How to shoot bees (with a camera)

By Eliza Keck

9 October 2018

4 minute read

An extreme close up of a native Australian bee head pointing towards the camera

A. morosus ranges from Victoria all the way up to QLD, not occurring far beyond the great sandy national park.
Image: James Dorey

How many different types of native bees do you reckon you’d find in a myrtle tree? Now that you know how to identify native bees, you should go and find out! That’s exactly what PhD candidate and photographer James Dorey did back when he was completing his undergrad in ecology and zoology, and he was shocked by what he found.

“I went to a tree just outside my house – a melaleuca tree that was about five or six metres tall – and started collecting bees. In the one tree, I found 33 different species of native bees. Before then I’d only ever heard of the blue-banded bee and, of course, the honeybee. I didn’t know there was so much diversity in native bees, and it made me wonder if anyone else knew.”

This momentous occasion sparked an interest for James that we can thankfully all benefit from now. James has combined two of his passions, photography and native bees, to create a beautiful and educational book Bees of Australia: A Photographic Exploration, to help raise awareness of our native beauties. After four years of researching, collecting and photographing, we are now lucky enough to enjoy the spoils of James’ labour.

To get your buzz on, here are some of the beautiful photos James has featured in his book.

Do you want to capture beautiful bee photos like James? Well, we asked him for some bee photography tips to get you going.

The sweet spot

First thing’s first: if you aren’t able to make your garden native bee friendly what kind of area should you be scouting to find these bees?

“Hot spots for native bees are, of course, native flowering plants. Flowering native trees like melaleuca (a group of trees that includes paperbark trees, honey-myrtles and tea trees) and eucalyptus are always great for lots of diversity. Ornamental plants and exotic species, while some generalist native bees may frequent them, aren’t likely to be as fruitful. If you don’t want to mow for a while, even weed daisies can be a great spot for bee-spotting,” James explained.

As well as finding a perfect spot, you’ll also want to be scouting on a day with perfect weather. Most bees are active in spring and summer on warm, sunny days that aren’t too windy so look for flowers that are in full sun and sheltered from the wind. There are, of course, exceptions to the rules (some bees are up even before the sun!) but you’ll be able to see the most variety with those conditions.

Oh Beehave!

Ok, now you’ve got your spot, you’ve got one more thing to do before you can get snap-happy: get to know your bee friends. In order to get the perfect shot, it’s important to take the time to watch the bees in your area. What disturbs them? What movements do they make? What flowers do they like? When it’s cloudy, some bees just stop where they are and wait for the sun to come out again. That could be a great opportunity to take photos. Others are spooked by a sudden shadow, so be very conscious about where you’re standing in relation to the sun. Once you understand their behaviour, you can begin to predict it and get more interesting shots.

“The much-loved blue banded bee has a long tongue so go for flowers with a longer tube that other bees can’t reach. If you’re patient and watching, you’ll notice they like to hover for a bit before entering each flower. Now that you know this, you can position yourself to get a perfect mid-flight shot with a lovely floral background,” James said.

Say Bees!

You’ve got your spot and you know your subject, now it’s time to finally get your camera, or even your smartphone, ready.

“Phones have some pretty good specs now so even if you don’t have a DSLR it doesn’t mean you can’t get an amazing shot,” James mused.

For those of you folk with fancy cameras, James has a few quick setting tips for you:

“The higher you set the ISO, the more ‘grainy’ or ‘noisy’ your image will look. Try and keep it between 100 and 400 (depending on how your camera handles high ISO). To get a good depth of field, play with the aperture. F8-11 is a good F-stop range to be aiming for if light permits. Finally, you’ll want the shutter speed to be somewhere above 100 to 200, anything lower might result in a shaky shot because any small movement; a slight shake of your hand, a small breeze on the branch or even the bee moving, will ruin your shot.”

So, now you’ve got the tools of the trade from the best in the biz, it’s time to get out there and bask in the beauty of our native bees. If you want to find the beautiful bees specific to your area,and learn more about them, Bees of Australia presents bee profiles state-by-state (even though bees don’t always adhere to state lines) which makes it easier for you to search and identify species in your local area.

Judge this book by it's beeutiful cover