Bumble Bee Watch eNews
March 2022

Spring is fast approaching which means bumble bees will be active soon if they aren't already! Whether you're an avid Bumble Bee Watch user or still considering getting involved, we have provided some tips below for photographing bumble bees. Photography is a powerful tool that can help us identify bumble bees, but only if the identifying features are in view.

A combination of features are used to identify bumble bees from photographs, including hair color and pattern on the head, thorax, and abdomen. While it is not required for you to identify the species in each of your submissions, taking the correct images will help our experts assign identifications. Keep reading on to learn about what kind of photos and angles are the best for your BBW submissions, and what the experts look for when identifying the species you observed!
(L) Diagram showing the anatomy of a bumble bee. To identify bumble bees from a photograph, it is necessary to view the hair color and pattern on the head, thorax, and each segment (or tergite) of the abdomen, labeled here as T1-T6; color template of the common eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens). (R): Species identification diagram for the tricolored bumble bee (Bombus ternarius).
Tips for Photographing Bumble Bees
Side View / Profile
If you can only get one photo, the best angle is a side shot of the bee that shows the upper side of the abdomen and thorax. This angle shows the bands of color on its side (which from a back view may be covered by the wings), thorax, and some of its face. This angle also shows the hind leg which helps identify if the individual is a female, male, or cuckoo bumble bee (i.e. parasitic bee).
From this angle we can see the colors associated with each of the 6 abdominal segments, otherwise known as tergites (abbreviated to be T1-T6). At the start of the abdomen nearest the thorax, T1 is yellow, T2-3 are orange, T4 is yellow, and T5-6 are black. We can also identify that this individual is a female by her widened hind leg, known as her pollen basket, or corbicula (where she stores her pollen while foraging). It is also observable that the hairs on her face appear to be intermixed (black and yellow), and that there is a wide band of black hairs between the wings on her thorax.
Dorsal View / Back
In combination with a profile photo, it is helpful to see an image of the bee’s back. This dorsal view of the bee allows for a visual of any patterns that may be present on the thorax, such as a notch between the wings or the width of the band between the wings. It is also helpful to see the color pattern on the abdomen from this view. Getting this shot with bee’s wings open would make for an even better photo, as some species have important identifying patterns that might be concealed when the wings are closed at rest.
From this angle, a much clearer view of the thorax pattern is visible. This particular pattern could be described as a “thumbtack," where there is a band of black hairs between the wings with a bit trailing down the middle towards the rear of the thorax. The colors associated with most of the tergites are also visible: T1 is yellow, T2-3 are orange, T4 is yellow, and small amount of black is visible after T4. This angle also provides a view of the hairs on top of the head which is key for distinguishing some species.
Frontal View / Face
The third angle to achieve is a frontal view of the bee's head. A photo of the head shows the hair color(s) on the front of the face and on top of the head (yellow, black, or intermixed). This angle also captures a view of the antennae which can help identify between female and male (males have an extra antennal segment making them longer), as well as the shape of the face. Some species have longer tongues which changes the overall shape of the face and how long their "cheeks" are. These facial features can help distinguish between species that have similar colors or patterns on the thorax and abdomen.
From this photo we can see the hair color on the front of the face is intermixed (black and yellow) with black hairs on the top of the head. The shape of this individual's face is in between a "long" and "short" face and is considered a medium-faced bee. For further description of cheek length and an illustration of each, view page 17 in Bumble Bees of the Western United States.
An extra tip! Male bumble bees of some species have enlarged eyes (comparatively to the eyes of females, and males of other species) and a facial image can help show this feature if it is present. Males of the following species have enlarged eyes: Black and Gold (Bombus auricomus), Brown-belted (B. griseocollis), Red-belted (B. rufocinctus), Nevada (B. nevadensis), Morrison's (B. morrisoni), Southern Plains (B. fraternus), and Crotch's bumble bee (B. crotchii). Some males also have extensively “fuzzy” faces which can be notably visible from this angle.
Additional Tips for Photographing
  • Use burst/continuous photo mode, this setting is available on most digital cameras and smartphones.
  • Use macro mode for close-ups. Many digital cameras come with this setting, look for an icon of a flower, or consider purchasing an inexpensive macro lens for your smartphone.
  • If you recorded a video, take screenshots and upload the images to Bumble Bee Watch.
  • If your photographs came out too dark or too bright, adjust the lighting of your photographs before uploading.
  • Crop your photos so the features described above are clearly visible, like shown below:

Thank you!

When you participate in Bumble Bee Watch, you can be assured that your submissions contribute to something meaningful. We hope these tips help you level up your Bumble Bee Watch game by improving your ability to take high quality photos that are ready for experts to identify! We are grateful for your participation in this initiative, and it is participants like you that help make this all of this possible!

Thank you for your contributions to bumble bee conservation!
Banner photo: Kara Keating Stuart
Main content photos: Tiffiani Harrison

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