Outdoor Photography Tips 45 - Photographing Bees and Wasps in Flight


WARNING!!! This article is longer than other blogs articles on this site. I didn't want to make it two parts, so you could have all the required information in one place. Enjoy.

Macro imaging is an expanding field for both photography techniques and high tech equipment. If you are as interested as I am in capturing insects and other small organisms while they are in motion, you will have to accept a formidable challenge in the field of wildlife photography. There are not as many of us out here, but surmounting the challenges can have great rewards. But just like any other area of photography, whether it be portraits, sports, weddings, birds in flight, or the host of other specialty fields, this will require a measure of focus (no pun intended), and patience on your part to ensure quality results.

I usually open my articles with a discussion about a technique involved with a specific type of wildlife capture. I then follow up with a list of equipment. But this time I will begin with a list of accessories. The simple reason for this approach is that you really won't be able to procure results unless you have the minimum accessories, period.

The Gear

The basic equipment used in this article was a DSLR body(Digital Single Lens Reflex). Not because this kind of capture can only be done with a DSLR, but that it is what I use and have acquired my expertise. You will also need a macro lens or a lens that will close focus to about 1/2X magnification for small insects such as the bees and wasps addressed in this article.

The second accessory is a "high-speed shutter"(see below photo mounted on the front of the lens and camera). This AUXILIARY SHUTTER IS NOT OPTIONAL for this kind of photography, and I will explain why later in the article. If you want to read on, that is fine, but if you are reading this to be able to capture flying bees and wasps at their nest, you need this equipment. The cost of the entire high-speed setup I use will be somewhere in the $1,200.00 range. If you are getting into this field, look at it as the price of another quality lens to get into the new field of interest. Much like you would if you had to purchase a telephoto lens for birds or sports. The nice thing about this equipment is you can perform many projects indoors during the winter months when outdoor wildlife photography is not as enjoyable.

But I digress. The company I purchased my equipment from was Cognisys Systems. I am not affiliated with them, but I have familiarity with their products, so I mention them in this article. The other items you will need are a controller for the synchronization of the camera, and a laser emitter and receiver devise. You can go to this site for your shopping. https://www.cognisys-inc.com

High speed shutter in front of 105mm lens (below).

Now that you have finished your shopping, you should have a camera, high-speed shutter, controller (StopShot), and a laser emitter and receiver set.

If you have been doing macro shooting already, you should have a small speedlight flash in your bag. This will be essential for stopping the action of wings and other fast moving subject appendages. If you do not have a flash, you need to purchase a small inexpensive manual speedlight which can be purchased often for less than $50 U.S. dollars. It doesn't have to be an expensive auto flash, as you will be setting it to manual for these captures.

Electronic speedlight flash.(below)

Photo is the StopShot controller (above).

What the Gear Does

Here is the essence of what the high-speed rig performs. The camera is controlled by the StopShot (above) controller (This article is based upon specific components I mention. There are other manufacturers of controllers and shutters, but since I am not familiar with them, all references to components can be found at the Cognisys Systems web site).

The controller will open the camera shutter during the capture phase of the shoot, while the high-speed shutter in the front of the macro lens is kept closed. This means the new source of letting light into the sensor during the actual capture process will be the shutter on the front of the camera.

The laser emitter and sensor receiver supplies a light beam trigger for the controller. It tells the controller when something has broken the beam of light. Since the controller is controlling power to the laser, camera, and high-speed shutter, when the animal breaks the laser beam, the controller will turn off the laser(so the laser light is not in the photo), open the high-speed shutter, and fire the flash. All this happens in microseconds. The controller then advances the camera to the next frame for the next shot.

Why the High Speed Shutter?

Why the high-speed shutter and not the shutter in the camera, you are asking yourself? If you are aware of how your DSLR camera works to capture a photograph, you will also know that when you depress the shutter button, the camera has to raise the internal mirror, open the focal plane curtain(shutter) and then fire the flash. The time for this all to happen is known as shutter lag. This operation is very fast, usually less than a 1/10th of a second for many brands of cameras. But in a 1/10 of a second, a bee will have flapped its wings 20 times, and have traveled approximately a half inch in distance. When capturing macro or close-up shots your Depth of Field can be 1/16th inch or less. Your subject would be well out of focus by the time the flash actually fired. Plenty of blurry shots will be your results if you rely on the in-camera shutter system.The whole process would become guesswork and luck.

