Since Niall Benvie and I first developed Meet Your Neighbours in 2009 I’ve seen my fair share of amazing, beautiful and sometimes bizarre creatures. From the beginning, I’ve worked almost exclusively in the land that surrounds my home near the Southern Appalachians in upstate South Carolina, USA. Rather naïvely, I suspected that after a short period of time I would begin to run out of subjects to photograph but nothing could be further from the truth. Seldom does a day go by that I don’t see a creature or plant that I’ve never seen before in the wild, anywhere! As Piotr Naskrecki points out in his fantastic book The Smaller Majority, “Over 99% of life on Earth is smaller than your finger.” It’s little wonder then that the careful observer will be awarded with a lifetime of discovery.
The Meet Your Neighbours (MYN) field-studio technique has a proven track-record of not only being a technique that is able to produce beautiful portraits of plants animals, but also one that is very valuable to scientists as well. Because subjects are lit with multiple flashes on a bright white background, an extreme level of detail is achieved, thus allowing for images that are not only nice to look at, but scientifically accurate as well. Many of our contributors have begun to use the MYN field-studio technique while on expeditions in various parts of the world from India to Borneo to Guyana and many other locations around the planet.
Recently, I’ve begun to document native North American bees and wasps during my own multi-year project that will be taking me across the continent. There has been much news over the past few years about the decline of the European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) in many places around the world, including the US, due to a rather mysterious phenomenon known as ‘Colony Collapse Disorder.’ While scientists are diligently working to uncover the cause of this devastating disease, all is not lost. North America alone is home to approximately 4,000 known species of native bees, which also serve an important role in the pollination of crops and other flowering plants. Many of these native species are able to pollinate plants much more efficiently than honey bees due to unique characteristics of their anatomy.
Naturally, I’m using the field-studio technique as a way to highlight the species that I have been and will be encountering throughout the duration of the project.If you’re interested in photographing insects or other organisms that can be found where you live, please follow the instructions below and adapt them for subjects that you encounter. For complete instructions on using the MYN photographic technique visit our website at http://www.meetyourneighbours.net.
Collecting Your Subjects:
Photographing Bees and wasps can be tricky. They are active creatures and many do sting. However, I have found that by respecting them and learning to recognize their body language you are in very little dangerous of actually receiving a sting. Another issue is that many species, such as those in the Sweat Bee genus Halictidae are very tiny and blindingly fast in flight. However, for those who are patient enough to work with bees and wasps (collectively known as Hymenoptera) will find themselves looking into the face of creatures that exhibit fascinating behavior and stunning, jaw-dropping beauty.
In order to photograph bees you must first learn how to capture them and do so in way that doesn’t harm or stress the minute insects too much. The secret lies in your approach. Most species have a keen awareness of the world around them. Enter their space too quickly and they’ll be gone before you can blink. The secret, for many species anyway, is to approach slowly with no sudden movements. Even better, when a potential subject has been observed regularly returning to a food source, stand very still by the site and they’ll be much more unlikely to notice you upon their return.
For most species, a deep net works very well. Typically, once I’ve captured my subject, I then reach into the net and transfer the subject into a small jar or collection tube. I never chill my subjects to reduce their ability to move because I believe that it is unethical to do so and also because it is obvious to the trained eye when an insect isn’t behaving properly. Because bees and wasps are such strong flyers you’ll be unable to simply sit them on the set without them immediately flying away. To solve this, I’ve begun to transfer my subjects into a clear food storage container, which I then place face down, like a dome, over the white background. Most species will fly around inside for a few moments but then land on the plastic to clean themselves. When this occurs, I gently lift the edge of the container facing me and photograph the subject.
The fill flash above is powerful enough to pass through the “ceiling” of the container so there is no need to remove it completely. In my experience, most invertebrates don’t realize that they can escape for a few seconds, which is enough time to make portrait. Continue this process until you have made the image that you’re after.
A couple of words of caution: First, some species, such as many of the Bumble Bees that I’ve photographed, can tire easily and if they aren’t released almost right away will weaken significantly. The welfare of the subject should always come first! Second, wasps exhibit behavior different than most bees and will spend more time climbing around the inside of the container. They also seem to have better eyesight so be aware of that. In the end, sometimes you have to let a species go, even if you haven’t made the shot that you’re after. Always strive to take the ‘high road’ rather than stressing an animal too much.