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The latest camera modifications

Canon 6D with MP-E 65mm and MT-24EX

Now weighing in at 6 pounds 8 ounces! So, this is a Canon 6D with my trusty MP-E 65mm 1x-5x macro zoom lens, and the MT-24EX dual macro flash. The flash heads are attached to FotoPro DMM-903 macro flash arms, and have been modified with extra diffusion and light bouncing material inside, fronted by a pair of Gary Fong’s Puffers. There’s also a Canon compact battery pack to boost the flash (which is always in use even in daylight, as not a lot of natural light gets into this lens), so in total I’m using 10 rechargeable Ni-MH batteries (Eneloop Pro).  It’s all manual focus, and I’m typically just a couple of inches away from my subject… I’m surprised I can blend in at this point ;)

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Bee macro photography tips

Long, long ago, I used Fuji Velvia slide film with a Minolta X-700 and standard lens, along with a set of three different add-on magnification filters for occasional macro shots (in the rainforests of Trinidad and Tobago!)  When I first went digital, I used a simple digital point-and-shoot camera (a Canon SD450).  It had a macro mode and (of course) automated focus, and key to my success was setting the focus point to center (rather than the “intelligent” mode where it considers the whole frame for points of focus).  These settings made for some pretty decent shots, though I never did see the hairs in the eyes of honey bees, nor could I see the three simple eyes (ocelli) on bee heads.  My new dedicated macro rig is far different than this Canon SD450 point-and-shoot, and yet I continue to use some of the techniques I honed then.  In this post I’ll discuss these techniques, as well as some others that are relevant only when using a dedicated macro lens with external flash.

European honey bee worker on crocus
Approach when bees are busy!

In macro photography (for the most part, though it depends on the lens), we’re very close to our subjects… just inches away.  Being that close means knowing something about the behavior of the creature in question.  For bees and other pollinators, I became quickly aware of how close I could get… mostly, as close as I need, it turns out.  When they’re foraging, most bees (honey bees and bumble bees, particularly) seem pretty much oblivious to the photographer.  It helps to approach a subject who’s already immersed head-down in a flower, that way when the pollinator emerges from the flower depths, one is already installed waiting and there’s no need for sudden movement.  It also helps (in terms of bee temperament) if one stays out of flight paths, though bees do adapt if you’re in one (most of the time… otherwise, you may have bees nearly collide with you, briefly alight on you, or showily buzz at you!)

Leafcutter bee female on thistle
Bees collecting pollen often spend longer on a flower

If you’re photographing a nice patch of flowers, you may notice certain flowers get more visits, or other patterns in local pollinator behavior.  It rarely helps to chase bee after bee with the camera!  If you’ve a good set of flowers with plenty of bees, you’ll have much more luck sitting in wait on a particular set of flowers.  I pick these flowers for being ones that are easily accessible (no balancing on one leg!) with good lighting (take a few test shots without bees to check!)  Flowers all have different “recharge” times in terms of when nectar is available, and bees can tell how recently another pollinator has been there (all without alighting on the flower!) by the presence of scent from other pollinators’ feet (surprising, isn’t it?  I learned this in Dave Goulson’s book A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees).  Coupling their awareness of “smelly feet” with their knowledge of the recharge frequency of those particular flowers saves them a lot of time and energy they’d otherwise spend alighting on depleted flowers.  Having said this… just this week I was noticing, in a patch of crocus, repeated bee-after-bee visits to particular flowers, and each time a lengthy visit.  On closer inspection, these bees were specifically after pollen, not nectar, and these favored flowers were all peaking in pollen production.  Just sitting and observing the scene for five or ten minutes will often reveal behavior the photographer may leverage :)

Green sweat bee male on thistle
Narrow depth of field is more noticeable head-on
Green sweat bee male on thistle
This angle makes the most of limited depth of field

Try to compose your shot, with the insect sitting in a pleasing spot within the frame.  I often frame a shot knowing a nearby bee will likely stroll my way soon!  Make the most of angles that appear to enhance rather than detract from the inherently narrow depth of field (extremely narrow when using a dedicated macro lens).  I often cue off fluff near (or in the case of honey bees, actually on) their eyes.  It turns out that (as with other portrait photography) what’s most important is getting a subject’s eyes in focus.  Most dedicated macro zoom lenses do not support automatic focus, and adjusting the lens itself affects the subjects size (by zooming in or out).  So my method of focusing is to get within shouting distance, as it were, then rock back and forth slightly (physically, my whole body!)  I always used the back panel screen on my little point-and-shoot while taking macro photos (happily auto-focused).  With my macro rig, I instead always use the viewfinder when taking shots, as it appears to show the focus better.  I then use the back panel screen for quickly proofing recent shots to check exposure and focus (by zooming in).

