By Lori Weidenhammer
This article was originally published in the Quarterly Newsletter for the Native Bee Society of British Columbia (Volume 1, Issue 2) in July 2020.
So you want to be a bee photographer? Don’t worry about emptying your bank account on expensive cameras and lenses. What you really need to buy if you’re going to take photos of bees is a regular supply of Epsom salts. You’re going to be spending time on your belly in the cold, wet mud. You’ll be twisting your body into weird shapes and holding awkward poses for a long time. That means you’ll need to spend some quality time in a hot bath, the water milky with magnesium rich, muscle-relaxing mineral salts.
Going on a bee safari means getting dressed in some comfortable, breathable clothes with long trousers made of sturdy material. I’m inevitably going to be kneeling in prickles, pebbles, and muck. The thorns of the black cap raspberry are a nemesis to my bare skin. Yesterday I grabbed onto a flowering branch to get photos of a tiny wasp with prodigiously long antennae. Did I push a thorn right into the most sensitive part of my thumb? You bet I did. But I believe it’s worth suffering to get the good shot, even for insects that aren’t bees!
I really should put reinforced knee patches on all my field trousers because I’ve kneeled on trailing blackberry canes, rough stones and cacti. When searching for the bee that pollinates pale evening primrose (Oenothera pallida ssp. pallida) on the side of the road in the south Okanagan I kneeled on a prickly pear plant. Did it hurt? Yes! Hurt like hell. Did I see the rare bee? Nope. But at least I got some good shots of the flowers, even if I had a very sore knee for a couple of days.
You need to wear clothes you don’t mind getting mucky. During the Meadowlark Festival in the Okanagan we were out with some birders looking at burrowing owls. Sure, the ground-nesting owls were cute, but I found the most amazing mud puddle with all kinds of cool insect activity—bees and butterflies taking advantage of the mineral rich wet muck in the dry grassland habitat. I got down on my belly and snapped dozens of shots. “Um, what are you doing down there?” asked Birder Karen. When I explained I was taking photos of the insects in the mud she said, “Oh, how nice for you.” Sure, the twitchers thought I was a bit touched in the head, but I was having a hell of a good time, and I got some fun shots.
When insects are low, you’ve got to get the lens down there at the bee’s eye level to get the shot. And when photographing mining bees, in particular, you also have to avoid stepping or kneeling on their nests. You have to be patient and still. You need that “core strength” the fitness gurus keep blathering on about. I have taken up outdoor yoga in order to be a better photographer. One day a honey bee landed right on my mat before class. I guess she liked the scent of the lavender mat spray. She was doing her own “downward bee” pose. Another day after the class had started I spotted a large turquoise cuckoo wasp in the grass next to my mat. It was shiny and beautiful and the largest specimen I’d ever seen! This was the ultimate dilemma: would I be rude and take out my camera to get the shot, or would I chill out, become detached from my desire and refrain from disturbing the class? That beautiful iridescent beauty crawled in the grass all around my mat and I really had to fight that urge to capture it in pixels. I tried to be detached and let go of all my vain urges, but I just kept obsessing over that gorgeous wasp. Eventually, the beautiful insect flew away, glittering in the afternoon sun. Do I regret missing the photo op? Hell yeah! Screw bliss and tranquility, I should have taken the shot!
The day that I remember hurting my body the most was in Oak Meadows Park, one of my favorite places to take photos of bees in Vancouver. A giant California bumble bee queen (Bombus californicus) kept landing and fiddling with her long tongue and then flying off and landing again and again. I chased that bee up and over and under shrubs and plants and grass and snapped about a hundred shots. By the end I was hot, tired, and sore and covered in the dagger-like seeds of Geum macrophyllum. I thought of the words from the theme song of the TV series the Detectorists: "Will you search through the lonely earth for me/ Climb through the briar and bramble? I'll be your treasure...” Bees are my treasure and yes, I will climb through briar and bramble and crawl on pointy rocks and prickly branches through mud to capture and share their profound beauty.
If you ever want to join me on a bee safari, make sure you're wearing appropriate clothing, and don't forget to ensure there's a box of Epsom salts waiting for you on your return. We might even learn a few new yoga poses from the bees themselves as they twist their limbs to groom the pollen on their hairy bodies. Unlikely postures and good laughs are assured, along with fond memories and fun experiences. And, if we're lucky, we might even come away with some photographic gems.
Lori Weidenhammer is a performance-based interdisciplinary artist and educator based in Vancouver, BC. As a food security volunteer and activist, Lori works with students of all ages on eating locally and gardening for pollinators. On occasion, she adopts the persona of Madame Beespeaker and talks to bees. Her book, Victory Gardens for Bees: A DIY Guide to Saving the Bees (2016), is published by Douglas & MacIntyre. Lori is a founding member of the NBSBC.
Are you inspired to try out some bee yoga of your own? Join Lori, Sean McCann, and Sarah Johnson in a beginner macrophotography workshop put on by the NBSBC. This webinar will be held on Wednesday, July 22 from 2:00 to 3:30 pm PDT. Registration is free for members and $5 for non-members. For more information, and to register, visit: https://www.bcnativebees.org/event-details/communing-with-the-bees-beginner-macrophotography