It's a wonderful thing to capture beautiful images of nature. But it's an exceptionally wonderful thing if those beautiful images can become a protective force for the very nature you're photographing. That's what conservation photographers strive for.

And photographer Clay Bolt has managed to achieve just such a goal through his photographs of bees and other wildlife. For example, Bolt's images of the rusty-patched bumblebee were a critical part of getting the species onto the U.S. endangered species list, a first for native North American bee species.

We connected with Bolt to find out what inspires him, how he stays motivated as a conservation photographer and what he's currently working on.

Hunt’s bumblebee in Bozeman, Montana
Hunt’s bumblebee in Bozeman, Montana (Photo: Clay Bolt)

MNN: You photograph bugs. For a living. How did you manage to pull that off?

Clay Bolt: Well, I do photograph subjects other than insects, but they have certainly been the primary focus of my career. One of the things that I learned early on was the importance of finding a niche for yourself and building relationships with editors and image buyers that associate you with that niche. I certainly wouldn't say that I'm the best insect photographer in the world, but I try very hard to be, and I put a lot of passion and energy into the subjects that I photograph. I've loved insects for as far back as I can remember.

I can't really say why, but I've spent the majority of my life trying to get people to care whether through science projects as a kid, to fine art that I've produced, articles I've written, and since 2002 through my photography. Really, though, I just feel incredibly fortunate. I've received a lot of great breaks during my career and there are many people who've seen something in me that they felt was worth taking a chance on. For that, I'll always be grateful.

Why are bees your primary focus? There are so many other charismatic insects out there like butterflies and dragonflies. What makes bees so great?

Within any group of insects or invertebrates, there are many stories that have yet to be told. We really know next to nothing about most invertebrates. I remember several years ago reading about all of the problems that honeybees have been facing, so I began to photograph bees in my backyard. This led to me discovering that there are nearly 4,000 species of native bees in North America that we know so little about, and the honeybee (Apis melifera) isn't even a native species to this part of the world.

While honeybees are declining in some places, some estimates suggest their numbers are higher than they've been in years because they are essentially treated like domestic cattle. They can be bred in increasing numbers to fill needs. However, many of our native species are in serious decline, and I want more people to realize this before it is too late.

Rusty-patched bumblebee in Madison, Wisconsin
Rusty-patched bumblebee in Madison, Wisconsin (Photo: Clay Bolt)

You're the photographer behind getting the rusty-patched bumblebee added to the endangered species list — the first native North American bee species ever added to the list. That's quite a feat and obviously came with a serious amount of effort. What role did your photographs play in all of that?

Life can be so surprising sometimes. I came across a specimen of a rusty-patched bumblebee in Great Smoky Mountains National Park's insect collection and learned that while it was once extremely common in the park, it hadn't been seen there in nearly 10 years. I decided in that moment that I needed to figure out why this was the case, and try to photograph it in the wild so that people could see what they had to lose.

I worked with friends and collaborators from Day's Edge Productions and the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation to produce a film documenting my journey to find the bee in the wild and learn why it was in decline. I then published the photos in just about every place imaginable. I also shared the film at film festivals, screened it at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., and even presented it and spoke at a congressional briefing on Capitol Hill.

We also tied the film with a petition on Change.org, which led to us gathering nearly 130,000 signatures in support of the listing, which we then delivered to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Throughout it all, I'm proud that my photos were the "face" of this little bee. I tried to produce portraits that showed the bee as more than a dot in the landscape, but as a living creature that needed our support.

The biggest thrill (other than the actual listing) came when one of my photos was featured by the New York Times heralding the bee's protection. There were a few hurdles after this, but fortunately, things all worked out in the end. The film can be seen at www.rustypatched.com.

Sweat bee on sticky geranium in Bozeman, Montana
Sweat bee on sticky geranium in Bozeman, Montana (Photo: Clay Bolt)

Do you always head out in the field to photograph with the goal of conservation in mind? Or do you ever just shoot for fun?

I have to say that I'm almost always shooting with conservation in mind, because to me, just about everything I shoot is threatened in one way or another. However, having said this, I have fun when I'm photographing most of my subjects, because I'm so fascinated by them, and enjoy the process of making photos. Truthfully, as much as I love photography, it is the subject that drives me, and for me personally, I don't collect photos just for the sake of it. I want my photos to have an impact.

Fuzzy-legged leafcutter bee in Madison, Wisconsin
Fuzzy-legged leafcutter bee in Madison, Wisconsin (Photo: Clay Bolt)

One of the styles of photography you're known for is the "Meet Your Neighbours" style, where the subject is isolated on a white background. How do you get your shots of bees when they're constantly buzzing?

Well, just like any kind of wildlife photography, an understanding of your subject is key. In fact, the first tip that I give anyone is to "become a biologist." By that, I mean take the time to study the behavior of your subject before you meet it in the film. This will greatly improve your chances for success. As a result, I learned from observation that bees are very clean creatures, and that if they are too loaded with pollen or material they will stop for a moment to clean themselves.

When I photograph bees for Meet Your Neighbours, I capture the bees with a net and quickly transfer them to the field studio, usually underneath a translucent Tupperware container. The bees will fly around for a moment and then stop to clean their bodies in case it is too much debris that is keeping them from flying. When they stop, I lift the edge of the container and shoot. It's that simple.

However, I should mention that some bees don't want to stop flying, and rather than exhausting them, I'll soon release a bee that isn't being a cooperative model. Their life is more important than my photo.

With bees that are flying freely in nature, some of the same principles still apply: understanding biology so that you can learn to anticipate when they are about to fly, feed, rest for the night, what food sources they prefer and so on. For me, it all comes down to knowledge that goes well beyond f-stops and shutter speeds.

Leafcutter bee in Greenville, South Carolina
Leafcutter bee in Greenville, South Carolina (Photo: Clay Bolt)

Are there other species you're currently documenting in the hopes they will be listed, or at least receive a surge of conservation support?

I'm crossing my fingers that I'll have a chance to head to Chile later this year to work on a project on the world's largest bumblebee (Bombus dahlbomii), which is being threatened for nearly the same reasons as the rusty-patched bumblebee. If the pressures that it's facing aren't eliminated, the future of the few native species of bumblebees in South America may become very uncertain. I'm also continuing to support work to preserve a highly threatened species of toad in Panama called the Limosa Harlequin toad, whose last known breeding population is at the Cocobolo Nature Reserve.

Sunflower bee in Pierre, South Dakota
Sunflower bee in Pierre, South Dakota (Photo: Clay Bolt)

This May you're giving a talk at the Nature Celebration, an event hosted by the North American Nature Photography Association. Your speech is titled "Hope Is a Thing with Little Clear Wings." What message do you want to give to listeners?

I want listeners to walk away with an increased sense of wonder and joy for a part of the natural world that they might have previously overlooked, feel the urgency that many species are facing, and realize that no matter where they live, or what resources they have, that we can all play a role in conserving these beautiful creatures that share our world.

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.