How to Make an Impact as a Conservation Photographer with Clay Bolt
What sets conservation photographers apart from all other photographers? The answer lies in part in what we do after our photos are published. As a conservation photographer, this is often when the hard work of making an impact actually begins.
Early into your journey as a conservation photographer, you discover that the work you do with your camera is only a tiny fraction of the entire scope of your advocacy.
You shoot a story. The images are in print, people have hit “like” on social media, and the fanfair around the story has died down… but the issue that you documented likely still persists. The work doesn't end with publication. The hardest and most important work often just begins.
Clay Bolt is a conservation photographer who takes this hard work to heart and is an incredibly inspiring example of someone who works tirelessly and is a catalyst for positive change both through his beautifully crafted photographs of pollinator species, and through the relentless behind-the-scenes work to change laws, establish protections, and build a genuinely engaged audience around the conservation efforts he cares so much about.
Clay Bolt specializes in photographing the world’s smaller creatures. His current major focus is on North America’s native bees and the important roles that they play in our lives.
Clay was a leading voice in the fight to protect the rusty-patched bumble bee under the Endangered Species Act, which became North America's first federally protected native bee in 2017. In 2019, Bolt became the first photographer to document a living Wallace's Giant Bee—the world's largest bee—as a part of a four person exploration team to rediscover the species in the Indonesian islands knowns as the North Moluccas.
Clay has accomplished extraordinary things in his career as a professional wildlife conservation photographer – and much of it accomplished after the photos have been made. In this episode, we get to sit down with Clay as he shares both the extraordinary stories of field work with camera in hand, and his knowledge and advice about what to do to really make an impact.
- What happens behind the scenes when advocating for an endangered species
- Clay's strategy for research and building a network of advocacy partners
- How film can play an important role in reaching audiences
As Clay notes in the interview: “Taking a photo is great. It gives a photographer or a videographer and experience that you probably won't ever forget. But if you don't do anything with those images to give back to the species that you're you're documenting, then they're great but they're not really a tool for advocacy. Advocacy really starts after the point when that product has been created and released into the world.”
There's a ton of experience, wisdom and inspiration in this interview. I hope you enjoy listening as much as I did.
- Global Wildlife Conservation
- Ghost in the Making
- Xerces Society
- North American Nature Photography Association
- Colorado State, Communications for Conservation
- World Wildlife Fund
- National Geographic Society
- Discover Life in America
- Days Edge Productions
- National Resource Defense Council
- Linnean Society
Episode 008: How to Make an Impact as a Conservation Photographer with Clay Bolt
(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)
What sets conservation photographers apart from all other photographers? Well, part of the answer to that question lies in what we do after our photos are published. As a conservation photographer, this is often when the hard work of making an impact actually begins. The images are in print, people have hit "like" on social media, and the fanfare around the story has died down, but the issue that you documented that got published likely still persists. The work doesn't end with publication. The hardest and the most important work is often just getting started.
Clay Bolt is a conservation photographer who takes this hard work to heart. He's an incredibly inspiring example of someone who works tirelessly. And he's a catalyst for positive change both through his beautifully crafted photographs of pollinator species and through the relentless behind-the-scenes work he does to change laws, to establish protections, and to build a genuinely engaged audience around the conservation efforts that he cares so much about. Clay is a natural history and conservation photographer who specializes in the world's smaller creatures, and indeed he's kind of become known as the "bee guy." He regularly partners with organizations such as the National Geographic Society and the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, and his current major focus is on North America's native bees and the important roles that they play in our lives. Clay has accomplished some amazing things in his career. He has been a leading voice in the fight to protect the rusty-patched bumblebee under the Endangered Species Act, and that actually became North America's first federally protected native bee in 2017. And then just two years later, Clay turns around, and in 2019, he becomes the first photographer to document a living Wallace's giant bee. This is the world's largest bee. And, man, when that news story hit the wires, it was bananas. But the work didn't end with that major media blitz, it just began.
In this episode, we get to sit down with Clay and hear his stories, not only about the times of getting out in the field and documenting these species, which are amazing stories, but we also get to hear the stories about what happened next. Some of this is really fascinating, and some of it is also really actionable. In this episode, you get to learn about what you, as a conservation photographer, can do after your photos are published. These are some really amazing next steps that are gonna take you to the next level and making an impact. So, let's get into this awesome interview with Clay Bolt.
