Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Beauty Is In The Eye Of The Bee-Holder

For a lot of people, the sight of a bee or wasp is enough to elicit some kind of visceral reaction. But a bee at 1:1 magnification becomes something a little more awe-inspiring.

"We know the average American reaction to insects," says Sam Droege, head of the U.S. Geological Survey Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab. But, he says, "At this scale, none of them are ugly."

Droege's job is to develop large-scale surveys of plants and animals and to monitor individual species. For the past 10 years, his lab has been trying to track the decline of bees, but ran into a problem: Most people can't identify different species of bees. According to Droege, there are approximately 4,000 bee species in North America and around 400-500 have never been described.

"We needed some good pictures," he said. "We [needed] really high-definition pictures that people can drill into and say, 'You know the pattern of the crosshatching between the pits on the skin of the upper part of the bee is really different than this one.' "

So Droege fine-tuned a system of photography that was originally designed by the military. He shoots with a high-quality 60 mm macro lens that fills the entire area of a full-frame sensor camera. He then uses what is called a StackShot Rail to incrementally move the camera and take a series of images that he later pieces together to create one image entirely in focus.

"We're total sharpness junkies," Droege says.

Wildlife services from across the country mail in not just bees, but all kinds of insect specimens to Droege for identification. He then preps each specimen for its glamour shot.

"They don't come out of the propylene glycol looking too good. So we wash them and then we blow dry them," he says.

All of Droege's photographs are in the public domain on the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab's Flickr stream. He is also very open about his macrophotography process. He posts YouTube videos about how to shoot and post-process so you can do it at home.

"Many of the coolest-looking bugs ... are right in people's yards. They're exotic just because people haven't seen them at the same scale as dogs and horses and cats," Droege says.

In fact, Droege sometimes picks up insects at his home in Maryland. He's currently working on a series of moths.

"I don't have a lot of boundaries between my private time and professional time," he admits.

Later this week Droege will also host a Google hangout on how to shoot your own macrophotographs.

Meredith Rizzo is an intern in NPR's Multimedia department.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Meredith Rizzo is a visuals editor and art director on NPR's Science desk. She produces multimedia stories that illuminate science topics through visual reporting, animation, illustration, photography and video. In her time on the Science desk, she's reported from Hong Kong during the early days of the pandemic, photographed the experiences of the first patient to receive an experimental CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease and covered post-wildfire issues from Australia to California. In 2021, she worked with a team on NPR's Joy Generator, a randomized ideas machine for ways to tap into positive emotions following a year of life in the pandemic. In 2019, she photographed, reported and produced another interactive visual guide exploring how the shape and size of many common grocery store plastics affect their recyclability.