• May 13, 2015

For a Biologist-Turned-Photographer, a Beehive Becomes a Living Lab

Melody Rowell

You’ve heard about immersion therapy—but what about immersion photography? When Anand Varma was asked to photograph a story on honeybees for National Geographic magazine, he knew he was going to have to take a different approach to capture new views of one of the world’s most photographed insects.

As fortune would have it, Varma struck up a friendship in his hometown of Berkeley, California, with Alice Rosenthal, a local beekeeper. Rosenthal had a hive that was struggling to survive during the winter, so she proposed a solution: She and Varma would move the hive into a shed in his backyard. The hive would stay warmer, and Varma would get to know the bees inside.

A new honeybee emerges from a brood cell.
A new honeybee emerges from a brood cell.
This image is composed of 23 digitally merged photographs.

“Being able to actually watch them in the hive, you get to observe the things you read about or are told about,” he says. He recognized that the opportunity added a unique element to the execution of the assignment. “That was a real privilege that I wouldn’t have gotten had I just gone to the lab or just read the books or papers,” he says. “I got a lot more excited about bees, because I was able to watch them make their living.”

To get this up-close view, Varma made some modifications to the hive and to his workshop. First, he and Rosenthal took two frames of comb out of a hive box and slid them into observation cases—imagine a Connect Four grid made of glass. Then, he drilled a hole through a boarded-up window in the workshop. That way, the bees could come and go as they pleased, but their hive would stay warmer through the winter.

Still frame from a time lapse of bee development
Bee larvae develop into pupae.

Thus, the workshop, which yielded a sort of hive-within-a-hive, became his practice field. “I was able to experiment with different lighting techniques and figure out what ways I could make bees look interesting in a photograph,” he explains, “and then I used those techniques in these different science labs to take the photographs that I needed to for this story.”

But even with this intimate perspective, Varma realized that there was something he still couldn’t see—the full development of an egg into an adult worker bee. After the queen bee lays a single egg in a cell of the comb, the worker bees feed the egg for a few days until it hatches into a larva. The larva continues to eat and grow until Day 10. Then, the worker bees cap the cell, and 11 days later an adult honeybee emerges. Varma was captivated by “this crazy transformation, from one nasty-looking grub thing into this crazy-looking insect.”

Still frame from a time lapse of bee development
Pigment develops in the eyes of a bee pupa.

So he got creative. He’d already been photographing at a lab at UC Davis. The lab had a refrigerator-size incubator that could match the perfect conditions for honeybee development—including the temperature and humidity levels inside a capped cell. This way, when worker bees would cap a brood cell, Varma could cut away the capping without harming the bee’s development. He set a small piece of brood comb in the incubator, and rigged up a contraption that would allow his camera to photograph the same cell for a week at a time. “I couldn’t really photograph one bee for the whole 21 days of its life cycle, so I broke it up and I tried to capture each transformation that happens,” he says. As with any experiment, there were challenges. The first few tries, the humidity levels weren’t right. And then the first time-lapse he got revealed an ant infestation—all he had were photos of ants eating bee larvae. “Once it started to work, I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is going to be the coolest thing ever if I can show every part of this process.’”

His tenacity paid off. After dozens of tries over six months, Varma got enough footage to compile an incredible time-lapse video of a honeybee’s development. (Watch it at the top of this page or by clicking the link here.)

Bees emerge from their cells, in this still photo taken from Anand Varma's timelapse video of bees. (Watch it at the top of this page.)
Bees begin to emerge from their cells, in this still photo taken from Anand Varma’s timelapse video of bee development.
(Watch the video at the top of this page.)

In addition to perfecting his lighting and techniques, Varma found that keeping bees in his backyard gave him a sort of street cred with the scientists he collaborated with. “The thing is that the people who research bees all tend to be very passionate about bees,” he says. “Because I had gotten excited and learned about bees myself, I think that was helpful. Even if I was not the most experienced or effective beekeeper, I think having gone through that experience helped me relate to the scientists better.”