With the controller, the camera internal shutter system is held open, the the high-speed shutter is left to do its job at a few 1,000th's of a second, followed by a flash that will have fired at a speed of 1/10,000th of a second or faster.

Ready for the Field Work

So let's move on to the actual field prep and photographing of venomous flying insects. The heart of this project will depend primarily upon your observation skills and the actual placement of the laser rig and camera.

(Warning and disclaimer. Understanding hymenoptera identification and behavior is always recommended. Africanised honey bees are extremely aggressive and dangerous due to the way they protect their nest site. Make sure you are not attempting to set up this rig at an African honey bee site. Be prepared to get stung. If you do things right, you will minimize your chances of getting stung. The sample images for this site were procured without obtaining any stings. But nothing is guaranteed.)

The nest I chose was a yellow jacket hive. They are commonly known as meat bees and they can be aggressive hive defenders. Each bee (wasp) has the ability to sting multiple times, so caution is advised.

Locating a nest can be difficult, but these insects are attracted to meat. You could leave a piece of meat out for bait and work with it as if it were a hive.

My daughter was closing the gate to our front drive when she was stung. Since yellowjackets in our area don't usually sting unless defending a nest site or attacking prey, I thought I would look around in an attempt locate the nest. They were entering the hive through a large pile of dead liquidambar leaves on the ground near the base of a nearby tree.

I retrieved my head net from the house and sprayed my clothing with DEET, an insect repellent commonly found in mosquito repellent. This helped to mask my scent from the bees that would be alerted to guard the site from invaders. I have found that bees are usually not alerted by things that are moving slowly and not bumping or creating vibration sounds. When approaching a hive, very slow, deliberate movements seem not to interfere with their daily routine. I will sometimes sit still for a minute or two, then move a bit closer. I repeat this until I have gotten close enough to the hive. Bumping , banging, or scratching sounds tend to disturb them, triggering a large number of the bees assigned to protect the hive to emerge. Should this happen, swinging and swatting at them triggers a more aggressive stance with the intruder(read You). I have found that the deet spray will keep them from approaching as long as I do not attempt to swat them away.

I placed two square foam floor pads down on the ground near the nest to provide me with a comfortable place to observe the goings on of the hive. This is a very important part of your being successful with the captures. I slowly maneuvered onto the pads and stopped at about 3 foot away. This was the key. Being close allowed me to watch the comings and goings of the hive residence. Why is this important? Because after I was able to watch the hive activity, I was able to place the laser beam in the exact spot where the most number of yellowjackets would pass through the laser per hour.

The illustration above shows how the laser was able to be set at the hive entrance and capture subjects entering the opening. The mounting plate has a semicircle cut out so the entrance to the hive can me located directly below the light beam. The plate was installed at night when the hive was asleep. I then powered the light source remotely. This enabled me to watch and move the plate via the adjustment pole as the bees passed through the light source when daylight returned the hive to active.

I then covered the plate with leaves.

A second plate was built for mounting the camera (see illustration below). A tripod head was fastened to the camera plate and prefocused at a distance that when focused, the camera would provide a 1/4X magnification. Just in front of the camera a piece of stiff wire was attached to the plate and left to extend past the plate and beyond the prefocused distance. I bent the wire 90 degrees at the focus point and made sure the camera was focused on the piece of wire and taped the lens so it would not change the focus accidentally when locating it at the hive. Now I could carefully place the mounting plate with camera attached on the ground at the site, maneuver the camera position so the light beam was on the wire. Since the camera was already pre focused on the wire, no further adjustment was necessary.

Power was connected to the controller, camera, and flashes(I used three Yongnuo flash heads, one on manual, and two as slaves). Special notation. When using flashes as slaves, the slaved units should be used to light the background while the main lighting should be hardwired to the stopshot controller. This will prevent ghosting in the images caused by the delay in the slave response. I use the flashes as slaves with one main light, but recent information has suggested that some brands of speedlight flashes have a bit longer delay before triggering the flash via a slaved unit. So with this in mind, if you always have the flashes hardwired to the stopshot, then you will eliminate any possible ghosting in a difficult lighting situation. The focus wire was pivoted out of the way, and the camera began capturing shots immediately.

As a precursor, I had set up the entire rig in my studio and tested focus distance, adjusted flash intensity, and tightened everything down before using it in the field.

I hope you can now appreciate the time and thought that goes into each capture i procure. This is a complicated process compounded by the fact that I had to pay attention to the responses from the hive as things were maneuvered into position.

If you enjoyed the article, please take a moment to ask a question or send feedback. And as always, Happy Shooting.

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