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Know the West

See the West’s overlooked pollinators — like never before

As native bees sink in the shadow of honeybees, one artist creates a vivid showcase.


During the government shutdown, countless federal employees are still quietly doing their jobs, with or without the guarantee of back pay. Sam Droege is one of them. But even when he’s on vacation, you’re likely to see him working, wandering along the cliff sides and waving a net.

Droege, who has worked on many wildlife surveys for the U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, says he often gets curious looks from puzzled passersby. Hikers stop to question him: “What, are you out catching butterflies?” No; actually, he’s out collecting bees.

With his long white-blond hair pulled back by a technicolor bandanna, Droege seems like the ideal artist to bring out the vibrant, hidden world of native bees. Droege is doing more than just counting species; he’s turned his research specimens into works of art. In these photographs, the elaborate furry creatures are drastically enlarged, revealing the extraordinary, colorful intricacy of the pollinators around us.

The U.S. Geological Survey Bee Inventory attempts to bring more attention to its often-overlooked subjects by encouraging people to see them as art. “I’m intolerant of being a bureaucrat,” Droege likes to say. He frequently accompanies colorful macro photos of bees with poetry, which he says is a “distillation of how I feel about nature.” 

The caption on an image of a metallic cobalt chrysidid wasp — from poet Emily Dickinson — exemplifies Droege’s appreciation for the way poetry can echo nature: 

Inebriate of air am I,

And debauchee of dew,

Reeling, through endless summer days,

From inns of molten blue

Rather than employing the tactics of fear or sensationalism, Droege tries to make people care about nature by urging us to look more closely — almost pleading with us, reminding us what could be lost if we don’t pay attention. There are more 4,000 species of native bees in North America, but though the problems affecting non-native honeybees have made headlines in recent years, few researchers are keeping track of the natives’ well being. Droege has observed a decline in populations, but the data showing how our changing ecosystem is affecting native bees are largely absent.

Over the last 100 million years, native species shaped our ecosystems. Now, farmers bring in non-native honeybee hives by the truckload to pollinate hectares of non-native crops. And the honeybees could be affecting how native bees do their job. In a 2013 study, Lucas A. Garibaldi found that “overall, wild insects pollinated crops more effectively; an increase in wild insect visitation enhanced fruit set by twice as much as an equivalent increase in honeybee visitation.” But native bees face serious competition: Victoria Wojcik, research director for Pollinator Partnership, notes that honeybees are likely to drive out native bees when the two compete for flowers.

Honeybees work whenever it’s warm out, but native bees often have their active cycles around blooming times, some as brief as just five weeks long. They spend the rest of their time underground. This makes it difficult to do a comprehensive survey, especially for Droege’s small staff, which is always searching for more funding. 

That’s why the inventory has enlisted citizen scientists to help by collecting and photographing local specimens. Droege has shared his identification tools and cataloguing techniques online and helps out individual volunteers whenever possible.

Volunteers have sent in photos and samples from all over the world. The survey currently has over 4,000 images, offering us an up-close-and-personal encounter with our smallest flora and fauna. At this greatly enlarged scale, the bees look otherworldly. Their compound eyes are traced in striking patterns, and orbs of pollen delicately latch on to their surprisingly furry backsides. This small selection of bees from the American West demonstrates an immense, previously unseen diversity and shows viewers there’s a lot more to the story of bees than just honeybee hives.

Luna Anna Archey is the associate photo editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor