Heather Angel explains how she took her shot of a South African bee fly and discusses the complex relationship between insects and flowers

Photo Insight with Heather Angel

An internationally renowned photographer of the natural world and author of more than 50 books, Heather brings her expertise to AP

I am working on a project that is likely to take me several years to complete. It involves me exploring the wonderful and diverse world of flowers, particularly their structure and the process of pollination. I’m working in collaboration with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in Surrey, which means I can visit Kew’s glasshouses and gardens to photograph various interesting species of flower. Kew houses many flowers from all over the world, but obviously they don’t have everything. As a result, I still have to travel abroad and photograph in places like New Zealand, Chile and South Africa, where this photo was taken.

One day while I was out shooting a lachenalia plant, I noticed a lot of insects flying around the flowers. On closer inspection I saw they were a fascinating species of insect called a bee fly, which is a type of fly that resembles a bee (commonly thought to be a way of putting off predators).

The bee fly feeds off the pollen and nectar of flowers using its long proboscis, which sticks out like a hypodermic needle. In that way these insects can suck out what they need through incredibly small openings. We have bee flies in Britain – you generally begin seeing them around Easter – but they’re brown rather than black. They are really important pollinators and feed on a wide variety of flowers, but unlike many other insects they’re quite choosy about what they eat. They have favourite types of flowers and once they’ve found them, they stick with them.

On the day that I first saw the bee flies it was almost impossible to photograph them. Every time I got near and bent down to capture them, they buzzed off. It became quite frustrating and I soon realised that I would have to get up early the next morning and set myself in position before the bee flies became active.

On day two I approached the scene with a strategy. I got there early – a little too early, as it turned out – and sat on the cool ground. The sun was out, which meant I wouldn’t have any issue with lighting. I sat in such a position that I was able to cover three flowers, maximising my chances of getting a successful shot of a bee fly pollinating one of the lachenalias. Once I was comfortable, I looked around and began to realise there were a lot of the bee flies on the ground around me. They use a lot of energy when they’re beating their wings and hovering, so they have to warm up in the sun and stretch out their wings. That means they had time to become accustomed to my presence and I could work quite comfortably so long as I made no sudden movements.

On this occasion I was using a Nikon D3 and a very nice zoom lens that I don’t think is widely available any more – a Nikon 70-180mm. I use this lens a lot. It means that I have a larger working distance than something like a fixed 105mm lens. If I need to pull back or close in on the subject, I can do so without shifting my position and scaring off the insect. I captured the shot you see here using 1/1250sec at f/14 and ISO 800. Ideally, I would have shot at a lower ISO, but due to the speed of the bee fly I had to push the ISO up in order to achieve the fast shutter speed. As a result, the wings are pin-sharp – a detail that really adds an extra level of character to the shot.

Keen-eyed readers may notice something rather interesting about the colours of the lachenalia flower, as there are three tiers. The reason for this is that some flowers change their colours with age, which acts as a signal to pollinators. You’ll see that the bee fly is feeding from the yellow flower, which alerts the insect to the fact that this flower has just opened and there is nectar present. This benefits the flower as much as it does the bee because the whole process aids pollination. The reddish flowers signal that they are past their best and tell the bee not to waste its time trying to find nectar in them. The lilac-coloured flowers are not yet ready for the bee.

You’ll see this kind of behaviour in a variety of flowers throughout the world. In Britain it occurs in the flowers that sprout from horse chestnut trees. They’re really beautiful white flowers that have a coloured blotch in the middle. When they first open they’re yellow. Then they turn a peachy-salmon colour and finally a dark red. If you’re a flower, you want to maximise your chances of pollination and the best way to do that is to signal to pollinators, such as bees, using colour. The flower sends a message and the bee acts accordingly. This raises another interesting factor, though, because bees don’t necessarily see colour in the way we do. They see different wavelengths such as ultraviolet. It’s something that I’d like to learn more about as it’s a fascinating subject.

Heather Angel was talking to Oliver Atwell


To see more images by Heather visit www.heatherangel.co.uk or www.naturalvisions.co.uk. Heather regularly runs workshops at the British Wildlife Centre. For information on courses run by Heather and her son Giles, visit www.photographyandphotoshopcourses.co.uk