When photographing normally active, fast-moving insects like bees, it often pays to catch them when they pause to groom themselves. On March 1, while retrieving the mail, I discovered this exhausted worker honeybee on the steps of my apartment building. She gave me a great opportunity to get some nice close-ups while she cleaned herself.
Another advantage to shooting images of grooming insects is that the creature often displays features of its anatomy not normally visible when it is simply resting, or going about its regular business of pollinating, eating, mating, or transporting itself. For example, a bee’s abdomen is usually concealed by the wings folded over its back at rest. As she shifted her weight to allow her to rub her hind legs together, this worker revealed her abdominal pattern.
The little dance she was doing was cute and amusing to me, but all business to her. Bees, both social and solitary, easily become gummed up in residual nectar and other floral exudates, or damp soil that adheres to their bodies in the course of excavating a nest burrow. “Setae,” the sensitive body hairs that aid a bee in navigating its environment, must be kept free of such debris in order to function properly.
It might look here like the bee is insulting me by sticking out its “tongue,” but her mouthparts need to be kept clean as well. While bees have chewing mouthparts, they also have highly modified segments, some of them fused into a tongue-like appendage that lets them lap up nectar.
This bee eventually re-energized, and redeemed herself by giving me a respectful salute before flying off to resume pollinating flowers and/or scouting for a new nest site.