Chasing Honey

January 14, 2013

By RF Staff

When photographer Ilona McCarty—renowned for her close-up work of flowers and nature—first focused her camera on honeybees for a magazine article about the western Rocky Mountain region of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming in 2007, she was unaware of the bees’ predicament. 

Since 2006, more than three million honeybees in the U.S. and billions worldwide have mysteriously died (according to The Honeybee Conservancy), and scientists are stumped as to why. There’s been speculation about their mysterious disappearance, from mites to fungus to killer bees to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)—a phenomenon in which bees from a colony suddenly leave the hive and die.

Unfortunately, this problem isn’t only about honey. The impact honeybees have on our food supply is enormous, as they play a vital part in the production of about one-third of the fruits, vegetables and nuts we consume on a daily basis. 

McCarty, who was born in Germany to a European mother and an American father, has lived most of her life in California, Montana and Idaho, and always felt a kinship to the region. “Idaho will always be close to my heart, as its landscape is diverse, exciting, beautiful and has four seasons,” she says. “There is nothing like a white, clean, crisp winter; the green, fresh newness of spring; water sports of summer; and the colors of fall. With nature photography, the changes are key for me.”

Those changes were also crucial in McCarty’s photographic study of bees and their environment, which became a niche project, with her initial magazine work extending into the book, A Short History of the Honeybee: Humans, Flowers, and Bees in the Eternal Chase for Honey (first printed in 2009 by Timber Press, Inc.) For McCarty, the road from magazine article to book publishing hummed along at a steady pace.

The Sweet Life

In the article “The Sweet Life,” McCarty and writer Gina Knudson collaborated for Bozeman, Montana’s Big Sky Journal magazine. For that piece, McCarty spent considerable time learning about and photographing the honeybees at Salmon Valley Honey, owned and operated by beekeepers Dan and Lisa Mudd in Salmon, Idaho, where McCarty also resides. 

“We loved their story. Their methods of beekeeping are as organic as it gets,” McCarty says. “Interestingly, CCD came into the mainstream news about the same time we first started this story on bees, and it became more serious as time went on.” 

Happily, the Mudd’s hives did not suffer the same fate as many others—possibly because they don’t ship their bees to warmer climates in the winter where they can mix with other bees. Instead, the bees (who, when left to their own devices, don’t migrate), “winter over” at home. “The bees have a sense of place,” says McCarty. “This is their home. [The Mudd’s] honey product is outstanding and rare—the taste is very clean.” 

The Mudd’s bee-haven landscape served as backdrop for McCarty’s photos, which were taken with Nikon equipment. Though she mainly shoots digital, she still uses film (Fuji Velvia) on occasion. “Everything was shot in daylight using regular, everyday lenses and occasionally a macro,” she says. Because she typically shot in the middle of the day, the harsh light sometimes required a diffuser and/or a fill-flash. Aside from that, no extraordinary equipment or photographic tricks were used.

McCarty’s biggest challenge while photographing was not that bees are moving targets—but that they sting. “I did not want to get stung,” she says, and admits to being a bit nervous when it comes to things like snakes and insects, “but my curiosity and love of nature and the environment over-ruled all that silliness.”

Dan Mudd’s pointers on how to behave around bees also helped quell her fears. Those included learning to relax and not using perfumed soaps, shampoos, etc., because if you smell like a flower, you’re going to attract some interest. 

McCarty also wore protective gear such as a pith helmet with veil, which posed its own unique problems. “Trying to shoot with the veil and hat on with my long hair was interesting,” she explains. “The camera pressed on the veil, which was tied or zipped down. With the fast shooting movement, it would push my hair into my eyes. That’s the only time I thought about shaving my head!”  

Going to Press

The original magazine article’s photos won a Lucie International Photography Award  honorable mention in 2008, which McCarty believes helped in the book pitch to Timber Press/Workman. 

“One thing leads to another,” she says of the publishing process. Her connection to the book’s author—writer and former beekeeper, Edward Readicker-Henderson—came because of a chance meeting for writers and photographers at a luncheon in New York City, where Readicker-Henderson was receiving a writing award. “We had a conversation about our favorite stories of the year, and mine was the bees,” McCarty says. “He then told me his story about beekeeping, which is in the first chapter of the book. I said we should do a book on bees and beekeeping, and he liked the idea.”  

A Short History of the Honeybee: Humans, Flowers, and Bees in the Eternal Chase for Honey—eventually published in 2009—features McCarty’s photographs of honeybees in their environs, with text by Readicker-Henderson. 

The book not only details the current CCD crisis, but also, the history of the honeybee including its evolution from a solitary insect to one that lives and works for the good of the group; why it stings; how pollination works; and how important and significant honeybees are to the lives of everyone on the planet. Of course, there’s also a section devoted to honey, its history and many varieties available. 

McCarty included other bee farms in the book, such as Kona Queens in Hawaii, and an almond orchard in California, which she photographed aerially from the side of a Piper Super Cub airplane. “It was a two-person airplane—pilot in front, me in back—and a tight space to work in, especially with gear,” she says. “We had the door and window open, like a clamshell. The wind was blowing and we made some pretty steep turns, but the pilot made me feel safe. I loved this part of photographing so much, I called it an ‘aerial orgasm.’ ”

In all seriousness, McCarty says the bees’ issues should be front and center to everyone because, “Nature and history are what we are and are important.” Along those lines, a portion of the profits from A Short History of the Honeybee are donated to the Foundation for the Preservation of the Honey Bees, the nonprofit arm of the American Beekeeping Association.

Publishing Pointers

A Short History of the Honeybee is actually McCarty’s second book; Fleurish, a photo essay of flowers with poetic text by Veronica D’Orazio (Sasquatch Books) was her first (Rangefinder published that work in October, 2006, and she received a Lucie IPA that same year for the work). 

“I’ve had the great fortune to work with writers that work with the photographer as a team to get the best story,” McCarty says. “These writers share and listen, which makes everyone’s job easier and more interesting—teamwork without egos. Each book was different and wonderful in its own way. With books, you shouldn’t have any firm expectations on their outcome.” 

Emma Alpaugh, publicist for Timber Press, Inc., says the photographer plays as important a role as the author when it comes to promoting a book. “The photographer communicates the subject through a visual language, something many people need in order to fully understand a concept,” Alpaugh explains. “The photographer is also the creative force behind the project and has a different perspective to share with the audience...The most successful book campaigns have resulted from active authors and artists.”

McCarty’s has her own advice on publishing: “Go to a book store or library and take notes of the publishers that have done books you like,” she says. “Get online and see what else that company has published, because you don’t want to pitch something it already has in print. Look for its submission guidelines, follow them, and go for it.” 

Lorraine A. DarConte is a freelance writer/photographer living in Tucson, Arizona. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Rangefinder, Studio Photography & Design, Newsday and the Tucson Visitors’ Guide.