Welcome to Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast. I'm your host, Jaymi Heimbuch. And if you are a visual storyteller with a love for all things wild, then you're in the right place. From conservation to creativity, from business to marketing, and everything in between, this podcast is for you. The conservation visual storyteller who is ready to make an impact. Let's dive in.
Thank you so much for joining me on this episode of Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast. Clay, I'm so excited that you were willing to get interviewed because there's a lot that I really wanna dive into with you about your work, and specifically talking about the way that you do so much inspiring work after the photos are completed, after that story gets out there into the world. You're still moving and shaking behind that, behind the scenes. And so I'm so grateful that you're willing to talk with us about what that looks like for you.
Clay Bolt: It's my pleasure, Jaymi. I'm super happy to be here and glad to share what I've learned so that we can help a lot of other people get involved with conservation photography.
JH: Perfect. Well, I've known you for, boy, quite a few years now, and it was a couple of years ago that one of the, I feel like one of the big stories really happened that you've worked on. This was one of the most inspiring stories that I've seen in really recent years, and it was Ghost in the Making, and it's this film that you created. I would love if you could start out with us by talking about what is Ghost in the Making, and what made you want to create this short film.
CB: Well, probably around 2013, like so many people, I was hearing about the bad things that were happening to bees. And I'm a person who has spent my entire life really focused on insects. I loved them as a kid. I used to draw them, I used to raise them. And in my photography, it was the same situation, where I was always looking at little under-appreciated species. And so I began to hear all of this news about the die-off of honey bees and began to get concerned, and realized that, as much as I was focused on invertebrates and insects, I had really avoided that topic for no particular reason other than I was interested in other things. But I realized like, all right, I thought to myself, "I need to really begin to learn more."
So, I went out and I began to photograph the bees that were in my garden. And I came away from that first day of photography really amazed at some of those small insects that I had found, some of the small bees that I had photographed. And like we do these days, I took the images online and tried to find out the identification of some of the species that I had photographed, and quickly found that some of the ones that I had documented experts could get them to family level, to genus level, but it was difficult to identify them. And that made me realize that, wow, this is a story that a lot of people don't really know very much about. And so from that point, I began to try to do what I could to learn more and more about species, and I soon learned that there are 4000 species of native bees, and that the honey bee, the one that everyone was focused on, was actually really native to Europe and Asia. And so I was like, "Wow, I need to really try to shift this story in a different direction." There are 4000 species around and, at that time, not many people were talking about them.
And so, because I didn't have a degree in biology because, at the time, I wasn't a bee specialist, I needed to really see some of these bees in person, so that, when I'm in the field, I could identify them. And so I went to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I was associated with an organization called Discover Life in America, which was tied very closely with Great Smoky Mountains, and began to look at the collection there. And the park entomologist, Becky Nichols, showed me around. And towards the end of my visit, she showed me this species of bumblebee called the rusty-patched bumble bee. And this was in early 2014, and she said, "This species used to be super common in the park." She said, "You could go right outside the doors of this science center and they were everywhere, and now, we can't find one anywhere. We've looked exhaustively throughout the park." And so I was just blown away by this. It was not the most showy bee. It wasn't a species that I had remembered seeing, although I'm sure as a kid, it was around, it was abundant, but I totally overlooked it. But I began to get intrigued that something that was once so common had nearly disappeared, and that's really what set me on this path to trying to learn more about the rusty-patched.
JH: So, then that turned into a film project first, and I really wanna dive into what happened after the film and get into the meat and potatoes of that. But Ghost in the Making is such an incredible short film. What made you wanna do that rather than focus entirely on images of the species?
CB: That's a good question. I think the simplest answer is that I knew that I wanted to take photos. There were not many good photos of the species, but I also felt, because the situation for the bee was so dire, it had declined nearly 90% in 15 years. So, imagine an insect that was very common across this range, which was pretty much across the eastern half of the United States, had nearly declined 90%. It was only found in a couple of places, so I knew I needed to document it in ways that inspired people. But I felt like, because the bee wasn't the most beautiful of all bees in terms of coloration, unique behavior, anything like that, I also needed to tie in moving pictures. I needed to document it in film because I felt like if people could hear the sounds of its wings, if people could see how it moves throughout its environment, I would allow me to tell a different kind of story.
I'm often frustrated because so many stories about insects they focus on the creepy-crawly aspect, and I think that that's basically, in part, just because as people were some of the largest creatures on earth, and we tend to focus on the other large things like grizzly bears and pronghorn and elk. But the world is full of these really small beautiful creatures, and so I felt like film would allow me to really get into that small world in a different kind of way.
JH: And I think you really accomplished that with Ghost in the Making. I felt like, when I was watching this, not only did I get to see so much beauty and humor, frankly, around this bee species, because bumble bees are hysterical, but it was also a lot about you and your journey, and documenting this bee as well. It was a really inspiring film. So, this film comes out, and it starts to hit theaters and you're screening it. What was the reaction that you were getting as you talked to people who watched this film?
CB: Well, I'll back up a little bit and just say that I wanted to focus on the wonder of the species. I wanted people to come away from watching the film... And it wasn't just me. I should say, it was my co-producer, Neil Losin, and I, from Day's Edge Productions, who really spent a lot of time thinking about how we wanted the narrative and the story to go. And we knew that we didn't want to produce a film that was justifying the existence of the species just because of its value for crops, for example. We wanted people to just appreciate it because of its intrinsic value. We did include humor, we did include some things that were a bit on the emotional side, because I do care deeply about these insects and I don't mind getting a little anthropomorphic at times because, well, I'm not a biologist and that's one of the strengths, I think, I can be bring to the story for people who are not used to reading scientific papers.
So, the reactions that we got afterwards were people were touched. I think that people... One of the things I find in general with a lot of the presentations I do about insects is that, once people see how beautiful a species is, even if it's kind of a bizarre character, they can never look at those things the same way again. And I think, with this story, people came away thinking about bumble bees differently and really going beyond the idea that honey bees are the only bees that mattered. But not only that, I think it encouraged people to begin to... I would get notes from people, sending me photos, like, "I found this bee. Is it a rusty-patched?" Or like, "I planted wildflowers in my garden," those kinds of things. It did show me the power of film to change people's perspective on species and animals that sometimes are overlooked for the more charismatic megafauna.
JH: Right. And this was a really powerful tool, and I wanna emphasize the fact that this is indeed a tool. This was not an end product, and you just stopped and nodded and moved on to the next thing. Can you talk about what happened after this when it comes to the endangered status of the rusty-patched bumblebee?
CB: Sure. Basically, when we were producing this film, one of the reasons we went about doing it, in addition to just the fact that the species was in decline, is because basically there were some scientists who had come together, some different NGOs who had come together, and presented the findings to the Fish and Wildlife Service, that they felt that the rusty-patched deserved to be a candidate for listing on the endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. And there's a process that you go through called the 90-day finding, in which you submit your petition, you submit your information in the Fish and Wildlife Service. By law, they're supposed to get back to you within 90 days. Well, at the time when we started making the film, it had been almost 900 days since the petition had been filed, and it was just sitting in limbo essentially. The NRDC had actually worked with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation to sue the Fish and Wildlife Service, but at that point it was still stuck. And so we needed to have a tool, a product that could provide the leverage we needed, the awareness we needed, and bring more exposure to this bee to push the listing over the finish line.
And as a result of that, once we produced it, it wasn't just a matter of like, "Well, we're done," as you mentioned. It was more a matter of saying, "Okay, now, how do we... " Really at that point is when the work really began. And I think that's something that I want people to understand about the work that we do, is that taking a photo is great and it gives you, as a photographer, or a videographer, an experience that you probably won't ever forget. But if you don't do anything with those images to get back to the species that you're documenting, then they're great, but they're not really a tool for advocacy. Advocacy really starts after the point when that product has been created and released into the world.
And so what we did is Neil and I worked on putting the film into film festivals. I participated in events all around the country, including we did a big launch at National Geographic Headquarters in Washington. They were releasing a new ecological plan for the district, and this was one of the tools that they used to kick off because the rusty-patched used to be found in DC. I even had the privilege of speaking during a congressional briefing on Capitol Hill, which is something I never thought I'd be able to do. And I showed the film, gave a short speech basically, and that was picked up in the Washington Post. So, I began to do these different things that raised the awareness and using the tool to speak for the insect when it couldn't actually, of course, be there to speak for itself. That's a little bit silly sounding, but it was a way to give a voice to this animal.
And I wrote articles, and we created a petition on change.org, which included the film, but we were trying to raise signatures that we can in turn give to the Fish and Wildlife Service to say that this species is important to people. And fortunately, Change actually elevated the petition. Sometimes, if you're lucky and you create a petition that they feel has particular merit, they will push it to the forefront. And they helped us refine it a little bit, and we ultimately ended up raising around 130,000 signatures, which we gave to the Fish and Wildlife Service. And it made a big difference actually. I wouldn't say that if I didn't have evidence of that, but I was told by members of the Fish And Wildlife Service, staff, as well as other people in the know, that the film really did play a real role in convincing them that the public wanted to see the species listed.
And for me, one of the things that I love the most is the comments. I read every comment, and there was also a public commenting period after they decided to list it. People were very enthusiastic about the bee. Most people that made comments, I would say 99% of the people that made comments, had never seen a rusty-patched before, but there was this inherit understanding that this was something that was important to our world. And it really helped me believe in the power of visual meeting, but also it helped me have hope that while we're definitely in a bad place with the environment in nature at this point, that people do care more than sometimes we give them credit for, we just have to be the guides that show them why they should care and what they should care for.
JH: Right. And that really panned out in terms of what happened with getting the species listed, right?
CB: Right, yeah. So, after the Fish and Wildlife Service gave us the incredible news that the species was warranted for listing... Typically after that happens, it takes about a year, a year and a half, because what they do is they formulate a plan to protect the species. And, of course, in this case, it's very tricky because you have a species not in an Arctic Refuge but a species that's found primarily these days in people's backyards.
Some of the hotspots for the bee at this point are in places like Madison, Wisconsin, where we did a lot of the filming, and in Illinois and Minneapolis. And so these are places where the bee is coming in contact on a daily basis with lots of different people and lots of different types of things that could potentially be harmful. And so we knew that it was gonna take a while, but this was right at the end of the Obama administration, and Trump had been, I think, nominated at this point, and so the Fish and Wildlife Service essentially, I think, wanted to wrap it up before the change of administration. So, it was pushed through. And it was in the New York Times. One of the photos that I made in Madison was in the New York Times. Obama protects the bee on his way out, on his way out of office, and it was just a joyous occasion. I was watching Saturday Night Live, and Michael Che was making jokes about it, and joking about essentially me being this guy who dedicated his life to protecting the bumblebee. It was wild. And so it was like... It was an insane moment in my life. It's the closest thing to celebrity, I think, I've just about ever felt.
And then, maybe a week later, Trump comes into office, and the listing is delayed. And so it was like this incredible roller-coaster, like, "I can't believe this has happened. It's happened and now it's delayed." And I will say it is common for new incoming administrations to freeze listings so that things can be evaluated. But one of the things that we all noticed, those of us who were working on this, especially colleagues and partners in the Xerces Society, who were a big part of this effort, noticed that there was very little feedback from industry. There was very little feedback from oil and gas during the commenting period, and oil and gas is often against things like this because pipelines pass through and affect the habitat for these species. Chemical companies, so on and so forth.
And so when this happened, when the new administration came into office and the listing was delayed, I suddenly felt like my fears had come true, that people were just laying low essentially until the new administration came in. And so there was a huge panic. There was talk, like, "Well, do we sue? Do we do this?" And then sort of miraculously, a few days later, another series of articles came out praising Trump for protecting the rusty-patched bumblebee. The story of what happened behind the scenes perhaps is different than that. But long story short, I was very grateful that it happened, and I felt like now that we had that listing being the first species of native North American bee to receive protection under the Endangered Species Act. And because bumblebees are generalist species, where lots of other species that need help are found within their habitat types, that we had done something to set a precedent for protecting a lot of other species.
JH: That is so huge. It's amazing to hear this story because I feel like it really emphasizes the fact that, as a conservation photographer, your role in the field is a tiny percentage of your role behind the scenes after the images or the film is made in pushing this forward.
I have so many more questions that I wanna ask you about how aspiring conservation photographers or how I get into understanding what do I do on an issue, or how do I find out what next steps are? How do I know who to connect with in order to make these important changes happen? But before I ask those, there is another story that I would love for you to talk about, where you also basically attained some celebrity status on that because it was a huge story, literally. The Wallace's giant bee. This was a massive news story when it came out, and again, you did a lot of work after all of that fanfare died down. You did a ton of work for the species that was really important. Would you mind talking a little bit about what the Wallace's giant bee is, and what that news story was? And then we can slide into everything that you've been doing ever since.
CB: Sure. And I'll try to make this as brief as possible. But essentially, similar to the situation that happened when I was in Great Smoky Mountains National Park Collection, I had a chance to visit with a person who was a great entomologist, named Eli Wyman, who at the time was working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. And I went this time to look at bumblebees in Eli's collection. In particular, I was interested in seeing Bombus franklini, which is a species that is probably extinct, unfortunately, in the United States at this stage, a close relative of the rusty-patched, as well as some other species, like the western bumblebee, Bombus occidentalis, and others. And so I was looking through the bees, Eli was also showing me species of bees from around the world, and at the very end of my trip, and this was probably about three and a half, four years ago, at the very end of my time there at the museum, he said, "Hey, would you like to see a Wallace's giant bee?
Now, Wallace's giant bee, the scientific name is Megachile pluto, was first discovered in 1858 by a famous explorer, naturalist, and co-creator of the theory of evolution called Alfred Russel Wallace. And Wallace was famous for sending a letter to Charles Darwin, in which he basically came up with the theory of evolution on his own and presented it to his hero, Darwin, and said, "Hey, what do you think about this?" Darwin had already been sitting on this idea for about, I don't know, I think it's like 10 years, but several years, he'd been sitting on this idea and was just very concerned, for numerous reasons, for releasing it. And when he received this letter from Wallace, he essentially, I think, freaked out, published a letter, and did a presentation at the Linnean Society in London and said, "Hey, we need to do... I wanna publish this idea, and thanks to Alfred Russel Wallace for coming up with this idea alongside me," blah, blah, blah.
So, Wallace discovered this bee in 1858, sent a specimen back to London. And at first, he wasn't really sure what it was. He thought that maybe it was a giant beetle or a wasp type of creature. Wallace's giant bee is a very strange-looking insect. It has huge mandibles, which it uses to scrape up resin, which it uses to build its nest. It lives inside of these arboreal termite mounds, termite mounds found in trees, and it's just a strange-looking creature. It was lost until around... At least to Westerners, it was lost until around 1981, when an American forester and his assistant visited this part of the world called North Maluku, or the North Moluccas, you see it both ways.
And Messer spent a lot of time on the big Island of Halmahera, as well as Tidore and Bacan Island, where Wallace originally discovered the giant bee and found the bee again. And he spent some time observing it. Even though he was a forester, he and Paul Taylor spent, I think, a good bit of time observing the bees. And they produced a short paper, it was about a three-page paper that gave some of the basic information about the bee. And from that point... The paper came out in '83... Well, Messer was there in '81. From that point, the bee was not documented in the wild for many, many years, and it was feared to be extinct, 'cause as you know, or many people know, Indonesia is an area that's losing a lot of forest for palm oil plantations and things like that, and so there was thought that maybe it was gone.
Fortunately, not all of the parts of these islands had been deforested at this stage. And in general, there are lots of areas where people live in harmony with nature, to varying degrees. And so Eli and I began to have this wild idea, "What if we could go and rediscover it?" And I had this desire that... I was like, "What if I could photograph it in the wild? It's never been photographed." And it was purely for selfish reasons really. I just wanted to see it. And we talked about it for a couple of years until... Let's see, that would have been 2018, I think, maybe early 2019, a specimen of Wallace's giant bee showed up on eBay, the auction site eBay, and it sold for $9000 US, which is a lot of money for me, and it's a tremendous amount of money for someone who lives in that part of the world, in Indonesia. And at one point, the auction even went up to around, I think, $20,000 before it dropped back down.
Immediately, we weren't sure if the specimen was collected in the wild, but it was one that had popped up. The collector was somewhat... The seller was somewhat mysterious. And immediately I began to get concerned that if this was the rediscovery of the species, what happens when people get wind of the fact that this bee is so darn valuable? And so I knew at that point that we had to light a fire under ourselves and get started to try to find it in the wild.
Okay. So, Eli did a lot of leg work, basically trying to figure out where we could go to look for the bee. Adam Messer had basically disappeared. Many people had tried to contact him, he was a bit of a ghost, and he had very little luck getting in touch with him at first. There was a mention of a... There were some GPS coordinates mentioned in his paper, but they put the bee actually in the ocean. They weren't on any kind of mainland area. And so we didn't know if that was intentional or not, but there you go, there was no site-specific information we could find. And so Eli began to do a lot of detective work to try to track down Messer, and also figure out where the bee might be.
On the other side, I began to try to figure out how could we get around. This is a part of the world that is hard to travel in, they don't get a lot of tourist in this part of the world. So, through a various network, a huge network of people, I began to hone down different connections. We tried to reach out to researchers, but there was no one who was interested in working with us. There was not a lot of entomologists there on the islands where we were gonna be going. The long story short, ultimately, we found some places that we felt might be fruitful for looking for the bee. We went in January of 2019 and began to search. And we were joined by Simon Robson, who was a really great guy from Australia. He was an ant specialist and also a bat specialist. And a writer named Glen Chilton. And we just began to search. We searched in areas that we felt the bee would likely be.
Certainly, the first day, we saw things we thought might be Wallace's giant bee, but no luck. We found some large Megachile bees that looked very similar, but they were much smaller. They didn't have the characteristics. We found one that we were like, "Is this one?" But it went into the ground, so we knew it wasn't the right one. And we went to another island, and we searched and searched. We met with village chiefs, and we had local guides, and we continued to look. We spent lots of time looking at termite nests, because we didn't know how frequently they would come and go from the nest. Any nest that basically had a big entrance in it, where we felt like the bee could be, where the termite mounds were active, we would spend time observing, say, 20 minutes, then we'd move to the next one.
We did this for many days, and it wasn't until the last day in this one particular area that we were in, and I'm keeping it somewhat obscure just because I want to protect the bee that we found. Iswan, our guide, who was... He was a great guy, saw this nest that was about 7 or 8 feet off the ground, and it was in a jackfruit tree. And we were all hungry for lunch, we were exhausted from spending many hours in the field, and we were headed back to our lunch, basically, that had been delivered from the village. And he said, "Hey, there's a nest with an entrance in it." Iswan was an amazing tree climber, and he went up the tree and looked in the nest, and jumped down very quickly. He was very afraid of snakes. This guy was an amazing forest guide, but he was really afraid of snakes. And so he immediately jumped down and said, "I think I saw a snake in there." Eli climbs up, and neither of us, Eli or myself, are as agile as Iswan, but we did shimmy up the tree, and he's like, "Oh, my gosh. If there was ever a nest, this is it." Inside of the nest was perfectly lined with resin, it was perfectly bored out, it was just like... You could tell that something had been using it.
He climbed down, I climbed back up, and with my headlamp was looking inside of the nest, and I saw the female. And I couldn't believe it. We had come all the way around the world, spent money on our own dime essentially at that point to find it. I failed to mention that we were part of a lost species campaign with Global Wildlife conservation, but for the sake of time I won't go into that. That's all available online. But we had convinced Global Wildlife Conservation that this was an important species to look for, we'd gotten there, and there it was. I jump down. Immediately I'm like, "Ugh, what happens if it flies away?" So, I put like a test tube inside of the nest so that it would... She was busy working on her nest and she didn't seem agitated, so I just needed a minute to catch my breath.
At that point, after a lot of celebration, our guides were thrilled, we were thrilled, everyone was thrilled, I set up my cameras and I was like, "Okay. I wanna get her flying out." Well, the first thing I tried to do actually was photograph her inside of the nest, but that didn't work. So then I waited for her to fly out. I was like, "I'll get an action shot of her flying out." She was doing her thing in there. She was massive, and I was like, "I can't believe it." Finally, then we put a net over the back, of the entrance to the nest thinking she would fly into the net. We had a little flight box that we were gonna photograph her in, 'cause we needed proof. She didn't come out. Eventually what we did is we basically tickled her with a piece of grass, and she walked into a test tube. And that photo was super important because it was proof that... We shot a video as well. It was proof that she was alive, but also, later on, I found out that was a huge mistake, to release that shot into the media. I'll get to that in a bit.
So, I photographed her flying in this flight box. I got meet-your-neighbors white background style shots of her, and then I set up my camera around the nest 'cause I wanted to get... The shot that I really had in mind was an in situ shot of her in the wild with the nest and the forest and all those kinds of things. And so I set up my cameras, the guides had built me a platform from vines and these little saplings that they had cut down, and so I was positioned around the nest. And I knew, all of the training that I had in my life was coming to this moment. We had spent thousands of dollars, tons of hours, years of preparation to get to this moment, and all I had to do was photograph this bee flying in focus. And that was it, that was all the pressure that I had on me.
JH: No pressure there, of course.
CB: No big deal at all. So, I had Iswan holding a flash in the background in the woods. Eli was there. I had flashes around, it was this huge production. And so we release her, and she flies around the nest. I get a shot of her butt, then I got a shot of her flying, and then she zipped around my head, flew around into the forest, and then moved back into the nest. And that was it. And I was like, "Oh, my God, I can't believe it. Did I get it?" And so I'm shaking, and I look in the back of the camera, and I got one shot in focus out of the three, or at least one shot that was showing her at a good angle of the three. And I just couldn't believe it. That was the moment where I was like, "This is what it's all about." We have proof now that she's alive, and we can take it back to the world and try to use this to now protect her, and to help people see that she's valuable as a living creature, as opposed to just a species that's for sale for people's collections on online sales, and things of that nature.
JH: Right, right. So, you come home with these photographs, and I don't even know how to put into words the media craze that happened next. What was that like?
CB: It was truly, truly viral. And there's so much that happened around this that I won't get into, but essentially, we came back, we prepared the release. We worked very closely with Global Wildlife Conservation staff. Lindsay Renick Mayer did an amazing job. She's their communications person that's helping to prepare the press release, putting together a press package, all these kinds of things. We reached out to all the major outlets, New York Times, Newsweek, Time, you name it. And when it released, it just blew up in the media. It was the craziest thing. And my partner, Melissa, and I were actually on our way to the North American Nature Photography Association's Conference in Las Vegas. We live in Montana, and we had to pull over halfway through in Beaver, Utah, which is a place I had not spent very much time before, but I have now, answering lots of questions from the BBC. It was the number one story in the BBC that day, it was number two on Google in the world. It was an absolutely everything, and it just kept growing and growing and growing. And ultimately we had 2.3 billion hits in the media from...
JH: That's so incredible. So incredible.
JH: Now, I was at the NANPA Conference when you arrived, and I remember seeing you in this kind of really funny head space because there was so much swirling around. And you had mentioned earlier in the story that there was a mistake for releasing into the media a photo of the bee in the test tube, and you were dealing with a certain issue at the time at the conference. Can you talk about that?
CB: Yeah. I'll back up just a little bit to something crazy that happened after we came back to the village, after we photographed the bee. Almost immediately after we came back in, and we had been staying in the house from the secretary of the district we were in. We told the chief what we were doing, we showed him photos of the specimens of the bee. Everyone in the leadership of the community were on board with what we were doing. But the day before we found it, some people were staying at a house next door to us, and they seemed different than the locals. They seemed a little bit more like city people. I didn't pay very much attention to them other than here are these people we don't know. But when we came back, these guys showed up on a mix of... In my mind, they're all motorcycles, but I think it was a mix of mopeds and motorcycles, but there were these guys who were a little bit like a gang basically. And they came in and they interrogated us for over an hour, and we thought, "Well, we're gonna be... Who knows what's gonna happen, but we're probably gonna have to give a bribe, something of that nature."
