Incredible flying bees

Carder bee on geranium
Despite the drop in temperatures over the last couple of days, the hardy carder bees have still been out and about, seemingly tougher than the honey bees who have almost disappeared. Believe it or not, this geranium is called ‘Jolly Bee’!
Agastache 'Blackadder'
They are still happily visiting carder bee heaven. I can now be more specific than my earlier identification of it as a member of the mint family; it is Agastache ‘Blackadder’.
bee on purple flowers
This one isn’t flying, but I liked the light so included it anyway.
bumble bee in flight
There were a few bumble bees about this morning. This is the first time I have seen them feeding on the solanum jasminoides flowers. Perhaps they are less fussy at this time of year when other flowers are fading. Look at that pollen sac! Amazing that it can fly at all.

Carder bee heaven

Garden colour and bee

It has been several days since a buggy post!  Most unlike me.  But never fear, the carder bees are here!  They have been very happy this weekend, enjoying the lovely warm weather among the late summer flowers in my garden.

bee on purple flowers

I have forgotten the name of this purple flower but no matter; it shall henceforth be known as carder bee heaven.

a carder bee in flight approaching purple flower

Making a bee line

It was rather special, sitting in the border surrounded by gorgeous late summer colour and hordes of very happy bees.

carder bee and purple flowers

Nearly there!

These small bumble bees are very cute.  Or is that just me?

a carder bee on purple flower

My favourite

This last shot isn’t quite as sharp as I would normally like but I just couldn’t help include it: geronimo!

a carder bee takes off from a purple flower

Heavy lifter

If you want to know my technique for shooting flying bugs, see my earlier post, In-flight entertainment where I reveal all my secrets!

The infinite sphere

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) wrote: “Nature is an infinite sphere of which the centre is everywhere and the circumference nowhere”. We encounter nature daily; we can hardly avoid it, even if it is only in the form of a humble fly who crawls through our open window or the scent of distant park flowers on the breeze.

flying bee
Taking time to notice nature enriches my day beyond measure. The more I look, the more I see. Have you ever taken the time to watch a honey bee? I mean for several minutes or more. Watch how the light glistens in its wings as it hovers before its chosen blossom, forelegs outstretched for a gentle landing.

bee flying towards fennel flowers

Notice how the evening light catches the soft hairs on its back, and its eager tongue, already prepared as if it cannot wait to savour the sweet nectar.

bumble bee approaching dahlia flower

Or how about the bustling bumble bee? It announces its approach with an bombastic buzz before blundering onto its pollen-heavy landing pad.

bumble bee and dahlia


A smaller bumble comes careening in; too busy to linger, it is gone almost before the shutter can click, a momentary sway of the flowerhead the only sign of its passing.

bumble bee and dahlia

It has become a cliche to speak of mindfulness, or living in the moment. I don’t know if our lives are busier now than they were a generation ago, or a century ago but, for me, a full life must still contain moments when all its demands are put to one side. Photography has opened my eyes to daily treasures. And the digital age has added the joy of sharing them.

Sometimes, however, it is also good to put the camera down and simply look, listen, smell, taste, touch. That’s all; I am going outside now.

“If we take care of the moments, the years will take care of themselves.” Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849)

For so work the honey bees

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For so work the honey bees,
Creatures that by a rule in nature teach
The act of order to a peopled kingdom.
They have a king, and officers of sorts,
Where some like magistrates correct at home;
Others like merchants venture trade abroad;
Others like soldiers, armed in their stings,
Make boot upon the summer’s velvet buds,
Which pillage they with merry march bring home
To the tent-royal of their emperor;
Who, busied in his majesty, surveys
The singing masons building roofs of gold,
The civil citizens kneading up the honey,
The poor mechanic porters crowding in
Their heavy burdens at his narrow gate,
The sad-ey’d justice, with his surly hum,
Delivering o’er to executors pale
The lazy yawning drone.

William Shakespeare, Henry V, I.ii

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In flight entertainment

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One of my photographic obsessions in the last couple of years has been capturing insects in flight. Particularly bees and hover flies. I have by no means mastered this art yet. But I have bagged a few shots that I like and I have learned a few things along the way.

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I suspect that the best way to get really superb shots is to find a flower that the insects frequent, set up the tripod, lock focus on the flower and use a remote shutter release to fire off a load of shots every time a bug comes near. I can see the attraction of this laid back approach. I imagine a deck chair, comfy cushions, a cool glass of Pimms… But you would need that kind of still summer’s day that only happens in this country in Evelyn Waugh novels. Even the slightest breeze can move a flower. So, ditch the tripod.

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I prefer to shoot flying bugs in shutter priority, set to 1/640 or 1/800, with the camera set to AI servo and continuous shooting. Any faster than 800 and you risk freezing the wings. I prefer blurry wings. They’re moving, and I want my picture to show that. Compare the two shots below:

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The first shot is probably better quality but I prefer the shimmering wings in the second.

While blurry wings are good, blurry bodies are not, especially eyes. I use centre spot focus; my manual focus skills just aren’t up to the job. If yours are, go for it. For those of us who rely on auto, you should aim to get the centre point over the eye. Yes, it’s tricky. But put in some practice and you will be able to do it. Softness in the rest of the insect matters less if the eyes are clear.

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I won’t use flash; I don’t want to ‘bug’ the bugs. So having such a fast shutter speed reduces my depth of field somewhat, or a lot! Therefore, I always use ISO 400 for these shots. That gets me more depth. Really bright direct sunlight that would allow a lower ISO is usually fairly ugly light anyway. On the upside, a wider aperture means nicer backgrounds, smooth and undistracting.

Background is half the battle. Compare the next two shots. In the first the bee is nice and sharp but the background is ugly. In the second, the bee is frankly too soft but you just have to love that fresh green background. Which do you think is the more pleasing image?

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Oh, and I mustn’t forget to mention metering. I use spot metering. I want to expose for the bug and it is too small in the frame for the camera to expose for it in the default, evaluative metering mode.

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Finally, it helps to learn a bit about the habits of your models. After a while of crouching in the bushes with ants crawling up your trousers you will start to notice that, while honey bees tend to approach flowers in a business-like straight line, bumble bees live up to their name and bumble all over the place. Certain hover flies, particularly the marmalade fly, hover beautifully, while others zoom around oblivious to the fact that they are supposed to be hover flies and are frankly not worth your trouble until they settle.

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Finally, be prepared to get very funny looks from a lot of people if attempting any of this in public. Good luck!

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Many thanks to The Goat that Wrote for the idea for today’s post.

PS Before someone asks, I use a 100mm macro lens on a full frame camera. But you could do this just as well with a cropped sensor and another lens.
And, no, I have never been stung.

PPS I have shown some of the images in small size because of problems with downloading really long blog entries.  All of the images stand up to scrutiny at a larger size.  You’re just going  to have to trust me on that 😉

Not-so-solitary bees

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At this time of year there are already many bees busy in the garden but not yet many honey bees. The bumble bees are around, fat, noisy and fairly recognisable. But there are also a lot of solitary bees. In Britain we have more than 250 types of solitary bee, bees that have single nest cells rather than communal hives.
With so many types, I am not going to try to identify the subjects of today’s photographs. To know more, try here. Suffice it to say that solitary bees do have to get together occasionally to obey one particular biological imperative!

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And, just to prove that they do appear in ones:

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