Clay Bolt is first and foremost a nature junkie, with a special interest in the more creepy crawly species of our planet. He is also a talented photographer, a fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers, and a founder of Meet Your Neighbours, a worldwide photography project to reconnect people with their local wildlife. Knowing this, it might seem like it was just a matter of time before his latest project was hatched.

Bolt is traveling around the nation documenting North America's native bees. As we all well know, bees are the most important pollinators of our food crops and yet they are in the midst of a terrifying decline. Bolt's project will document what's happening to the species that pollinate our most popular food crops. He talked with us more about his subject, and his upcoming epic trek.

MNN: What's your impression of the state of our relationship with bees?

Clay Bolt: In general, the European honey bee is one of the world’s most beloved and accepted insects alongside ladybugs, butterflies and dragonflies. I believe that most people around the world have positive feelings about this species. However, with the possible exception of bumble bees, carpenter bees, and another diverse family that is sadly lumped into the non-flattering category of ‘sweat bee,’ the general population knows very little about the many other species of bees in the world. In North America alone we have over 4,000 native species, many of which play a variety of critical roles in the environment, including the pollination of some our most valued crops such as squash, tomatoes and strawberries.

During the process of preparing for my upcoming multi-year photographic project on North America’s native bees and their role in agriculture, my own eyes have been opened to the diverse range of services that these unsung heroes of pollination provide. Unless people become more aware of the existence of these bees and what they need not only to survive, but also thrive, many species will continue to decline in number.

native bee on flower

How do you think awareness about bees has shifted recently, particularly among mainstream America?

In recent years there have been more and more reports on a phenomena known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) that negatively impacts the honey bee population. Scientists are still uncertain what causes CCD and whether or not it is completely unnatural, or caused by the hand of man. Multiple causes may in fact be to blame including a mite that preys on honey bees, pesticides or even ‘stressed’ colonies that are moved from place-to-place to pollinate crops such as almonds.

We’ve also begun to see more data on the decline of some of our most important native pollinators, the bumble bees, but there is much left to learn and tell. There are approximately 50 species of these familiar bees in North America and many are showing signs of decline due to habitat loss and most certainly pesticides. The Xerces Society out of Portland has been doing some really great work to get the word out about our native species another effort that comes to mind is the impressive scans and cataloging of native bees that Sam Droege and his team at the USGS Bee Monitoring Survey have been producing that have really captured the public’s attention in recent months.

burrowing bee in hole

In general, however, there is still very little being said in mainstream media about 4,000 or so species of native North American bees, what they do and their importance to agriculture and the ecosystems in which they live. When most people hear the word bee, I believe that it is fair to say that they are probably only imagining the European honey bee, which is something that needs to change. Generally speaking, we need to have a greater understanding of the many species of bee that surround us each day. I am hoping that through my new project, I’ll be able to increase the public’s awareness of these incredible creatures.

Do you think our relationship is fixable in the near future? Near enough to see a turn around in bee decline?

I do believe that there are some very easy, practical things that we can do to improve the lives of native bees, and our own while we’re at it. For example, mowing less, using fewer pesticides, planting native wildflowers and even constructing native bee nesting sites can help. If everyone did this, collectively, we could do a lot with very little effort or expense. On a larger scale, encouraging farmers to leave or plant strips with native vegetation would allow a place for native bees to feed and perhaps reproduce. Of course, as in any attempt to ‘correct’ nature’s course, there are many variables at play, making it difficult to be absolutely certain that we can fix the problems but these actions would at least be a step in the right direction.

bee hovering over flower

I believe that educators can nurture the public’s relationship with native bees by encouraging a sense of wonder with beautiful imagery, stories of interesting behavior and providing good information about the services that many species provide for humanity. I believe that if you can first get people hooked on your subject by encouraging wonder, and then offer local opportunities to contribute to the well being of the subject, your success rate will increase. It’s the whole, ‘think globally, act locally’ approach that has been catching on in recent years.

The other important factor that will play a role in the protection of native bees is their contribution to our economy. The combined efforts of species such as squash bees and blueberry bees amounts to an estimated $3 billion dollars a year into the U.S. economy annually. Like it or not, adding a dollar amount to the otherwise intrinsic value of certain insects makes it easier to for lawmakers to justify their protection.

bee on white flowers

Let's get back to something amazing you said earlier -- 4,000 bee species?! How many do you hope to document in this process?

Yes, scientists have identified over 4,000 species, but I suspect that there are many more waiting to be discovered. Many native bees are very small and similar in appearance to closely related species, making them difficult to identify without close examination.

