For 10 days–almost without sleeping–Sam Droege did nothing but take incredibly detailed photos of bees.
Each fuzzy hair, and sometimes a tiny scrap of pollen, is clearly visible, using a technique that stitches together dozens of extreme closeups into a single beautiful image.
“This is both relatively new and pretty tedious, and that’s why a lot of people haven’t seen a picture like this in the past,” says Droege, a biologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, who worked with biology professor Lawrence Packer to take portraits of the bees in Packer’s lab. Those photos, along with others from Droege’s own collection, became part of an amazing Flickr page, and a new book.
Even Droege was surprised by some of the things he saw. “You don’t really have picture books like we’ve just created for bees,” he says. “I consider myself pretty sophisticated in terms of understanding bee biology, but I was actually really surprised at how crazy different some of the bees looked–the attachments, and the dangly modified antennae, and the different body shapes.”
The photos are gorgeous, but they’re also meant to be a tool for scientists. “These become a virtual online museum of insect specimens for researchers and people who identify bees around the world,” Droege says. “Many museums are closing that house things as mundane as like a collection of bugs. … When you lack an actual specimen, a high-quality picture–full of detail that you can zoom in on–is the next best thing.”
Droege hopes the pictures also inspire more interest in the 20,000-plus species of native bees that live in the U.S., many of which are threatened with extinction–which, in turn, threatens an entire ecosystem.
“All the diversity of flowers you see in a flower shop–those were all designed by bees,” he says. “It’s really the relation between bees and flowers. They change their designs, on both ends to better fit each other…What that means is you also need all these different kinds of bees to pollinate all these flowers.”
Native bees also have a role in pollinating crops that may become even more critical if honeybees continue to decline. Honeybees have traditionally been used in this role, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Another reason to save the bees is the simple fact that they’re beautiful, in completely unique ways. “Would you throw away the Louvre because you have the Hirshhorn Art Museum? Not really,” he says.