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Photographer captures the life of wild honey bees inside a tree

Wildlife photographer Ingo Arndt has photographed the intimate bees like never before. His photographs reveal the challenges faced by bees in the wild and how they collectively try to overcome these challenges.

After accompanying scientists through the forests of Germany’s Hainich National Park as they studied bees in the wild, Arndt got hooked instantly. He realised there was more to see in bees in the wild than watching them in artificial boxes build by humans for honey extraction. That’s how he had decided to photography a natural nest.

In 2019, Arndt succeeded after getting the permission from German forest officials to enter a forest and remove a fallen beech tree with an abandoned black woodpecker cavity in its trunk. Beech tree cavities are a treasured home for western honey bees. He had the large chunk of wood transported to his yard in Langen, Germany.

After setting up his photography gadgets around the wood, complete with a macro lens inserted through the back of the tree’s cavity, he placed a western honey bee queen from the nearby colony inside the cavity. Soon the wood was buzzing with bees relocating their colony.

Over six months Arndt studied these bees with the help of Jürgen Tautz, a recently retired biologist who specialized in honeybees for about 25 years at the Julius Maximilian University of Würzburg, in Germany and took over 60,000 pictures.

His photos show how the tiny bees reacted when challenged by the much larger European hornets. These hornets snatch the bees from thin air, to later feed its ravenous larvae. During the first few days on hornet onslaught, the bees looked helpless. But after a week bees had turned the tables around.

They started to swarm near the entrance of the nest, creating a living carpet of guards to defend the colony. Each time a hornet flew too close, the defenders would leap onto the invader, tackling it. In an instant, more honeybees would pile on and pin the hornet down. As a finishing touch, the bees activate their flying muscles so rapidly, raising the ambient temperature. Soon the invader gets cooked alive. In the process, some of the bees die, but the colony remains safe.

Arndt’s photos clearly portray the defensive stance they take when a hornet invades. He observed the repeated trips that the bees take to water source setup by him during summers to cool the colony. When the temperatures were cold he saw them forming interlocked structure by holding the hands of each other around the nest to adjust the temperature.

Arndt and Taus were even able to answer a bee-behaviour that has puzzled beekeepers for a long time – why were the bees gnawing at the wood of their boxes without any appreciable effect. “They scratch all the loose particles from inside the surface of the hollow,” Tautz says. They say that this removes potential pathogens and creates a smooth surface for the bees to apply shellac collected from tress as an antibacterial agent.

Arndt’s photos are truly mesmerising. His photographs are a reminder to us how elegant and sophisticated life is, even at its smallest forms. You can see some of the images taken by him here.

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