One surprisingly difficult thing when using the dedicated macro setup is simply finding one’s buzzer!  Especially quickly when that subject is moving far faster than a human.  On that front, I’ve found practice to be the only solution… and keeping an ear out, as I can often tell how close a buzzer is by their sound, and if I’m lucky I see their shadow while I’m looking through the lens, and know they may well be approaching soon!  It helps a lot to take photographs during the earlier morning and later afternoon times too, as buzzing creatures buzz just a bit more slowly at each of those times :)  The lighting is also often prettier.  Don’t expect bees to be early risers though, it’s typically warm and sunny before they’re out and about.

One final note: don’t wear bright colors!  I’ve had terrible luck especially when there are colorful flowers in the design :)  One wants to be observing natural behavior, not confusing and annoying bees, after all!  Now I try for greys and greens to blend in.

Here’s how my macro setup currently looks. The flash heads rotate around the ring, and can be swiveled up and down individually too. There’s all sorts of customizations I’ve made… those are the subject for a future post ;)

Canon 40D with MP-E 65mm and MT-24EX

Thomas Shahan is another Oregon macro photographer I follow… his jumping spider photos are especially captivating! Here are his 10 expert tips for successful macro photography.

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A little more about Elise Fog

Elise FogI recently wrote a guest post for the Capital Institute, focusing mainly on how my photographic observations have led to my bee advocacy work at savebees.buzz and on Twitter @savebees

If you’re interested in learning a bit more about me, check out the story here: Seeing is beelieving  I also wrote a second short companion piece: Creating your own wildflower meadow for bees

Incidentally, the wildflower meadow pictured in the second article is now awash with plants getting ready to flower… we planted 150,000 seeds in a 2,500 square foot patch!

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EU vote banning neonicotinoids

European honey bee worker on crocusIt’s a step in the right direction, though it’s a long path ahead yet (update: see Greenpeace EU Media Briefing). Our poor bee populations (both managed and wild) are particularly sensitive to the toxins we’ve been spreading throughout our environment. Three pesticides (thiamethoxam, clothianidin, and imidacloprid), all in the class of neonicotinoids, are clearly implicated by a growing body of evidence in colony collapse disorder and overall declines in pollinator health. It’s not surprising this stuff is so toxic when you think about it… we’re talking about a massive dose of nicotine-like substances here, which cause all the typical nerve-damage you’d expect in the ill-fated insects that consume these toxins. These are systemic pesticides, so the toxins are contained throughout the host plants (leaves, stems, seeds, flowers, etc.)

There are so many ways to practice sustainable crop growth, such as crop rotation and making partners of beneficial insects. Our lack of foresight as a group (all of humanity here), our complacency in the face of such damage and destruction, which is practiced by our governments and powerful pesticide company lobbyists… all this must come to an end, before we poison this poor planet to such an extent that the effects are irreversible. There’s a place in China where toxins have reached such high levels that all the pollinators have disappeared. All the village, young and old, now spends considerable time hand-pollinating all their crops.

And so this EU decision is just one small step in the right direction. For more about what you can do to help pollinators, see my site Save Bees! Educate those around you about the importance of living in synergy with our environment and our buzzy little friends.

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Where solitary bees sleep at night

Some bees may sleep in a flower, but other bees simply desire a somewhat sheltered place above the ground, without relying on a flower’s amenities (pollen, nectar, self-closing petal doors!)

This solitary cuckoo bee is a case in point. I took this series of photos over the course of several minutes last April (there being no bees here just yet… even heavy snow just last week!) After clamping its mandibles onto that particular rhododendron leaf, the bee began an extensive self-cleaning process. Those mandibles are powerful indeed… enough to suspend the bee easily from the rhododendron leaf, freeing it to move all six legs and both wings easily at any angles to aid in cleaning.

It spent the night there without hiccup… I visited in the morning, and the bee was still clamped in position, body sticking straight out parallel to the ground, suspended seemingly weightlessly by its mandibles. An odd way to sleep, but it looks as though it works well! So now I look for bees clamped to leaves under “awnings” of other leaves, as well as bees tucked away inside flowers overnight :)

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Attracting native pollinators

Attracting Native PollinatorsRecently published (March 2011), the Xerces Society’s new book Attracting Native Pollinators is a beautiful and rich (380 pages!) source of information and inspiration on pollinators and creating their habitat. Together with their new Seed Store (which will soon be including smaller amounts more suitable to smaller spaces), these two resources from the Xerces Society provide everything one could need to prepare and manage a successful bee garden!