Unfortunately, with the end of the assignment came the end of Varma’s venture as a beekeeper. The already-weak hive swarmed, and the remaining bees fell victim to an ant infestation. As a full-time photographer with a hectic travel schedule, he has decided that now isn’t the time to restart.

While Varma expected to figure out technical processes, he didn’t quite anticipate the emotional connection he’d develop through taking care of the honeybees. “That was the coolest part!” he remembers. “I could see the queen wandering around and laying eggs. I could see the bees coming in and doing their waggle dance to teach their sisters where there’s food. There was all kinds of drama that I had no idea goes on in a hive!”


Anand Varma’s photographs of bees are featured in the May issue of National Geographic.

Melody Rowell recently completed an eight-week beginner’s course in beekeeping. She’s looking forward to putting her new knowledge to use on the hives on National Geographic’s rooftop.

There are 135 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Ashoke
    August 22, 2015

    Kudos to Anand Varma. Excellent high resolution photography with true to life colour. Wish I could watch it sections on slow motions too.

  2. Amanda
    June 14, 2015

    Loved the video. Amazing to see.
    These bees are truly the creation of the flying spaghetti monster

  3. iFrank
    May 27, 2015

    What exactly is the title of the background music? It just says who the compose is but I can’t find the track anywhere.

  4. Suhashini
    May 26, 2015

    Very interesting and well shot .

  5. Simon Kellam
    May 25, 2015

    Awesome footage. And yes indeed, 25 secs into the video you will spot a Varroa mite top left of the screen. They feed off developing pupa and have been devastating the Bee population in recent years.
    Unfortunately we cannot get rid of them, we have to try and keep their numbers to a minimum and healthy bees should be able to live with this

  6. nikita
    May 25, 2015

    interestingly amazing.it added to my knowledge.

  7. Jeremy Lewer
    May 21, 2015

    It is a shame that the ants got into the hive at the end. It is also amazing just how important bees are to our environment, without them there would be no plant life.

  8. Shishir Ghosh
    May 20, 2015

    Amazing dedication to be minutely following the life cycle. Great learning and motivations for others to derive inspiration for research.

  9. arlene christmas
    May 20, 2015

    being from a first nations community, umwaasug bees in my language are very sacred to us

  10. Regis Cheong
    May 20, 2015

    Excellent photography – well done.

  11. Jude
    May 19, 2015

    Pity the remaining bees at the hive fell prey to an infestation but perhaps nit surprising. About the 25 secones into the video, a tiny faint suspicious mark I saw at the start proved to be a mite. Is it the mite species infesting hives as it looks bigger than I thought?

    Is there any way I could slow the video down (without fancy equipment or techical know-how) as I’d love to really watch it …and over and over! Insects and spiders fascinate me and this video of Anand’s is amazing. I’m going to be sending the link to different friends while I know will love this. Thank you Anand for this glimpse into the bees’ world!

  12. Kelly Wise
    May 19, 2015

    Thank you for all of your hard work! We are just beginner bee keepers with one hive and found the video fascinating. Its really neat to know what’s going on in there that we can’t see.

  13. Donovan Rittenbach
    May 19, 2015

    They don’t actually sprout hair. Hair is a single strand but if you look at that “hair” under a micrsocope you will notice it is a distinctly feather like structure with tons of little branches.

  14. Nadeem
    May 19, 2015

    thank you for this nice effort
    very impressive video
    no doubt Allah is the creator of whole universe

  15. Dimas
    May 19, 2015

    Nice video. But how do they kept the cells open? Bees always build caps on 9 day

  16. Yousef Ayadi
    May 19, 2015

    Those fabulous creatures are a gift from God to humanity

  17. Susan Towers
    May 18, 2015

    Totally fantastic! We are so lucky to be able to capture such wondrous moments. Thank you.

  18. italo morello
    May 18, 2015

    marvelous;it`s the hand of God who created the small insects and the huge pachiderms,as well

  19. Jeanleigh
    May 18, 2015

    I am simply awed by this video! Thank you-

  20. david terrance wilson
    May 18, 2015

    phenomenal, wonderful, fantastic photography, nature at its utter best how marvelous the lowly bee.

