Photographing Bumble Bees

In my area, a fairly common Bumble Bee is the Half Black Bombus vagans. I run into it quite a bit and have uploaded several. Nobody wants to ID them for this area though, because I am fairly close to the edge of the range for the very similar perplexus and sandersoni. I was thinking about catching a couple periodically and taking macro photos of the face to aid in ID, but I don’t really want to kill them. So my two questions are: one, is there a way to make bumble bees sit still long enough for a few photos, but not hurt them in the long term, and two, if bumble bee ID’ers are used to avoiding a species in an area, would photos like that help?


Dr. Thorpe used to use a bug vacuum for catch-and-release bumblebee identification, though I’m not sure which brand.


Hi @neylon.

On the first question about getting the bee to stay still. Obviously, killing a voucher specimen is the easiest way (so long as it is not under any legal protections). Even with more scare species this is unlikely to have any noticeable impact. The benefit of this is it allows you to spend as long as you like taking as many photos as you want. Popping them in the freezer, submerging them in boiling water, or rubbing alcohol are the best ways to achieve this.

However, if you really don’t want to do this (and I don’t) then capture your specimen in a container and place it in the fridge. Since insects are cold blooded, this slows their metabolism right down and if left long enough, they’ll eventually stop moving all together. Keep a close watch or they can die if the temp is too low. (FWIW, I have done this many times when feeding blow flies to flower mantises).

HOWEVER, be aware that from the moment they leave the fridge their metabolism will begin to “reboot”. One way to buy yourself some more time would be to put a ceramic plate in the freezer. Remove when ice cold and then transfer the specimen to the surface for photographing. Either way, once it starts to move around, scoop it up and repeat the above process until you have enough photos.

I’ll leave your second question to more seasoned iNaturalists. Hope that helps.


Thanks, the plate is good idea, I might bring a cooler in the field with the plate if I decide to go ahead with this.


I went to a bumblebee workshop activity thing last summer where we were given small plastic containers, pill bottle size, and caught the bees with butterfly nets and put them in those. They still buzz around within the bottles but they can’t fly away and occasionally stop moving.


If you put a bumble bee in the tube and have a cylinder of sponge that fits the tube fairly tightly, you can hold the bee still with the foam without hurting it. That will give you a chance to photograph its head through the tube. Not so much help if you want to photograph its back.


To get back shots a home-made spi-pot would work

For those who don’t know, spi-pots are used for photographing spiders genitalia.

  1. Get two clear plastic drinks cups, the kind that fit snuggly at the bottom when slotted one inside the other.
  2. Cut a large circular hole (but not all the way to the edge) out of what will be the bottom cup.
  3. Cover the outside of the hole with cling flim (Shrink wrap in the US?). Ensure a tight fit. Essentially, when the second cup is slotted inside it should fit snug against the clig film or only leave a small gap.

Then drop the Bee inside and the quickly slot in the second cup leaving some room for the Bee to maneuver but not escape. Turn the spi-pot bottom up allowing the Bee to fly up and bumb against the film cover. This will ensure the Bee is the correct way up for photographing it’s back. Push up the second cup in trapping it gently against the film - just enough to imobilse it. Photograph

When you’re done, release the unharmed but angry bee! Could probably be used for butterflies, moths and hoverflies too.


When I’m doing surveys, I bring a cooler with ice. Catch the bee in a vial, and put it in the cooler. Vagans are small, so they chill quickly. The cold really slows them down. That usually gives me plenty of time to take photos. If they get too active, you can always return them to the cooler for a few minutes. If they’re particularly inactive, I’ll stick a flower or something into the vial, and they’ll grab onto it. Then I just lift it out, hold it in front of the camera, and take pictures. An advantage of that is that you can easily turn it in your hand to get the angle you want. This works really well for vagans/sandersoni. Auricomus/pensylvanicus are a lot harder. Because they’re so large, they take forever to cool down, and they warm back up quickly.


How long do you typically cool off a vagans? And when differentiating between vagans/sandersoni/perplexus, are face shots of the oculo-malar area sufficient for ID, or are more needed? Nice pictures, by the way.

I’m not exactly sure. Probably less than ten minutes. I just set them on top of the ice, not down in it. Something I forgot to mention - when you’re finished, set them in a shaded area, not in direct sun. Sometimes they warm up and fly off pretty quickly, sometimes they walk around for a while first. Yes, the oculo-malar space should be sufficient.

To your second question, personally I do avoid IDing some difficult species. I want to err on the safe side, so I won’t add an ID if I’m not sure. There are very few observations that show what I would need to ID vagans/sandersoni, Auricomus/pensylvanicus, or some of the cuckoo bees. And there are real experts here who can ID them with less.

Thanks, I’ve taken several pictures of chilled bees, hopefully that will help.

In addition to chilling, carbon dioxide will immobilize most insects. For chilling, keep a solid plate in the freezer so the chilled insect can be placed on it. Carbon dioxide is the gas in sodas, or can be produced by mixing baking powder and water. A bottle with the source, sealed but with a tapering plastic tube, will produce a flow of gas that can be directed to the inset. All a bit shakey, but do-able. Having optically clear containers are an asset.

I’ll have to try the baking powder trick, at least as a backup for the cooler.

We have one of those where I work, pretty nice.

Don’t capture them; we need them! Let them settle on a flower and up your shutter speed. I’ve been photographing a lot of bees this year in hopes of helping increase their population. They have been nothing but nice to me; allowing me to get close enough to photograph while they work (very intently, I might add!). Our job as naturalists is to assist, not to destroy.

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I just recently took some training on bumblebee identification, and the lady recommended a glass tube (or plastic for children) plus a bit of kitchen paper (kitchen roll, paper towel, depending on where you’re from.) Sneak up on the bee (!) pop the tube over it, tap the flower to dislodge the bee, and then push it into the bottom of the tube with the kitchen paper. It will immobilise the bee but not hurt it (her words were, you will not squash your bee with the kitchen paper; it has an exoskeleton). She said it was better than nets which can catch their legs and distress them more. You can see/photograph the bee through the glass. She also mentioned the possibility of cooling it down to quiet it for photographs. (Just pop it in the fridge for a few minutes.)

Mind you, I don’t have the guts to do this at all; I’m still working on basic ID skills and fast shutter speeds. I don’t know, but I’ve been told! Thought I’d share the wisdom in case it helps.

I agree that I don’t like capturing bees (or anything really), or do things that could possibly stress them, but it really isn’t a problem if you don’t kill them. I have been involved with catch programs before, and as soon as you release them they go right back to the flowers and keep working. I have found that if the lighting is good and the bee isn’t too active, and the flower of choice is shallow (not thistles), than you can just get a perfectly workable face shot on the flower, but you notice how many if’s that was, sometimes it is easier for difficult ID’s to just catch it, shoot it, release it.


I’ve seen some photographers will put large drops of sugar water near the bees to distract them long enough to get really good photos. I’ve never tried it myself, but I think that would be the first thing I would try. It doesn’t require killing or even stressing the bee.

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Capturing bees doesn’t seem to stress them, but I can usually get the pictures I need without it. The only time I ever capture is if that is part of the official survey protocol. In fact, I live in a High Potential Zone for Bombus affinis, so according to USFWS guidelines, we shouldn’t be capturing bees here at all without the appropriate USFWS Permit.

He used the kid’s version and it’s fantastic!

This is the one he had (they’re available cheaper other places)

I think mine came from Costco?