Pollinators - a vanishing photo -op

Every photographer should know that wild flowers are in short supply
And their pollinators are in decline

If you’ve seen the movie Microcosmos, you know that the macrophotographer’s garden of delight is a hot bed of sex. Although everyone knows the poetic meaning of the flower and the bee, it is little appreciated how human society affects and is affected by the relationship between flowering plants and the animals they depend on for their reproduction. Although as a nature photographer you may know that flower sex is hot stuff, if you photograph close up you’re in on the action.

Flowers and pollinators are fruitful subjects for camera work. Not only is there drama and beauty, but information content of vital human interest. The pollination of flowering plants by insects is an especially photogenic example of the integrated and interdependent community of organisms that comprise an ecosystem. Although green plants are the primary producers at the base of the food chain, animals such as bats, hummingbirds, and the insects are the pollinators that make possible the existence of most plants. Pollinating insects are as essential to an ecosystem as the telephone is to a teenager. About 80 percent of flowering plants are dependent upon insects to transport their pollen from the male to the female parts of the flower. Without pollinator services people wouldn’t have sweet fruits such as apples and melons or addictive seeds such as coffee and cacao.

Vanishing Pollinators

As documentary photographers interested in ecological issues, we might not be surprised to hear that there is worldwide recognition of a decline in native pollinating communities. Indeed, the nature photographers that I meet in Norway are well aware of natural habitat changes and rare species problems. Alarmed to notice each year fewer species of butterflies and native bees in my garden I am dismayed to learn that there is no research on pollinator decline worldwide. In a new book from the States (The Forgotten Pollinators by Stephen Buchmann and Gary Nabhan, Island Press, l997) it is suggested that pollinator population changes are human-induced, caused by overuse of chemical pesticides, unbridled development, and conversion of natural areas into monocultural cropland. Probably the best documented example of pollinator decline in Europe is the bumblebee situation in Britain: there were once many species but only a few survive today with their distributions greatly reduced. Pollination ecologists believe that the viability of crops and wildflowers is threatened and that understanding and managing pollination systems is becoming a practical necessity. Key to the preservation of pollinator biodiversity will be a public understanding of the pollinators need for living space: if people need sweet foods and wild flowers, they need pollinators.

Vanishing Opportunities

Like it or not, we live in a time of rapid environmental and cultural change bringing new responsibility to the nature photographer arising out of biospheric considerations. On a global scale, opportunities to photograph certain aspects of nature are increasingly diminished by human activities. As habitats are altered, many of the inhabitants are lost. Although conservation efforts focus on saving the larger and more conspicuous species, the inconspicuous and unknown life forms are disappearing in far greater numbers. The insects alone constitute 80% of all species. In terms of biomass and number of species, they dominate. If habitat loss continues at its present increasingrate, the vast majority of small invertebrate animals will disappear from the planet before they can be discovered and described. It is inevitable that only a small fraction of species will ever be photographed living in their natural environment. If pollinators or the plants they depend on are in decline, then opportunities to photograph them are also disappearing.

Golden Opportunity

If pollination is fundamental to the biosphere, then the pollinator’s liability is an important realization. To contemplate the pollinator’s role as partner in plant sex and key to ecosystem integrity is indeed awe inspiring. Stretching the imagination further, the pollinator’s life story can be seen as a metaphor of man’s relationship to other living things and their decline as an indication of man’s growing separation from nature. It seems to be more than green issue romanticism to suggest that the pollinator metaphor presents an opportunity to make the enlightened connection between endangered species, threatened habitats, and a decline in the experience of nature.

The golden opportunity is to realize that human experience of nature is endangered. As in Microcosmos and The Forgotten Pollinators, we love a good show and a good read, but only with direct experience of living creatures, can we come to know intimately the life forms we depend on for the survival of our species. Engaging nature changes us - experience leads to revelation. Can we construct and maintain a society when few keep in touch with the roots of their human nature? Photographing pollinators is simply one of many opportunities for camera work to help us visualize our place with natural things. Although few are unaffected by the beauty of natural environments, it is the humbleness and grace of the pollinator’s role that inspires a photographer to get close to the flowers and the bees.

From a photo-essay published in Naturfotografen. Nr. 1, 1998 by Carll Goodpasture