  21. Marko
    May 18, 2015

    Tremendeos work indeed!!
    I just read an article about bees social evolution..http://m.sciencemag.org/content/early/2015/05/13/science.aaa4788.abstract
    Fascinating animals..

  22. Sue Thompson
    May 18, 2015

    Wonderful photography of these marvelous and very industrious creatures, without whom our world would soon cease to be.

  23. Melissa Schmidt
    May 18, 2015

    This was just an awesome study you done. I have become a big fan of the honey bees. I try to get the word out about the chemicals that are killing them by the thousands. Wonderful video too.

  24. Naveen Srivastava
    May 18, 2015

    Really this type of collection of photos and videos help us to look into the life of small insects too.

  25. Javier Barriga
    May 18, 2015

    Impresionanate very deep and very sad.
    a beautiful lesson in how to fight together against everything in life despite adversity.
    And the most beautiful; respect and love of the couple and even more …….. Hers
    Blessed is the man who finds a woman who respects and loves.
    I always thought … “and so is that” … there is nothing more beautiful in the universe that a woman gave you their love and respect. Because they are incredible and wonderful
    Javier Barriga

  26. farida mangcaan
    May 18, 2015

    truly there’s magic in every creature, that’s was fantastic.

  27. mohammad
    May 18, 2015

    very nice. to the apparent word-found creatures. good gab

  28. Pamela O’Sullivan
    May 18, 2015

    Thank you ,I would like to see more,
    Perfect life ,beautiful life……and then comes the ANTS!

  29. Satyabrata Majumder
    May 18, 2015

    A great realization-How the Inquisitiveness of some small people have been making us visualize the commonly invisible GREAT operations of nature !!! My heartfelt thanks to the Photographer for this commendable performance. Just to say WAO !!!

  30. qedlin
    May 17, 2015

    No big deal, just the random chance of biochemical collisions over time.

  31. Emmett Seattle
    May 17, 2015

    A few of the frames actually show the killer of bees, namely the Varroa mite. About 30 seconds in. There are two times that I noted that Varroa mites are seen.

  32. Bonny W
    May 17, 2015

    If you look around 39-35 second mark, you can easily see a Varroa destructor mite moving in and around one of the developing bee cells. This creature is one of the bees most serious enemies, and is responsible for much of the trouble that bees are now in throughout the world. Unfortunately, the mites are resistant to most treatments and are very difficult to control. Fabulous photography – we beekeepers love our bees!

  33. Luis
    May 17, 2015

    What would we do without bees and honey? Thanks for sharing your art and promulgating bee health!

  34. Sadhan Basu
    May 17, 2015

    Our mother nature is unique and so the creations of her. My heartiest gratitude to Anand Varma as well to National Geographic for their joint effort to upheld the progress of science s beautifully.

  35. Tim Lighthall
    May 17, 2015

    Your photography brings to light the miracle of bees and the miracles they perform for us humans. Hopefully people will become the bees protectors from this beautiful work you have brought to our eyes to drive our minds to do right by the bees! Thank you and thank God!

  36. Celeste
    May 17, 2015

    Such a stunning video!

  37. Thomzdr
    May 17, 2015

    Wonderfull piece of work! Shared it with my wife too….

  38. Jean Reynolds
    May 17, 2015

    I am a beekeeper and have watched many hatchings – wonderful photography so good to see them up close – excellent article

  39. Ajit Singh
    May 17, 2015

    Wondrous wonders of the Supreme Reality. Someone may narrate and reflect, but there can be no enumeration of the Creator’s doings

  40. Rhonda Albom
    May 17, 2015

    Wow. Amazing photographs and really interesting start for the bees. My daughter watched the video along side of me and worried about the 3 that didn’t hatch.

  41. Joan Churton
    May 17, 2015

    I have always loved bees. Now, thanks to your art, I understand more how they come to be. Thank you for the beauty that you do.

