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Photographing pollinators – 10 tips

Bee fly feeds on honesty

A bee-fly (Bombylius major) withdraws its pollen-coated proboscis from an honesty flower (Lunaria annua).

Observing and photographing pollinators can be very rewarding and sometimes most frustrating! Digital capture of stills or video, aids pollination studies by providing instant feedback. Also, the date and time of capture and on some cameras – the GPS – are all retained with the metadata that travels with digital files.

Aztec parakeet eats mother of cocoa flower Mexico

An Aztec parakeet is an anti-pollinator when it eats mother of cocoa flowers, Mexico. Nikon 70-200mm + X2 teleconverter.

A photograph of any organism visiting a flower does not necessarily prove pollination has taken place; nonetheless, it may reveal whereabouts on the body pollen gets picked up. If that visitor is seen moving onto another flower, it may be possible to capture the moment when the pollen load makes contact with the stigma.

A hoverfly carries pollen on feet to lily

A marmalade hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) carries pollen on feet approaching a Sargent’s lily (Lilium sargentiae) with pollen load on stigma.

During the last six years, virtually all my fieldwork has been spent observing and photographing pollinators both in Britain and abroad. Insects are more often disturbed if you approach when they first alight on the flower. Once they have switched from flight mode to feeding mode, they are less likely to take evasive action.

Carpenter bee feeds on Tylosema fassoglensis in Tanzania

A female giant carpenter bee Xylocopa nigrita forages on a Tylosema fassoglensis flower Udzungwa Mountain Nat. Park, Tanzania

Regardless of the visitor’s size, I use a digital SLR camera. For smaller insects such as bees, flies and hoverflies I opt for a 105mm macro lens that allows me to get up to life size images of these insects together with the flower they are visiting. Moving in close, the whole insect will not appear sharply defined unless the lens is stopped down to a smaller aperture to enhance the depth of field. On dull days, this may mean increasing the ISO to gain an exposure with a shutter speed of at least 1/250 second (to arrest the motion of an active insect) and an aperture of  f/8 to f/16. I tend to use a pair of small macro flashes controlled by a wireless trigger, to boost the available light, which adds to the crispness of the final image.

Bumblebee forages on flowering rush

White-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lucorum) forages on flowering rush (Butomus umbellatus) nectar. Pollen picked up on feet and wings is transferred to stigmas of next flower the bee visits.

For larger visitors – from bigger butterflies to birds – I use telephoto lenses.  My most versatile is the 70-200mm + X2 teleconverter, which gives me effectively a 70-400mm lens.

My aim is to capture a clear view of every visitor making contact with the anthers or depositing pollen on the stigma. A butterfly taken from overhead with spread-out wings hiding the proboscis could simply be sunbathing on the flower rather than feeding.

Porterweed attracts many visitors here a moth & a hummingbird

Visitors attracted to porterweed (Stachytarpheta frantzii) include hummingbirds, day-flying moths, butterflies and bees in Costa Rica.

Here are my top 10 tips for photographing pollinators

  • Observe how insects forage before you photograph, so you can seek the best camera angle.
  • Avoid a stop/start staccato approach; move towards flower continuously, stop only when close enough to lean slowly forwards.
  • When handholding a digital SLR camera, switch on Image Stabilisation (IS) or VR to reduce risk of camera shake.
  • Most insects rarely linger on flowers, so setting up a tripod is impractical, but a monopod reduces the strain of handholding a camera with a long lens for a long period.
Cape sugarbird reaches for nectar in pincushion protea

As a male Cape sugarbird (Promerops cafer) reaches for nectar in pincushion protea (Leucospermum cordifolium) pollen presenters deposit pollen on the head.

  • Crouch down for insects feeding on low flowers. If kneeling on one knee, the other can support the elbow of the hand holding the weight of the camera, leaving a free hand for additional camera support and shutter release.
Anther deposits Nigella pollen on the topside of honeybee

A honeybee and bumblebee forage for nectar on love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) flower. Topside of honeybee picks up pollen from underside of anthers.

  • Use a long focus telephoto lens for larger butterflies and bird pollinators to increase the working distance thereby reducing the risk of spooking them.
  • A side view of honeybees and other bees that collect pollen on the hind legs will show the colour of the pollen load.
  • For butterflies, moths and bee-flies a head-on or side view will show the long proboscis inserted into the flower to reach the nectar.
  • The more time you invest in watching pollinators the more likely you are to gain a higher percentage of informative images.
  • Gain enhanced depth field by taking a focus stack of a static flower in constant lighting
Honeybee smothered in pollen from winter box in winter

Honeybee (Apis mellifera) covered in pollen as it feeds on sweet box (Sarcococca confusa) flowers, which emit a heady fragrance in winter.

One word of warning – watching and photographing pollinators can become very addictive!

More images here and in my book Pollination Power

Thanks for reading!

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