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Six tips for better pollinator photographs

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A Toxomerus marginatus hover fly visits spiderwort. Flies are underappreciated as pollinators.

June 17-22 is National Pollinator Week! Below are six tips for better photographs of flower-loving insects.

But first, a digression on why Pollinator Week matters. Pollination- the transfer of genetic material from one plant to another- is important. Pollination is how plants have sex. Without it, many species simply can't make the fruits, nuts, seeds and other products both we and our livestock eat. With so many animal pollinators in decline, pollinator week is about reminding people not to take food for granted. Our ability to feed ourselves depends on a healthy environment.

Anyway. Back to photography. Here are a few tips to more compelling pollinator photos.

1. Use a long lens to give yourself working distance.

A 200 mm telephoto lens allowed me to sit several feet from a Hyssop bloom.

Most pollinators are airborne insects with excellent vision. Many are skittish and won't stick around when there's a lens in their face. You'll be more successful with optics that focus from a comfortable distance.

If you are using an interchangeable-lens camera like an SLR, a macro lens of at least 100mm gives your subjects some space. If you've got a digicam, back away and use the camera's zoom function. Some digicams aren't built for macro-zoom; if yours gives you trouble, try adding a macro adapter like the Raynox DCR 150.

2. Choose your position based on the sun.

With the sun setting behind the flower, the natural backlighting lends the asters an evening glow and the bee's hairs some pleasing highlights.

Unless the sun is directly overhead, each flower will have a sunny side and a shaded side. At sunrise and sunset the difference is particularly dramatic. Where you stand relative to the sun will make a noticeable difference in the appearance of the photo.

3. Take time to stake out the ideal flower.

Here I've combined a long lens, a sunset, and a carefully-selected clump of isolated prairie flowers just in time for an industrious bumble bee to visit.

Rather than chasing a pollinator from flower to flower and hoping for the best, try a less frantic, more flower-centered approach. Carefully composing an artful image of a flower and waiting for an insect to arrive can yield especially dramatic photographs.

More advanced photographers may wish to set up a diffuse, off-camera flash next to the focal flowers, like so:

A wireless flash and a softbox make for a pollinator studio in the field.

4. Pay attention to subjects other than bees.

This longhorn beetle makes a fine pollinator, as evidenced by a copious coating of Spiraea pollen.

Everyone talks about bees. But bees are hardly the only pollen-carrying animals. As all chocolate lovers should know, cocoa beans require flies! If you look for lesser-celebrated pollinators- the beetles, the bats, the flies, the moths- you'll find yourself with unique photographs.

5. Seek pollinators out away from flowers.

A Lasioglossum sweat bee gathering pollen from a black-eyed susan.

Spice up a photo series by showing what pollinators do with the rest of their time! Pollinators nest, they mate, they fight, they sleep. After this halictid bee has gathered a load of pollen she returns to her snug little soil burrow:

6.Identify your subject.

A desert bee fly from Nevada.

To make the most of your photograph, try to identify your pollinator. I recommend Bug Guide for North American insects. You'd be surprised at what you might learn from putting a name to an insect. This bombyliid fly turned out to be Phthiria, a fly with an amusing nomenclatural history (alas, later synonymized under an older name). Others might have lurid stories of parasitism, or alternate lives as blood-suckers.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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