Green sweat bee female on thistleFeaturing stunning photography (and I don’t say that just because seven of my pollinator photos are included :), book sections include steps for taking action to provide pollinator habitat, detailed bee identification, recommended plants by region, and sample garden ideas.

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A buggy looking camera

Canon 40D with MP-E 65mm and MT-24EXThis isn’t exactly a buzzy moment, but I thought I’d post a photo of my current camera gear (along with my most recent customizations :) What you see here is a Canon EOS 40D with an MP-E 65mm macro zoom lens and an MT-24EX flash controller for the two macro flash heads on the ring at the front. The flash heads can each move up or down, from side to side, and around the ring itself.

I’ve built custom diffusers that I’ve attached directly to the flash heads with gaffers tape. I used a shiny white cardboard to build a minimal frame around each flash head. I then curved some diffusion material over the front of this frame, acting as a first-stage diffuser. I then mounted my set of Gary Fong’s Puffers to the front of each frame. To finish each off, I used gold matte reflective flash bounce material to seal off the top and bottom.

With this setup, I’m able to take shots anywhere between 1x and 5x life size (I’m typically shooting between 2x and 3x). To do so, the lens is approximately 2-4 inches from the subject. All my shots are hand-held… the flash itself fires with such short duration (around 1/1200th of a second) that I’m able to freeze the motion in a scene. I have only millimeters of depth of field to work with, so I look for angles that make the most of that depth. Taking photos of active insects buzzing about their daily lives is the most challenging and rewarding photography I do (it’s much easier if they’re simply sitting on a cold day covered in morning dew ;)

Update: I’ve tweaked this setup quite a bit since I wrote this article! Take a look at my most recent modifications.

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Where bumble bees sleep at night

Bumble bee sleeping in crocusA closed flower is the perfect spot… a place to sleep, nectar to drink, pollen to enjoy… what could be better for a bee?

On March 1, the end of a nice sunny week filled with bees in crocuses, I saw a very large bumble bee slowly hauling itself from one crocus to another, clearly slowing down as the light faded and the chill in the air became more noticeable. After some half-hour of labored clambering, she settled in one particularly large, sturdy looking crocus.

As night drew closer, and the crocuses began to close, this bumble bee stayed within its flower as other bees, among them mining and honey bees, flew off home. By evening, all I could see was one beady, multi-faceted eye staring up out at me from the small hole in the flower where the petals meet when closed.

The next day brought rain, and lots of it. In fact, it continued to rain each day until March 4, and each morning and evening when I checked, there was still a beady eye to greet mine peering in (or at times a fuzzy bum!) March 4 brought a bit of sun, but was still in the low 50s. The crocuses did open slightly, but the bumble bee never left its flower, just remaining huddled, cold inside.

March 5 brought similar weather, but slightly warmer, and the bumble bee bumbled actively on her crocus, still showing no signs of leaving, instead having the odd sip of nectar, dangling off the petals, then clambering back into the flower’s center again. As the crocuses began to close in the evening, the bumble bee waited for her crocus to close… but the day’s bumbling had taken its toll on one of the petals, which was bent towards the ground.

Knowing it would rain in the night, I gently nudged the petal back into shape, so that it could protect the bumble bee happily for one more night :) The next day, after a cold night of rain, the sun came out and the bumble bee buzzed off in search of fairer crocuses across the patch… after spending 5 nights in one crocus!

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Late summer evenings with bumble bees

Vosnesensky bumble bee male on grassThis bumble bee was one of at least fifty or so small bumble bees covering a purple aster (a bush about four feet tall all round, one itself of four or five others with similarly large clouds of these same small bumble bees).

This particular bumble bee had—like countless others—perhaps purposefully overstayed its time past sunset on this late September afternoon, and was now incapable of flight, bumbling like so many others from flower to flower in search of a good place to spend the night (to awake to nectar first thing next morning).

In the middle of some particularly arduous bumbling this bee fell, plummeting through the air with legs outstretched… and as it happened, caught hold of a thin blade of vegetation.  Upon the end of which this poor little bee now struggled piteously before my gaze, only energy enough barely to try to hold on, and nowhere else to fall but the ground.

I paused for a moment (taking this picture), then quickly found a bumble-bee-free aster and bent it towards my bee in need.  It flailed all the more wildly as the flower approached, and seized upon it as soon as it was barely within reach, forcibly pulling itself to safety in the upper flowers once more :)