  42. Rohit Jain
    May 17, 2015

    Amazing. One of the most informative 1 minute clip I have ever seen.

    May 17, 2015

    really excellent work !!! we can be witnesses of our nature, congratulations!

  44. Jane Mcvaine
    May 17, 2015

    Realmente MAGNIFICO !!!

  45. Dick Brinkhurst
    May 17, 2015

    Love this and the close up of bees with pollen. Sadly, the latter told how support pins had been ‘photo-shopped’ out of the picture. This brought back memories of my 60’s schooldays when moths and other insects were imobilised by chemicals and graced a glass fronted cabinet. STOP THE CHEMICAL INDUSTRIES MAKING INSECTICIDES THAT KILL BEES.

  46. Dick Brinkhurst
    May 17, 2015

    Saw this and the other pics. Of bees. Sadly, 3/4 of the way through the pictures it stated that the support pins were ‘photoshopped

  47. Carrie O’Leary
    May 17, 2015

    What an absolutely fabulous piece of filming / photography. I am a very amateur nature photographer and am particularly interested in finding insects to photograph, but this is just so stunning to see.

  48. Juliette
    May 17, 2015

    I just had yesterday a beautiful dream about bees and now I see your wonderful pictures. Thanks.

  49. Lance Werner
    May 17, 2015

    un bee lievable

  50. Luis
    May 17, 2015

    Muy impresionante y emotivo. Me recuerda cuando trabajé con la polilla de las harinas(Anagasta sp) y me pasaba los días enteros observando con el estereoscopio la aparaicon de las pequeñas larvas.

  51. Gard Otis
    May 17, 2015

    I have studied honeybees for 40 years, yet quickly learned things about them I had never known during this amazing short video. It is incredibly well done.

  52. Patricia
    May 17, 2015

    I cannot get the Video either, stills are fabulous!

  53. Jim White
    May 17, 2015

    Amazing, after all the years of trying to understand nature we still find the unknown.???

  54. Azzeddine
    May 17, 2015

    We are with you to protect bees

  55. Nina
    May 17, 2015

    I am looking forward to sharing this clip with my students. I think it’s wonderful,

  56. Cecilia
    May 17, 2015

    I realize what a tremendous Godly contribution these bees have for the survival of humanity on Earth!
    Thank you for opening our minds to protecting the bees.

  57. Marcela
    May 17, 2015

    My grandkids lived it, this is a gift for all of us!!!
    Thank you National Geographic!!

  58. James V. Kohl
    May 17, 2015

    This is a fantastic video representation of how nutrient-dependent pheromone-controlled RNA-directed DNA methylation links ecological variation to RNA-mediated ecological adaptations via amino acid substitutions in all genera.

  59. Larry Eckhart
    May 17, 2015

    Thank you

  60. Carrol
    May 17, 2015

    That was the coolest and most educational video/story I will probably read all month. Thank You

  61. M G Lopez lambarria
    May 17, 2015

    Hermosas desde el huevo, la pupa y al final la abejita

  62. Joan Churton
    May 17, 2015

    What wonderful work you have done. I have always loved bees, now I understand them a bit more.Thank you.

  63. Tammie
    May 17, 2015

    such amazing photographs and your little film! thank you so much for capturing and sharing this unfolding life.

  64. Teyjah McAren
    May 17, 2015

    Very interesting and so very educational. Thank you.

  65. Mandeep Singh
    May 17, 2015

    Incredible photography! great job

  66. Yvonne Harwood
    May 17, 2015

    As is the case with so much in life, your wonderful video was too short. I longed to see more. Excellent work! Congratulations.

  67. m. estep
    May 17, 2015

    another magnificient miracle on our wonderful planet. handle with care.

  68. Lynn M.
    May 17, 2015

    Life is a miracle, thanks for helping us see this.

  69. Jenni
    May 17, 2015

    Phenomenal photography….and rare insight and footage of development of new bee life! Congrats and continue with great work….

