by Angela Gradish
There’s been a buzz in the air about bees lately, and for good reason: bees are major pollinators of both wild plants and agricultural crops, and some species are declining because of threats like habitat loss, climate change, and agricultural intensification. Many people assume the honey bee is the top pollinator among bees. But bumble bees, the honey bee’s bigger, hairier, and louder cousins, are just as important for pollination*. (For some plants, bumble bees are even better pollinators than honey bees.) North America is home to 46 bumble bee species that collectively visit hundreds of types of plants. Also, a few bumble bee species are commercially reared and sold to growers to pollinate certain crops, like blueberries and greenhouse tomatoes. Unfortunately, some bumble bee species are declining or endangered, and the status of many other species is unknown. Bumble bees are historically understudied, and so for some areas, there aren’t many bumble bee records (documented sightings of individual bumble bees with associated reference information, like sighting location, date, and species name). Without good records, it’s difficult to know how many individuals of certain bumble bee species there are now and how large their geographic range is, and how their population sizes and ranges may have changed over time. Brett Forsyth, a photographer and naturalist from Guelph, hopes to help address this problem and raise awareness about bumble bees with his new online project, Photographing Bumble Bees for Identification.
Originally from British Columbia, Brett became interested in bumble bee conservation when he moved to Ontario. Currently, there are three bumble bees on the Species at Risk in Ontario list: the rusty-patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis, endangered), the gypsy cuckoo bumble bee (Bombus bohemicus, endangered), and the yellow-banded bumble bee (Bombus terricola, special concern). Brett decided to figure out how to photograph these at-risk species, and in the process, he discovered that there are relatively poor records of many Ontario bumble bees, especially in the northern and central areas of the province.
Brett saw a way to improve our knowledge of Ontario bumble bees** via iNaturalist, an existing online citizen science project aimed at documenting and sharing observations of global biodiversity. Users create free profiles and upload photos of their biodiversity finds, where they can then be viewed by other users and identified by experts. iNaturalist educates people about the natural world, but it also can provide scientists with valuable data that can be used to track changes to species’ geographic distributions and population sizes. For those data to be useful, the species in the uploaded photos must be identifiable, which requires high-quality images that contain key body structures needed to identify the organism. But as anyone who’s ever tried will tell you, getting a bumble bee to sit still for a picture is tricky. As a photographer, Brett saw an obvious solution to that problem: simply teach people to take good pictures of bumble bees with their mobile devices, and in turn, get better data on Ontario bumble bees.
In a series of videos on the Photographing Bumble Bees website, Brett takes viewers step-by-step through the process of taking pictures of bumble bees and uploading their photos to the Bumble Bees of Ontario project on iNaturalist. He also provides a free, printable pocket guide that outlines the most important tips for photographing bumble bees and gives descriptions of the three at-risk species in Ontario. Brett has four general tips for getting great pictures of bumble bees. First, get as close as you can to the bumble bee. (Don’t be scared of that stinger–bumble bees really aren’t very aggressive!) Second, get separate shots of the bumble bee’s back, side, and face. These areas contain features that are important for identifying bumble bees. Third, slow motion video can be used to get good images of fast-moving insects because it produces a bunch of still images that you can sort through later to find the perfect shot. And fourth, find an app that will allow you to manually focus your phone’s camera.
Brett hopes his project will inspire 250 people to join the Bumble Bees of Ontario project on iNaturalist and generate at least 1,000 new bumble bee records from central and northern Ontario. More generally, he wants to get more people interested in bumble bees and the underappreciated world of insects. So help scientists help bumble bees: Grab your phone, get outside, and start snapping photos.
*This article is focused on bumble bees, but there are many other types of bees. In fact, there are around 4000 species of bees in Canada and the US. All of those bee are also very important pollinators, and many of them may also be at risk. (We know even less about other bees than bumble bees.) So please learn about other bees too!
**Maybe you’re not in Ontario, but don’t let that stop you from using these tips to photograph bumble bees in your area. Information on any bumble bee species from anywhere is important!
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