You’ve heard about immersion therapy—but what about immersion photography? When Anand Varma was asked to photograph a story on honeybees for National Geographic magazine, he knew he was going to have to take a different approach to capture new views of one of the world’s most photographed insects.
As fortune would have it, Varma struck up a friendship in his hometown of Berkeley, California, with Alice Rosenthal, a local beekeeper. Rosenthal had a hive that was struggling to survive during the winter, so she proposed a solution: She and Varma would move the hive into a shed in his backyard. The hive would stay warmer, and Varma would get to know the bees inside.
“Being able to actually watch them in the hive, you get to observe the things you read about or are told about,” he says. He recognized that the opportunity added a unique element to the execution of the assignment. “That was a real privilege that I wouldn’t have gotten had I just gone to the lab or just read the books or papers,” he says. “I got a lot more excited about bees, because I was able to watch them make their living.”
To get this up-close view, Varma made some modifications to the hive and to his workshop. First, he and Rosenthal took two frames of comb out of a hive box and slid them into observation cases—imagine a Connect Four grid made of glass. Then, he drilled a hole through a boarded-up window in the workshop. That way, the bees could come and go as they pleased, but their hive would stay warmer through the winter.
Thus, the workshop, which yielded a sort of hive-within-a-hive, became his practice field. “I was able to experiment with different lighting techniques and figure out what ways I could make bees look interesting in a photograph,” he explains, “and then I used those techniques in these different science labs to take the photographs that I needed to for this story.”
But even with this intimate perspective, Varma realized that there was something he still couldn’t see—the full development of an egg into an adult worker bee. After the queen bee lays a single egg in a cell of the comb, the worker bees feed the egg for a few days until it hatches into a larva. The larva continues to eat and grow until Day 10. Then, the worker bees cap the cell, and 11 days later an adult honeybee emerges. Varma was captivated by “this crazy transformation, from one nasty-looking grub thing into this crazy-looking insect.”
So he got creative. He’d already been photographing at a lab at UC Davis. The lab had a refrigerator-size incubator that could match the perfect conditions for honeybee development—including the temperature and humidity levels inside a capped cell. This way, when worker bees would cap a brood cell, Varma could cut away the capping without harming the bee’s development. He set a small piece of brood comb in the incubator, and rigged up a contraption that would allow his camera to photograph the same cell for a week at a time. “I couldn’t really photograph one bee for the whole 21 days of its life cycle, so I broke it up and I tried to capture each transformation that happens,” he says. As with any experiment, there were challenges. The first few tries, the humidity levels weren’t right. And then the first time-lapse he got revealed an ant infestation—all he had were photos of ants eating bee larvae. “Once it started to work, I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is going to be the coolest thing ever if I can show every part of this process.’”
His tenacity paid off. After dozens of tries over six months, Varma got enough footage to compile an incredible time-lapse video of a honeybee’s development. (Watch it at the top of this page or by clicking the link here.)
In addition to perfecting his lighting and techniques, Varma found that keeping bees in his backyard gave him a sort of street cred with the scientists he collaborated with. “The thing is that the people who research bees all tend to be very passionate about bees,” he says. “Because I had gotten excited and learned about bees myself, I think that was helpful. Even if I was not the most experienced or effective beekeeper, I think having gone through that experience helped me relate to the scientists better.”
Unfortunately, with the end of the assignment came the end of Varma’s venture as a beekeeper. The already-weak hive swarmed, and the remaining bees fell victim to an ant infestation. As a full-time photographer with a hectic travel schedule, he has decided that now isn’t the time to restart.
While Varma expected to figure out technical processes, he didn’t quite anticipate the emotional connection he’d develop through taking care of the honeybees. “That was the coolest part!” he remembers. “I could see the queen wandering around and laying eggs. I could see the bees coming in and doing their waggle dance to teach their sisters where there’s food. There was all kinds of drama that I had no idea goes on in a hive!”
Melody Rowell recently completed an eight-week beginner’s course in beekeeping. She’s looking forward to putting her new knowledge to use on the hives on National Geographic’s rooftop.