General Bumble Bee Photography

Photography is an essential tool for recording – and identifying – bumble bees in the field. Dark, distant, or blurry images can make identification difficult – or even impossible – which can result in wasted time and effort, loss of vital data, and an unnecessary annoyance for the bees!

This is why we have adopted the capture/chill protocol included in the training for the MN Bumble Bee Atlas. This has proved to result in the high-quality useful images. All bumble bee watchers will find some gems in the tips below. The majority of these tips were graciously provided by Kevin Schafer - a top contributor to the Pacific Northwest Bumble Bee Atlas, and a professional photographer.

CAMERA CHOICE: Any type of camera can record a bumble bee sighting, whether it is a cellphone, a pocket camera, or a DSLR (Digital Single-lens Reflex) with interchangeable lenses. However, it is important to keep in mind that the quality – and therefore the usefulness of the resulting pictures – can vary dramatically.

  • Digital SLRs: These cameras offer the most control, and generally produce images of the highest quality. They are especially valuable if paired with a macro lens, which allows you to focus very close, and capture essential details. Note: If you are using a DSLR but don’t have a macro lens – go ahead and shoot from your closest focusing distance and then crop the picture (in the "lab") to show the bee larger in the frame - cropping photos before submitting them makes verification much easier. Most cameras today have large enough sensors to allow cropping without significant loss of detail.

  • Point-and-shoots : So-called “pocket cameras” are quickly being replaced by camera phones, so few people seem to use them anymore. But if you have one, be sure to test out its ability to close-focus, and provide exposure compensation (more on these two subjects later). A camera that has proved exceptionally useful at taking detailed photographs for this project is the Olympus Tough TG-5 (to be clear we have not received any support from Olympus in this project - this is a true experience based recommendation). We're not suggesting that you go out and purchase one of these for this project, but if you are in the market for a field camera - we've found that this one is great for macro photography - and is field ready for drops and spills.

  • Camera phones : For many of us, these are an obvious choice, since we normally have one conveniently tucked in our pockets! This fact alone makes phones a useful tool, especially for incidental sightings : capturing a bee in the garden, or finding one unexpectedly on a hike. But these cameras also have distinct limitations: they may not be able to focus close-up and adjusting exposures can be difficult. What’s more, resolution and sharpness generally remain inferior, especially in older models. For that reason, when conducting surveys, best practice is to use your camera phone only if you have no other choice. See below for some camera phone tips.

  • BEE PROCESSING WORKFLOW:

  1. Capture bee with net.

  2. Transfer to numbered glass vial or jar

  3. Remember to capture the host plant information. This can be done in a few ways, 1) photograph the jar number and associated plant, 2) label the jar directly with the plant name, or 3) place a bit of the flower in the jar with the bee.

  4. Place the jar in the cooler, being sure to cover with ice (using crushed ice is a great option if you have access to it). (Note: Repeated opening and closing of the cooler allows warm air inside and slows – or prevents - the chilling process).

  5. While bees are chilling, take some sample photographs of a small bee sized object and change/practice your lighting or white balance, etc. to be sure you are ready to take clear photos when your bees are ready. The hood of a car, ice chest lid, or clipboard surface works great for this.

  6. Once chilled (bee should be immobile), remove jar and photograph number again to keep track of bee/jar during later editing.

  7. Place bee on white background and allow to warm (slightly) (NOTE: Block wind if necessary – bees can blow away!)

  8. Photograph from several angles

  9. Release in warm, shady spot.

  10. Repeat!

Look for the macro setting on your camera.

CAMERA SETTINGS

If your camera has one, use the macro setting (usually an icon of a flower)! This usually lets you focus on objects closer to the camera.

BACKGROUNDS

Whatever camera you use, after you have chilled your bumble bee, choose a clean, uncluttered background on which to place it for photography. Some people shoot the bee inside the vial or jar, but these can cause distortion, and make it hard to get very close, or shoot from multiple angles. A simple alternative is to use a sheet of white copy paper attached to a clipboard. This white surface reflects light onto all parts of the bee and reduces distracting backgrounds. Bring some rubber bands along to keep the paper from moving in the wind, or use a stiff white board -- a movable white wind-break can also be helpful. (NOTE: chilled bees are often wet with condensation and your paper/board can get wet – bring extra!)

POSING

After being properly chilled for a few minutes, a bumble bee will typically be motionless, and tightly curled up to stay warm. This can make them difficult to photograph properly, e.g. hiding key features. For that reason, one tip is to let your subjects warm up slightly (in anything except blazing hot sun). It is not a bad idea to snap a couple of photos of a chilled bee, just so you don't miss the opportunity to photograph the bee should it warm up and fly away quickly - you can later choose the best photos to submit. If the recovery seems slow (or if you have 20+ more bees to process!) you can speed things along by breathing lightly on your chilly bee. In a minute or so, it should start moving, and will normally strike a more natural standing pose, spending some time preening and stretching (in warm temps bees sometimes warm up quickly - especially if not completely chilled - so be careful to not let them get away before documenting them). This is a perfect time to take your photograph, rotating the paper/board to get a variety of angles: eg top, back, side and/or underside (esp. with Yellow-faced species) Get as close as your camera will allow! (NOTE: Remember, the Bumble Bee Watch data entry template only has room for 3 photos of each individual, so make them count.) ​​

EXPOSURE/LIGHTING

If it’s not too hot, photographing bees in full sun is best (when it’s available) or in bright shade. Either way, you may notice that the white background is “fooling” your light meter: the photos may look dark overall and the bee almost black and difficult to identify. (This is because the light meter default in your camera is trying to change that white background to an average gray.) To correct for this, you should set your camera to deliberately over-expose the picture, e.g. add light to it, so that the white is closer to white. That can be done several ways:

  • With a DSLR or other stand-alone cameras, there is typically an Exposure Compensation function built-in, either controlled by buttons on the camera body, or found somewhere in the Menu. Look for a +/- symbol. Once you have located it, you will want to change the setting from O to +1.0 to start; This will brighten all your pictures significantly. (If the effect is not enough, try +1.3 or +1.7). But remember: if you change this setting, you’ll need to change it back to default O setting before taking non-bumble bee photos or all of them will be washed out!!

  • If using a phone, this is more difficult. Most recent iPhones allow you to ​alter the exposure by dragging your finger up or down the image on the screen when in CAMERA. However, you will have to do this for every image since it doesn’t remember the setting, which is time-consuming and awkward!​

MISC NOTES

Flash: Using flash is not generally recommended since when working close-up, the results tend be too bright and too contrasty.

Focus: When shooting in extreme close-up, the depth of focus can be very shallow, so the focus point can be critical. Be sure to focus on the critical part of the animal in each picture. If you are photographing from the rear, for example, make sure your camera is focusing on the abdomen, or similarly, if you are photographing from the front, be sure the focus point is on the head – not accidentally on the background. (NOTE: Be especially careful with camera phones. Newer iPhones and Android devices allow you to confirm focus point using by tapping the touch screen in the important subject area.)

Camera Shake: If your hands are unsteady or if your bee is moving, you’ll need a faster shutter speed to stop that motion (e.g faster than ca. 1/250 sec. ) If you don’t have enough light to get this shutter speed – try increasing your ISO. (Light sensitivity)

KEY PHOTOS TO INCLUDE

What makes a good bumble bee photo? Sometimes a good photo is not necessarily a useful photo when we are interested in identification. As such, a useful set of photos will include:

  1. The hind leg for cuckoo bee/sex diagnosis.

  2. The face including detail of the color patterns of the face, top of the head, and ideally cheek length.

  3. The color pattern on the abdomen.

  4. The color pattern on the top and side of the thorax, including color below the bases of the wings.

  5. If the species has a yellow face, and a single yellow stripe on the abdomen, include the ventral side of the abdomen.


In this shot we can see the head (and face) and
thorax, but not the abdomen - which is important for the identification of most species.

In this shot we see the abdomen, but are missing the thorax and head/face.

In this shot we can see the thorax and the abdomen, but miss the features of the head and face, which can sometimes be important.

Cropping photos before submission can help greatly with the verification process.

These are the same photo, but the one on the right has been cropped before uploading. This makes seeing more detail much easier for our reviewers.

Don’t be afraid to get close to bumble bees when they are visiting flowers. As long as you don’t touch them, you are very unlikely to get stung. Close-ups are the best photos as they allow the observer to see more detail!

These two photos are of the same bee, but the photo on the left is taken from too far away! The photo on the right is taken from closer, and provides a better chance for identification.

Include photos from a few different angles. These will help you to see all of the characters on the bee.

While the photo on the right is a good photo, adding the photo on the left allows the user to see the color on the face, a key character when identifying bumble bees.

Putting a bee in a vial (they can often be captured directly into the vial from a flower) can be an effective way to snap some clear photos. You can get even more effective results if you chill the bee in the cooler for a few minutes. This will cause the bee to slow down for a few minutes (depending on the ambient temperature) allowing careful observation or photography, but to our knowledge will not harm the bee. We recommend that you do NOT put bees into vials or handle them in any way in areas recent sightings of the rusty-patched bumble bee.

If you are still having trouble, another option is to take a video of the bumble bee and then extract still images from the video file. There are numerous ways to do this, and a quick web search should lead you in the right direction.

Don’t worry if you can’t ID the bee in your photo! Bumble bees can be tricky. Your photo submission will still help us keep track of bumble bee populations and it is quite possible that our experts may be able to ID your bumble bee. We will carefully verify all of photo submissions. But, carefully selecting the best photos and curating them appropriately will make our job as reviewers much easier - expediting the time it takes for us to get you feedback on your submissions.

Examples of high quality diagnostic photos taken with chilled bees.

ATTENTION: Photographing All-Yellow Bees!

There are two species in the state where the males are hard to distinguish without clear photos. The male American Bumble Bee (Bombus pensylvanicus) and male Yellow Bumble Bee (Bombus fervidus) look strikingly similar, and the identification is often based off of a combination of color patterns seen throughout the body, such as yellow hairs on the face ​with a black abdomen. It is important to capture these photos: