“Sorry for being a bit late, I was just washing some bees,” says Sam Droege. “They usually arrive covered in goo, not quite camera ready.”
A biologist for the US Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland, Droege monitors the status of various birds, butterflies, amphibians and plants. But thanks to a stunning cache of bee photographs, the scientist who leads the center’s Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab, is perhaps now best known as the scientific community’s premiere bee photographer.
Using a technique developed by US Army doctors, the incredibly detailed photographs are produced by combining a ”stack” of 25 to 150 images taken in succession at slightly different depths of field that results in a uniformly sharp image.
“A regular one-shot picture would have one sharp area but the rest would be out of focus,” explains Droege, who has no formal training in photography.
Like John James Audubon’s studies of American birds two centuries ago, Droege’s photographs catalog the diversity among the 20,000-plus bee species in the US, and celebrate the beauty of these oft-misunderstood creatures.
The primary purpose of these artful images is scientific research. His lab’s growing collection, published on Flickr, serves as a free virtual museum and reference for researchers who may not have access to actual bee specimens. Correct classification has been a major issue, explains Droege, and having a gallery of hyper-detailed, high-resolution images gives scientists a visual reference to confirm their hunches when identifying species.
“Many scientists use the same camera equipment as I do, but I’m interested in expressing the beauty I see in these insects,” says Droege. These evocative photographs help attract wider interest and curiosity about the alien-like creatures beyond the scientific community. In light of the recent presidential memo (PDF) calling for the protection of native pollinators, Droege’s images help vivify the plight of endangered populations that are critical for healthy ecosystems.
Before Droege started his “bureau of census” fifteen years ago, there was no catalog of bees for scientific research. Sometimes, Droege also turns his lens to other types of endangered species, but there’s a huge backlog with bee work, he says. ”We’re a lot closer, but there’s still a ways to go before we have a good information about the status of the nation’s bees. It’s taken longer than expected,” says Droege, primarily because of the problem with classification. Along with other scientists in his lab whom he has trained, Droege continues to evolve the macrophotography technique—these days tooling around with an old 200mm camera and attaching a microscope lens to render even higher resolution data.
Droege and his team give their bees specimens an intricate makeover to prepare them for their photo sessions. The bees, which reach Droege’s lab dead on arrival, are often covered with pollen or dust. “Usually its legs are in all places or the wings stuck together,” says Droege. Through lots of trial and error, his lab has developed painstaking methods to wash and dry the bees, especially useful when dealing with delicate samples that have been dead for many years like this 150-year old specimen dinagapostemon sicheli.
“When dealing with rare specimens, we now have a technique to rehydrate, rewash, and redry them.” Droege tells Quartz. “Basically we’re like hairdressers, using tiny blow dryers, acetone and tiny, tiny paintbrushes that we’ve cut down. We’re buffing these bees!”
Preservation is Droege’s ultimate goal. He goes the extra mile in his bee salon and portrait studio, fully aware of the persuasive power of images to pull at the heartstrings of the general public and policy makers who decide on funding priorities. “When people think of bees, they usually just think of honeybees,” Droege reflects. “There’s some mythos that allows them to think of bees like kitty cats or teddy bears, even if they sting. The closer I can help slide the perception towards that kitty cat scale, the better.”
A book featuring Droege’s bee portraiture work is scheduled to be released next month.