PHOTO OP

These spectacular lab photos showcase the beauty of the humble bee

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“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.

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Colletes hederae (Sam Droege)

 Using a technique developed by US Army doctors to diagnose mosquito bites in soldiers, the incredibly detailed photographs are produced by combining a series or “stack” of 25 to 150 images. 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.

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Agapostemon melliventris. “Yet another Agapostemon, this one was collected in the southern remote portions of Badlands National Park in South Dakota within the Pineridge Indian Reservation.” (Annotated photo by Sam Droege)
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Megalopta genalis, “What an interesting species. Instead of flying during the day, this species flies just before dawn and just after dusk, times when we have difficulty seeing. This species, however, forages on crepuscular and night fowering flowers, more often associated with bats and moths.” (Annotated photo by Sam Droege)
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Bombus ternarius. “Some yellow and orange tushiness from a Bombus ternarius taken during the Adirondack Bioblitz. In most of New England the only Bumble Bee with significant orange and yellow on its abdomen.” (Dejen Mengis, Annotations by Sam Droege)

“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.

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Angel Bee, 3 views. (Sam Droege)
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Angel Bee (Annotated photo by Sam Droege)
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Orchid Bee Purple (Annotated photo by Sam Droege)
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Diphaglossa gayi (Annotated photo by Sam Droege)

 “We’re like hairdressers, using tiny blow dryers, acetone and tiny tiny paintbrushes that we’ve cut down. We’re buffing these bees!” 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.

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Dinagapostemon sicheli. “”Note the crenulated antennae and the fact that the specimen has largely retained its shape and color all these years. Many of these old specimens are still our reference points for taxonomy, distributions, and what things were like in the past.” (Annotated photo by Sam Droege)
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Dinagapostemon sicheli (Sam Droege)

“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.”

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Bee Ceratina Monster. “Ceratinas occur world-wide and really have the color/form/sculpturing thing down. They are the definition of crispness and elegance in my book. Expect more to come. This one comes from another worn-torn part of the world, the Crimean peninsula, but, really, bees, the study of natural history, pretty neutral ground that all can appreciate. Haven’t figured out the species yet, but this is a big one. From Laurence Packer’s Lab.” (Sam Droege)
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Phidippus clarus (Sam Droege)

A book featuring Droege’s bee portraiture work is scheduled to be released next month.

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