  70. S
    May 17, 2015

    I couldn’t get the timelapse to play so I looked it up on Youtube and you can see Dr Varma’s TED talk which includes it and also addresses the battle against the Varroa mite:

  71. Sergio Miquel, CHILE.
    May 17, 2015

    Congratulations! It,s a most interesting experience, but I could not run the video, please explain how to do it.

  72. Nassy Fesharaki
    May 17, 2015

    How unaware I am of the miraculous life.

  73. Harold in Central Ohio
    May 17, 2015

    A lot that happens in the hives and life cycles needs more discovery. Work like this allows a wider appreciation for work to expand knowledge and support of pollinator science. Thank You

  74. Leonard Webre
    May 17, 2015

    Wonderful Video! Great work!

  75. fred foster
    May 17, 2015

    Last summer I noticed that honey bees appear to be the only insects capable of opening the sweet pea flowers. I wondered if the apiarists were aware of this.

    May 17, 2015

    Nature has its own beauty…very nice

  77. Ron North
    May 17, 2015

    Brilliant photography, and so interesting. Nature sure is a wonderful thing.

  78. Vassilis GANIATSAS
    May 17, 2015

    What’s the little bug that appears in each cell during the final transformation stage ? Does it play any role in the process?

  79. Elda
    May 17, 2015

    Really fascinating and highly interesting. Also, the commentary is slow and clear enough to be understood by anybody.

  80. betti gillezeau
    May 17, 2015

    Thank you so much for sharing this interesting and educational video. The magnificent honeybees, who are always busy producing…HONEY…LIQUID GOLD…for human beings as it provides numerous health benefits for us. Please let us all now respect the HONEYBEE AND THEIR HIVES! ! !
    betti Trinidad & Tobago

  81. Sandra
    May 17, 2015

    Isn’t it amazing how most living organisms – including humans – look alike during creation? This is a beautiful video….thank you!

  82. Dee
    May 17, 2015

    Always learning!, sent to all of my grandchildren. Great work. Thanks for sharing with the world.

  83. fbartling
    May 17, 2015

    And then there are people who would
    call this a “B “movie !
    God,s creations are unbelievable !

  84. Jayanti
    May 17, 2015

    Its seems beauty with wonders. Great work!!!

  85. Ronald Lee
    May 17, 2015

    A piece of science revealed. You gave us the art of science. Interesting picture tells many words and description. I marvel at nature, thanks!

  86. Gary Buczkowski
    May 17, 2015

    Truly amazing video ! Thanks for sharing.

  87. paul walsh
    May 17, 2015

    Congratulations mate that is one excellent piece of work . Well done. I to would love to see a video or better still get it produced into a documentary i am sure national geographic would be willing to help do so

  88. Lisa O’Hara
    May 17, 2015

    Thank you for opening my world through the lens of your creation!

  89. Mike okaka
    May 17, 2015

    Fantastic! Nature and Creation . There’s a Superior Inteligence priming all these processes ,and that is GOD Almighty

  90. Cally Staniland
    May 17, 2015

    Magical, thank you for sharing

  91. dorian
    May 17, 2015

    Life at its’ finest

  92. Canta
    May 17, 2015

    In one word – WOW!

  93. Daniel
    May 17, 2015

    Great Job!

  94. Celina Arreola
    May 17, 2015

    Awesome!!!, Thanks.

  95. Ali smedley
    May 17, 2015

    This is amazing. Then I think how many people just kill insects with no knowledge of the process of production I wonder if they would do the same if they saw that process.

  96. Damien Boudy
    May 17, 2015

    This movie is very interesting. I have never see that part of bee life. It could be interesting to publish a longer movie with all the trials you have done.
    Hope to see that

  97. Anna Alier
    May 16, 2015

    Excellents images and great work

  98. Antonio
    May 16, 2015

    Excellent vídeo

  99. Sung Yun Um
    May 15, 2015

    Can’t believe there was an ant infestation… That is so sad. I imagine how amazing it would have been to live with these bees for 6 months, incredible experience.

  100. Fausto
    May 15, 2015

    These are some the most magnificent photographs I have ever seen! Very interesting.

