Bugs, Photographers and NANPA’s Conservation Handbook

An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail feeds on milkweed flowers. This meadow, planted with milkweed, is an important stop on the Monarch butterfly migration, but also provides food and shelter for many other insects, birds, rodents and reptiles all year long. Photo © Frank Gallagher.

An Eastern Tiger Swallowtail feeds on milkweed flowers. This meadow, planted with milkweed, is an important stop on the Monarch butterfly migration, but also provides food and shelter for many other insects, birds, rodents and reptiles all year long. Photo © Frank Gallagher.

You might have seen headlines about an “insect apocalypse,” a dramatic and alarming decline in the numbers of insects, collapsing bee colonies, once-common species becoming increasingly rare.  Should we be worried?  And what has this got to do with photography?

Why People Are Worried

First, the concern.  Insect population collapses have been described in several countries.  In the US and Western Europe colony collapse disorder threatened to decimate the honey bee population.  One study found a third of all insect species are endangered and, at current rates of decline, insects could completely vanish from the world in 100 years or less.  Some of the reporting has been exaggerated, but there is enough data to cause concern.*

Declining insect numbers matter, because insects play several critical roles in the ecosystem.  They pollinate many of our food crops and most flowering plants.  They’re the primary food source for many birds, reptiles and fish.  Insects take plant and animal matter and convert it to soil nutrients.  And insects could become a vital source of protein for an ever expanding population.

Scientists aren’t really sure why insect numbers are declining.  It could be a result of climate change, of widespread pesticide use in agriculture and on lawns, of habitat loss, disease or several other factors.  Or, it could be a combination of all of the above.

One major problem is that so little is known about insects.  There are estimates that as much as 80% of insect species are yet to be discovered and described.  And, even when scientists have described a species, they often know little about its behavior.  So, understanding population declines or creating preservation plans is difficult.

Why Photographers Care

Insects are the subjects for lot of nature photographers, as is obvious from looking through any issue of Expressions or scrolling through the NANPA Facebook Group.  And many of us photograph species—birds, reptiles and amphibians, flowers—that are dependent on insects as a food source.  Much as we might hate the clouds of gnats, mosquitos or no-see-ums we swat away out in the field, we need healthy populations of insects as much as we need healthy populations of bears and whales, tigers and eagles, orchids and lupine.  We photograph things we love, and most of them depend, at least in part, on insects.  Sometimes, including an insect gives our photos a sense of scale or adds a dash of color and interest.

So, there are many reasons to care, and there are things nature photographers are uniquely qualified to do.

What Photographers Can Do

1. Document

We can photograph and document insect species.  Recording and reporting images of species helps determine their range, relative abundance and behaviors.  Citizen science projects like iNaturalist make it easy to share information.  NANPA has a database of citizen science projects where photographers can put their skills to work.

When you’re out in the field, you just might run across a new species.  Clay Bolt, a photographer who received NANPA’s Environmental Impact Award at the 2019 Nature Photography Summit, was photographing bees around his home in South Carolina back in 2013.  He posted photos of two small bees and found out that nobody, including entomologists, knew what they were.  Then Clay became interested in the rusty-patched bumble bee, a once common now rare species of native bee.  His research on that species inspired him to make a film and website about it.

You probably aren’t expecting to discover a new species but, as you pay more attention to the bugs you will learn more the natural world.

NANPA's brand new conservation handbook is full of information on thinking like a conservationist, telling great stories, acting ethically and collaborating with scientists.

NANPA’s brand new conservation handbook is full of information on thinking like a conservationist, telling great stories, acting ethically and collaborating with scientists.

2. Educate

Good photographs have the power to emotionally impact, to connect with and to teach people.  Nature photographers often share what they know and what they are learning about insects and other threatened species.  Many NANPA members use Instagram and other social media to tell stories around their photos.  An eye-catching shot of a butterfly might be accompanied by a brief description or its habitat or role in the ecosystem.  A camera club presentation or a field workshop can include information about the species.

NANPA’s new handbook on conservation photography is full of tips and examples for using our talents and photos in ways that further the preservation of and appreciation for the many unique species and ecosystems we treasure.

3. Advocate

Clay Bolt’s work on behalf of the rusty-patched bumble bee helped it become the first native bee on the Endangered Species List.  You don’t have to go that far to make an impact, nor do you have to be Sir Richard Attenborough or Greta Thunberg to have an impact.  There are a lot of ways to advocate, from planting your own wildflower meadow to urging your state and locality to preserve habitats for native plants, animals and insects; and from telling stories on Instagram to working with local conservation organizations who could use your eyes and your photos.

As we use our images to show others the beauty of the natural world, we also have a responsibility to make folks aware of the dangers to the organisms and ecosystems with whom we coexist.  It isn’t too difficult to drum up interest in saving the elephants or whales or eagles.  It’s a little harder to get people to care about funny-looking, tiny things with six legs and antennae, yet our world wouldn’t be the same without them.