The goal of my project won’t be to photograph every single species in North America. The USGS Bee Monitoring team is doing an amazing job of cataloging every species for identification purposes. Instead, I will be focusing on bees that are responsible for the pollination of some of our most popular food crops such as squash, cucumbers, blueberries and strawberries to name a few.

I will be documenting the insects in action, using sophisticated gear such as the Insect Rig from Cognisys which uses a unique laser trigger and high-speed shutter combination, which will allow me to capture images of fast flying bees in mid-flight. I’ll also be using a unique technique known as wide-angle macro photography that shows both the insect and its habitat in a single frame as well as the Meet Your Neighbours field-studio technique that allows viewers to see the beauty of these insects as individuals.

bee comparison

In addition to the insects themselves, I’ll also be documenting farms and farmers who have encouraged pollination by native bees through bee-friendly farming practices. Along the way, I’m certain that I’ll also encounter areas where native bees aren’t doing so well. I wouldn’t be doing the story justice if I didn’t tell this side of the story too. As a Fellow member of the International League of Conservation photographers (iLCP), it is my job to tell the stories of these species, both good and bad, in an effort to affect change and hopefully make things better for the bees (and for us).

What made you want to launch this project?

Like most people, until recently I was completely unaware of the diversity or importance of our native bees. Almost by chance, I photographed a few members of the Halictidae family in my garden, which has the unfortunate common name of ‘sweat bee.’ Once I began showing people these images, the response was surprising and it encouraged me to learn more. The more I researched our native species, the more it be became evident that there was a great need to document them and use the work to tell others why they are important.

The truth is, while we're losing honey bees to CCD, we're also losing many of our precious native species due to pesticides, poor land management practices and a variety of other reasons. I'm hoping that by sharing the images and stories of these amazing creatures, North Americans will take notice and work to improve conditions for them.

bee with parasite

What's your experience photographing tiny crawly things?

I have spent the last 12 years working as a natural history photographer where I've specialized in photographing insects and other small creatures. I have such a passion for this often overlooked segment of wildlife and want to change the way people look at invertebrates. While I love animals regardless of their size, insects and invertebrates have generally gotten a bad rap for way too long. The value that they provide to humanity in terms of pest-control and pollination alone is astonishing.

In 2009, I co-founded an international nature photography project called Meet Your Neighbours. The mission of the project is to help people get to know that wildlife in their own communities better in hopes that they might begin to develop an appreciation. We often feature the 'Smaller Majority' as biologist and photographer Piotr Naskrecki has aptly named the world of invertebrates. We photograph all of our subjects in the wild against a brilliantly lit white background so that viewers can really see the beauty in tiny species that escape most people's glance.

metallic green bee

Some of the tiny bees that I’ve photographed so far such as Augochloropsis metallica, a Metallic Green Bee, look simply stunning in the Meet Your Neighbours style. It is such a small insect (around the size of a grain of rice) that most people will certainly never see it zoom past in their garden. However, when featured in this way it can spark an interest that will hopefully engage their curiosity and help them to take notice the next time they are looking at flowers where the bees might be feeding.

Other than bees, what do you want to document or discover during this journey?

While I call myself a natural history photographer, it has become increasingly evident that my work is really about people and our relationship with nature. This project will be no exception. I’ll not only be documenting individual bee species, but also the people who rely on and encourage the well being of native species. I’ll also be seeking areas that are somewhat lacking native bees and aim to cover what this means for the people who live there. This project will be as much of a journey for me as it will be for my viewers. I am only just beginning to understand the complexities and roles that native pollinators play in the production of our food; so much of what I’ll be reporting will be of my own adventure as well.

bee on yellow flower

What plans do you have so far for where to travel and what to see? How long with the journey take over all, and what can we look forward to in terms of seeing your images and video?

The project will begin this spring in the southeastern US. I’ll start by documenting species that pollinate berry crops such as blueberries, blackberries and strawberries. However, I will also be making a couple of trips to the west coast this season as well. And of course, I’ll also be looking for opportunities to photograph species that are simply interesting or unique because this project is ultimately about celebrating the beauty and diversity of our native bee species.

I expect the project to last 3-4 years though, if it is anything like other projects that I’m involved with, it will probably last much longer. The more I learn, the more that I’m certain that I’ll want to photograph and share with the public. In the near future I’ll be launching a new site that will be dedicated to project and this will be the primary place where I’ll be sharing the work. For now, I have posted a general gallery of native bees and pollinators on my website.

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

Photographer begins epic journey to photograph our nation's struggling bees
Photographer Clay Bolt is beginning an epic trek across the United States documenting the state of the nation's bees.