Califonia Bountiful

It's a bee's life

Mar./Apr. 2013 California Bountiful magazine

Insect photographer provides a close-up view.

More online: Additional information

Insect photographer Kathy Keatley Garvey says her goal is to "raise the public awareness of bees and tell of their importance."

Walking quietly through the colorful garden landscape, insect photographer Kathy Keatley Garvey stops and, with a twist of the lens, closes in on a carpenter bee gathering pollen from a fuchsia cosmos with its tiny front legs. Click! She captures the image, just one of more than a million photographs of bees and insects she has taken throughout the years.

Garvey, a former newspaper editor and now a writer/photographer in the University of California, Davis, Entomology Department, said an epiphany in 2007 transformed her from a casual shutterbug to a more serious photographer.

"At the department of entomology, we have this faucet that drips water onto a board. I noticed an Italian honeybee was drinking water and the sun was just glowing on it, and I thought, 'Oh, my gosh. That is beautiful,'" Garvey said with excitement. "That was it!"

As a girl growing up on a farm in Washington, Garvey recalls that her love and appreciation for bees began as she watched her father and grandfather care for the tiny critters.

The male valley carpenter bee on a tower of jewels is known for its blond body and green eyes.

"My father always kept his bee equipment down in the basement of our house," said Garvey, whose family has kept bees since at least the 1850s. "He would tell us how amazing the bees are—the queen, the worker bees and the drone. He talked to us about pollination, and we'd get the honey every year."

Today, Garvey's fascination with the daily life of bees and insects blossoms each time she steps outdoors. She perfects her craft at the university's Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven or in her Solano County backyard with a Nikon D-700 and macro lenses strapped around her neck.

"I like to take photos of the bees in their habitat," she said. "I try to blend in with the environment and get low, and I wait for the bees to come over to me. If I don't do that, I just follow them around and am quick on the action."

The female valley carpenter bee on a cosmos is solid black.

The Honey Bee Haven, located near the university's Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, is a half-acre public garden that provides a three-season food supply for bees. Since the haven was planted in 2009, Garvey has taken detailed photographs of about 50 of the 75 documented species of bees found there—from the common honeybee to the more unique male valley carpenter bee, which looks like a bumblebee but has green eyes.

"We have a lot of subspecies of the honeybee. The Italian bee is the most common, and it is a really bright, golden honeybee. The Caucasian one is a darker bee, and the carnica is a gray-silver-and-black bee," Garvey described.

"I just love being around bees. If I had my way, I'd probably spend my day (at the Honey Bee Haven) just looking at the bees, taking pictures and sharing what I appreciate with other people," she said.

A green metallic sweat bee is interested in a coneflower.

Garvey's colorful and detailed photography is used in university publications, news releases and other communications, but after hours her mind remains fixated on bees. Each evening, she posts photos and articles on her Bug Squad blog (, which she said attracts about a million hits a year.

"I'm trying to raise the public awareness of bees and tell of their importance," she said. "One-third of all of the food we eat has been pollinated by bees. Without bees, we'd be eating rice and wheat and not much else."

At the entomology department, Garvey often works alongside researchers, documenting their work. A walk through the apiary at the Laidlaw Research Facility in the spring of 2011 resulted in a split-second shot of a bee in the process of stinging its human victim: Eric Mussen, a UC honeybee specialist.

A honeybee, carrying a load of red pollen from another flower, sips nectar from a lavender blossom.

The "shot seen around the world," as Garvey describes it, has garnered accolades and attention from Australia and Europe to Egypt and South America. The photo won a national award in 2011 and has since circulated across social media and earned many websites' "picture of the day" titles. More recently, it was included in several "top-seen" and "most amazing" 2012 photo compilations by Web and news agencies, including The Sacramento Bee, Huffington Post and, to name a few.

"In the photograph, the honeybee has stung me and it is attempting to fly off," Mussen explained. "We thought that the bee would just fly off and the stinger would remain, but the break did not occur cleanly, thus, the poor bee was tethered by its intestinal tract."

As soon as Mussen and Garvey saw the unique photo, they knew it would be a hit, not only at UC Davis, but with nature lovers everywhere.

Abdominal tissue trails a honeybee as it stings its human victim.

"I shoot solely for educational purposes and for my own satisfaction in connecting my world with the outside world," Garvey said. "I do not disturb the insects. I don't poke them, prod them or pin them. I am a visitor in their world."

Christine Souza

Design your own bee-friendly garden

As urban areas expand and wild spaces contract, bees have fewer plants from which to gather pollen and nectar—their primary sources of food. This means that gardens, parks and similar spaces are even more critical to the future of the estimated 1,600 bee species documented in California.

The Xerces Society offers tips for creating a bee-friendly space for these hardworking pollinators:

  • Use local, native plants, which are typically more attractive to native bees than exotic flowers. Heirloom varieties of herbs and perennials can also provide good forage.
  • Choose several colors of flowers. Colors that particularly attract bees are blue, purple, violet, white and yellow.
  • Plant flowers in clumps. Flowers clustered into clumps of one species will attract more pollinators than individual plants scattered.
  • Include flowers of different shapes. Bees are all different sizes and have different tongue lengths. Providing a range of flower shapes means more bees can benefit.
  • Have a diversity of plants flowering all season. This way, you can support a range of bee species that fly at different times of the season.
  • For recommendations on specific plants to select, go to or ask at your local nursery or garden center.

More online

She gives the word 'shutterbug' a new meaning

Award-winning photographer Kathy Keatley Garvey has taken more than a million photos of bees and insects. Here's a sampling.

More tips on creating a bee-friendly space

From fruits and veggies to hamburgers and ice cream, we can thank honeybee pollination for one-third of all the food we eat. This story from our archives explains how.

You don't have to have a huge yard to provide needed habitat for these hard-working pollinators. Even a flower pot on a patio can help.

  • Visit the Häagen-Dazs "Help the Honey Bee" website for general suggestions.
  • Wondering which flowers to plant for a bee-friendly garden? Ask the horticulturalist at your local garden center. The Xerces Society also provides California-specific recommendations.
  • The University of California, Davis, Department of Entomology offers additional information on honeybees as well as the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven, a great place to see bees in action. 

How to get help with insect ID

What's that buzzing around the lavender in your garden? Native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp, emeritus professor of entomology at UC Davis, offers the following resources to help you identify honeybees and other critters you see.

According to Thorp, BugGuide is a great resource to browse through, looking at images of different kinds of bees and other insects. "It helps if one has the name of a genus and species to most quickly call up the photos of the critter one is interested in for comparison," he advised.

Thorp also suggests the following UC Davis resources:

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