Photographing bee behaviour

Back garden wildlife is an absorbing and accessible subject. In this article we take a look at bees through a macro lens, writes Andrew James. With the lockdown situation we’ve all been in and to a large extent, still are in, the nature opportunities that are on our doorstep have become even more important. This was evident in the recent Foto-Buzz Zoom where so many of the members provided some absolutely cracking insect images for the slide show. One of the creatures that made a regular appearance was the bee – one of the most important inspect species, and its general decline has been highlighted a lot over recent years.

Despite its problems, on a summer’s day in any garden with flowers in you’re likely to be able to watch a lot bees doing what bees do best – pollinating. They are an amazing and engaging subject. They’re not easy to photograph but, if you get lucky you can get some awesome shots with either a macro or a telephoto lens.

A simple shot of a bee on lavender taken in the back garden.

This first shot is quite typical of how most of us photograph bees. Its behaviour is so recognisable we just take it for granted and if we hover in the right place and wait for one of our little bee friends to pop along, we can get a lovely shot of a bee on or among the flowers. This one was visiting a large clump of lavender we have flowering in the back garden. The combination of the purple against the green lawn works well and the bee makes a welcome focal point for the image. It’s just a case of making sure the shutter speed is high – this was 1/1000sec as the breeze was blowing the lavender about – and using Continuous AF with a single or small group of autofocus points. The lens used here was a 100mm macro and at f/5.6 the depth-of-field drops off very quickly so the background is beautifully diffused.

A sharp shot of a bee in flight adds a little more to the difficulty level, especially with a macro lens.

If we get bored or want to challenge ourselves then the flying shot is the next option. It’s harder because getting the focus on the bee isn’t easy. Bees are relatively erratic and unpredictable flyers. One of the best options to get this kind of shot is to pick a flower that’s being regularly visited, prefocus on it and then try to switch the focus to a bee as it either arrives or flies off. Even this results in lots of failures though. I suggest a small group of central AF points – too many and you’ll pick up on the flowers around you, though. A telephoto lens is often the best option for this kind of shot – something around 200mm is great – but you may want to crop in a bit in post-production. This is actually a macro shot, so it’s not impossible to track and lock focus on a flying bee. With a macro lens, you just have to put the work in! The exposure for this image was 1/2000sec at f/4, so you have to be very accurate with the focus. For this, I used just one active AF point which locked onto the front side of the head here, but trust me, I also took plenty where the focus was in the wrong place.

But once you’ve cracked the bee-on-the-flower shot and the bee-flying-through-the-flowers shot, what do you do?  That’s the dilemma I faced the other day. Nothing wrong with doing more shots of the same – different flowers, different light and so on, but I wanted to find a different situation. Looking around my garden, I found it on my little wildlife pond and, having seen a Foto-Buzzer Jerry Burgan’s great shot of a dragonfly laying eggs in his garden pond, a little nugget of an idea formed in my head.

Incidentally, if you don’t have a wildlife pond in your garden, you should have! Mine is tiny but the amount of wildlife it attracts in and around it is amazing.

After growing bored with bees on flowers I was sitting down at the pond looking for the tiny frogs that have developed from this year’s tadpoles. Then I noticed a bee crawling over the plants in a shallow boggy area. Then another and another. I watched and observed them drinking, either from the pond itself but more often from the damp succulent pond vegetation. It was similar in some ways to the pollen-collection behaviour, but looked very different in terms of setting. Plus, it all went on at ground – or rather water – level! This, I thought, is where you go to add to your bee portfolio – a whole new area of bee-haviour (sorry).

Shooting the bees as they landed at pond-level involved lying in uncomfortable positions a lot of the time.

Working at ground level is never comfortable but I had no choice. It’s possible to have a raised pond (Foto-Buzzer Jerry has one) but mine is level with the lawn so that wildlife can drink from it. Staring through the camera I realised that my background was going to be a constant headache. It’s a truly ‘wild’ wildlife pond so has all sorts of distractions to annoy the fussy photographer.

Watching the bees and occasional visiting wasp revealed that drinking was a fairly rapid affair. They’d fly down, drink and be gone generally in the matter of a few seconds. That gave me little time to frame up, certainly no time to consider focus stacking (Olympus users with in-camera stacking might have fared okay) and it was going to be the luck of the draw where they settled.

I decided right away the aperture would need to be around f f/4 or f/5.6 simply to diffuse what could, at times, be quite a messy backdrop. Of course, in macro terms this means that the depth-of-field – the zone of sharpness in the image – was going to be very limited. Personally I quite like shallow-focus macro images, but it does mean that focus must be accurate. After all, if you’re not going to have much that’s critically sharp in the scene, it’s vital that what is sharp is spot on at the right point. For this reason, using my Canon 5D IV, I set Spot AF. This is where a single AF point is active and the focus is actually taken from a smaller zone within the AF point. It’s the most accurate way of telling the camera where you want your focus point to be. The downside is that it’s also the quickest to lose focus if your subject moves, so it’s vital you keep refocusing even in Ai Servo (Continuous) focusing mode.

Even though I knew this image would be better in a portrait format I shot it landscape to make life easier.

When you are lying down flat on the ground it’s never easy to operate a camera. I was handholding because I needed to move quickly to react to landing bees, plus there were times when I was holding the camera directly over the water (yes, dangerous to do with my reputation for water-related mishaps) and I wanted the camera as low as possible. My hands would be under the water, with the camera just touching the surface film! This often gave me the best perspective.

Working this way, it was even harder to shoot with the camera in portrait mode so I simply didn’t bother. To speed things up, I just stayed in ‘normal’ horizontal mode and knew that I would need to crop some images to vertical afterwards, as I’ve done with the image below.

Of course, cropping like this means I have lost a lot of pixels – more than I'd ideally like – but with today's hi-res cameras it's usually not too serious an issue. I'd happily supply this as a full-page pic for a magazine.

While laying flat on the ground photographing, there were times when my subject was just too far back for me to get a full 1:1 macro shot. I didn’t necessarily need to get so close all the time but sometimes, like for the shot above, I thought getting as close as the macro lens would allow me worked best. Normally we’d just move the lens closer to the subject, hoping it doesn’t fly off, but in this case I had the small issue of water stopping me from edging forward with my body while keeping the camera’s viewfinder to my eye.

I tried using Live View and holding the camera out. It’s the obvious answer but in the bright conditions it was hard to see the LCD screen to know where the focus point was sitting. Weirdly (and I’ve used this trick a few times before with macro) I edged the camera/lens closer with my arms outstretched while still being able to see the AF point on the subject through the viewfinder even though there is a gap between my eye and the ‘finder.

You can’t see what else you are framing at this point, but if you remember where the AF point is located within the frame you can make an educated guess on composition. I appreciate the ability to do this will depend on how steady you can hold the camera with outstretched arms and how good your eyesight is. Even at full stretch, which is about 50cm from my eye to the viewfinder, I can see the AF point and the part of the subject it’s locked onto perfectly. You won’t find this technique in a text book, but it can work well and get you out of a hole. The photo below was taken this way – I just kept the single Spot AF point on the front of the bee.

Shot taken with a single AF point on the bee and the camera held out in front of me.

I’m going to play around a bit more with the bees visiting my pond, but I hope this is a little bit of inspiration to make you think about the wildlife that’s really familiar to you, and how it might be approached in a different location. The different setting will produce a different type of behaviour and a different style of shot, and those two things together will provide an entirely new set of images for your portfolio.

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