated when in competition with other bees, but get aggressive only in defense of their hive.  They don’t like strong smells (body odor) or quick movements.  They smell fear just as a dog or horse does, and will more likely sting in response.  But these are usually factors only when you are too close to their hive.

So when you see a honeybee, please realize that she is not a threat (all worker bees are females – you will rarely see a male).  She has a job to do and just wants to be left alone.  And that job is to make honey, cross-pollinate plants (a vital task),  and have their picture taken.

I like honey, and I love bees.

You should too.

(I’m obviously biased –  I had 7 hives and sold honey while in high school.)

Having kept bees for a number of years, I am accustomed to “reading” the emotional state of a bee – and yes, they have and display emotions.  While this recognition of their condition can be helpful, it is not essential to good bee photography.  What is important, however, is to not react to their close proximity with fear.  That shot of adrenalin that you get when you feel fear also produces a distinctive odor that animals and bees will react aggressively to.  As a beekeeper, I was able to train myself to not react, even if a bee drug her stinger across my hand, looking for an excuse to attack.  But that self-training takes time and discipline.

As I said above, bees are not inclined to be aggressive when working flowers, but exhibiting fear, especially with quick movements, will put you at a disadvantage.  Never under any circumstance swat at a bee – they will likely respond by stinging.  I have never been stung while photographing bees – they just express their displeasure with me by going elsewhere.

A beautiful or interesting insect can add a dimension to a beautiful flower photo. Once you realize that the bees do not want to sting you, and are therefore not a threat, you can calmly and fearlessly pursue great images.  But photographing bees can be quite a challenge.

The first consideration is proper equipment.  If you are going to make images where the bee fills a significant portion of the frame (and is therefore noticeable in the final image without significant cropping) you will need a lens capable of macro focus, or a standard lens with an extension tube (a plain tube without glass – which is relatively inexpensive) mounted between the lens and camera body.  You can also use a Diopter lens that screws on the front of a standard lens for close focus and magnification. Most of the photos on this page were taken with a 70-200mm f/2.8 with a 25mm extension tube. I have also been successful with a 24-70mm f/2.8 with the same 25mm extension tube. The working distance with either lens (from the front of the lens to the bee) is about the same.

A macro setup of this sort has limited auto focus capability, and you must do the “rough” focus by zooming in and out (with a zoom lens), or by moving the camera closer to or further from the subject  (Once within auto-focus range, it will kick in).  I have many, many hours experience doing this, but still find myself guessing whether I need to move closer or back further in order to achieve focus.  This is compounded by the fact that the bees are often moving very quickly, flitting from flower to flower, then moving rapidly around and within the flower.

In addition, they do not appreciate your lens being so close to them.  (The typical working distance between the lens and bee is 3 to 5″.) You may find a blossom that is a worthy subject and try to stay focused, waiting for a bee to come,  but in my experience, if they have other options they will not come to your chosen bloom.  The method that works best for me is to pick out a particular bee, and follow her from flower to flower, working to get the shot.  This method often requires that I move the camera towards the flower and bee very rapidly, which will likely scare  the bee away.  But I can still get an occasional shot in.  I have yet to use a tripod successfully in this endeavor.

Once you find some flowers that bees are working on,  you need to decide what lens angle (in relation to that type of flower) is most pleasing to you, and work with that composition as much as possible.  And you may find that some parts of the flower patch are in better shape than others – a shriveling or damaged blossom does not make as good an image, regardless of how photogenic the bee may be.

2009_03_21-1596  Speaking of photogenic, there are different breeds of honey bees, with a variety of body shapes and coloration.  And more often than not, I will find several different types working a given group of flowers, so I choose to focus on the bees I like best.  I prefer the Italian bees, with a blunt/rounded tail and ample gold, as opposed to those with slim, pointed tails and mostly black bodies. Caucasian bees, (black and grey) can be beautiful too:  2013_03_18-1249_V1(2013_03_18-1249)

You need enough depth of field for most of the bee and a significant part of the flower to be in focus, while leaving the background out of focus. Using a large aperture 3.5 to 4.5 has yielded good results for me.  A background full of colorful flowers can be quite nice when out of focus.2010_11_02-2117  A big part of the challenge is that even when you get all the technical aspects right: the flowers are great,  the light is good, and you can actually get the bee in focus, the right position of the bee can be most difficult to capture.  As in any wildlife photography, the eye must be in focus.  And I find the most visually pleasing shots are of the bee’s profile, especially with her body curved tightly.   But other positions can work as well:2010_11_01-2021   I have often thought I had the ideal “pose”, only to have the bee turn her back or tail to me in the instant that the shutter released.

A camera feature that greatly increases the odds of a successful shot is high-speed continuous shooting.  Shooting three frames per second greatly increases your odds of capturing the decisive moment, and over 10 frames per second is even better.  As an example of how that may work out, on one particular morning I found a patch of Fall aster that the bees were working heavily.  But they were being very competitive and moving extremely fast.  My camera at the time was capable of only 3.5 frames/second, but I shot 138 frames in 12 minutes, and got 8 images good enough to use on the face of a greeting card.  And that was an unusually good day – on many days I have shot more frames with far fewer “keepers.”

Whether the bee is gathering nectar or pollen makes a difference in several ways.  They usually gather pollen very rapidly, but may linger in a blossom while slurping nectar. When gathering pollen, you will get images of packed pollen “baskets” – the long hairs on the legs where the pollen is packed for transport back to the hive. 2013_03_18-1026_V1 You will also find that the bees are working at the tips of the stamen when collecting pollen, but will be seen reaching deep into the blossom when gathering nectar.  Depending on the type and depth of the blossom, you may find it difficult to see or photograph much of the bee in this situation.

As in any type of photography, personal preference is a deciding factor, and it takes a lot of shooting to learn what “works” and what does not, in your opinion.  But digits (and memory cards) are cheap, so go out and enjoy shooting a lot!  Expect your success rate to be low, but if you develop a love for bees, the “keepers” will be well worth the time and effort.

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