  101. Danny Davies
    May 15, 2015

    Hi Melody. Your photographs are beautiful. I like your technique using stacking. this method is now gaining popular.

    One question. I wanted to see the finished video. I have looked and looked but can not find, I have clicked on the first bee. and clicked on proof.

    Please tell me how to see your video.

  102. shivani
    May 15, 2015

    wow… its incredible … really nature always surprises me.. thanks a lot guys for your ingenious work…

  103. tony
    May 15, 2015

    open my way to see the fantastic world

  104. Douglas J West
    May 15, 2015

    Fantastic video with solid explanation of what is occurring. The best part, not too long.

  105. William Gao
    May 15, 2015

    Very interesting and valuable study.

  106. Pramod Upadhyay
    May 15, 2015

    Truly Inspiring

  107. Sherin
    May 15, 2015

    Wow… cool.

  108. Naldi
    May 15, 2015

    Bee movie…fantastic!

  109. hang
    May 14, 2015


  110. syeanne
    May 14, 2015

    what happened to the rest of the 3 bees that hasn’t developed? (see last image)

  111. Leann
    May 14, 2015

    given our bee population in Australia is at an all time low these photos and knowledge is more valuable than most would think..
    Thank you for sharing your beautiful pictures and taking the time to document the fascinating life of bees

  112. Myrick
    May 14, 2015

    Wow. Just wow. God is incredible. I have a hive myself, and you never get to see this close! Great work!

  113. Ann-Marie Hunter
    May 14, 2015

    Thank you for this wonderful video! It certainly is sad to see the devastation that is done by the mites. Our bees have to live with their interference in their hives all the time!

  114. Mohamed Kharrubi
    May 14, 2015

    Very impressive and educational work. I’m also asking for more eye opening photos from inside the beehive. Thank you.

  115. Garikai
    May 14, 2015

    Natural wonders, quite interesting hw bees live

  116. Nickolai
    May 14, 2015


  117. Douglas Sutherland
    May 14, 2015

    Badly infested with varroa mites which suck the bee blood from the pupae and weaken them causing them stress which opens them to attack from any bee diseases.
    Clever work and very informative.
    I have seen hundreds of thousands of young bees going through the process, but never saw it in time lapse.
    I learned a lot from this valuable work.

  118. ksopo1
    May 14, 2015

    Beautiful details that my eyes don’t see so easily in my colonies.Thankyou

  119. khadijat
    May 14, 2015

    Really detailed and lovely

  120. Quince
    May 14, 2015

    I keep several bee colonies, but this film showed more than I could see of bee development. Gorgeous, despite the disturbing mites section. Great music, too.

  121. kusnadidi subekti
    May 14, 2015

    Fascinating video & great article

  122. Hussain
    May 14, 2015

    lovely pics…

  123. Heike
    May 14, 2015

    Fascinating movie and great story !

  124. Doug Gimesy
    May 14, 2015

    Beautiful macro work.

    I fully appreciate the emotional connection Varma felt.

    I spent a few weeks doing macro of jumping spiders last summer and am now conscious of hurting any insect When you get up close and watch for a while, you start to engage and realise more and more just how wonderful and majestic they are.

    I guess that could be said about any living things, both within and outside our species.

  125. jahnavi
    May 14, 2015

    Wow.. interesting

  126. Surender Rachamalla
    May 13, 2015

    Bees life Excellent

  127. Karen
    May 13, 2015

    Wonderful article! Can’t wait to show this to my science students tomorrow!

  128. Artemio Betancourt Delgado
    May 13, 2015

    Excellent video!!

  129. Daniel
    May 13, 2015

    Best short movie about bees.

  130. Maria Auxiliadora Jacob
    May 13, 2015

    Very Very nice !

  131. Dru
    May 13, 2015


  132. Kurt Nehrbass
    May 13, 2015

    Wonderful pictures! What a great way to show a bees life from the beginning!

  133. Lucy
    May 13, 2015

    very, very interesting

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