CB: And we were terrified, to be honest, because we were there, we weren't doing any scientific research, but there was talk that we were doing scientific research. And so those people followed us the whole time we were there, and then when we get home and we released the story, I released that photo of Eli with a test tube. And the problem is, is that a lot of things are lost in communication even when you're in your own country, as we know these days. But because people were interpreting this image as Eli catching a specimen and basically taking it home with him, they held up the specimen that Eli had showed me in New York, the photo of that next to the photo of Eli with a test tube. And in their minds, basically, that was the same bee, that this was... We had, in fact, collected the insect. And immediately, in the national media in Indonesia, I was called a bio-pirate. There was talk about banning me from Indonesia, fining me an insane amount of money. And because, I think, I took the photos, I received the brunt of the threats. It was a really big deal.
CB: And it was very stressful and very strange. And even at this point, as much as I'd like to think that I could get back to Indonesia, I'm still concerned, even though I was cleared of any wrongdoing. I have letters from Indonesian government staff, which I was able to use to clear my name in several articles, so on and so forth. But I was very concerned because it was just... On one hand, we had done something we felt was really good, and we brought this amazing story to the public. And on the other hand, we were... I was being threatened with jail time only because I wanted to try to help this bee. Yeah, it was a media circus. So, when I ran into you, I was in the middle of this. It's amazing, but it's also scary kind of mindset.
JH: Yeah. Well, the work that you really wanted to do to help protect the species, again this is the whole theme of the interview, is the work of actually taking the photographs or making the film is the tiny little percentage of work that you do overall. And so you went out to go try and get photographs of this bee in the wild as just the starting point to protect it from trafficking. Can you talk about what you've done since this crazy media craze, and having to clear your name in Indonesia and all of the media buzz that happened, the kind of behind-the-scenes paper-pushing, in a way, that you've been doing in order to truly protect this bee species?
CB: Yes. And that's, to me, the most exciting part. Unfortunately, I can't reveal all of the details about what went on because of some sensitivities, but what I can tell you is that, at the time when we went to find the bee, there were no protections whatsoever for it. In part because it's in a very remote part of the world, and one could argue that it's better being left alone. But I felt that if we didn't bring it to the attention of the public, as I mentioned earlier, that the public would... Collectors could just begin to collect them to extinction. They're very easy to look for in a way that they're in these nest and trees. You cut the nest down, you look through the nest. If the bee is there, you collect it. If not, you move on to the next one. And so I wanted to show the Indonesian government that they had something really, really amazing.
So, after we photographed and filmed it, and some of the dust began to settle down, I began to talk with Indonesian journalists, people that I felt were trustworthy. There were some definitely that were, I felt like, in more cahoots with the government, but there were also people who were interested in telling the story from a perspective of, "This is our wildlife, let's take care of it." And that took me a little bit further down the road towards protecting it. But there were some surveys that were beginning to come out from the government, the scientific agency known as LIPI, they began to do some survey work. And in the meantime, I had people who were sending me notes from collectors, from people in Indonesia who were not technically breaking the law, but were trying to sell this bee to individuals that they felt were collectors. And so through websites such as not only eBay, but Instagram and Facebook, some of my collector friends were getting messages, and they would send those messages to me.
And so I was able to collect this database. There were dozens of bees, but there were definitely several bees that were found after we returned. The people were trying to jump on the bandwagon, which, of course, created a lot of stress. I'm like, "What have I done now? Have I created more exposure that's gonna help push the bee further towards extinction?" But in the end, I was able to collect those pieces and send them to people that I trusted with connections to the Indonesian government in an effort to stop that collection. And the government also was able to create a rule that basically, and I would say a strongly worded guideline at this point, to not collect this bee in the wild because it's very important to Indonesia. The Sultan of Ternate, which is part of the area where we found the bee, actually made a statement about protecting the bee. We also took that to some online websites, which I'll just leave vague at this point. Essentially though, at the end of the day, we've been able to stop the sale of this bee online, at least on the mainstream sites.
JH: That's so inspiring. I have a hard time not interrupting you, just to celebrate that fact. That is huge. It is everything that we, as conservation photographers, want to see happen at the end of our work. Just such a huge congratulations to you on accomplishing that.
CB: Thanks. Jaymi, I always feel like there's more to be done, and it's hard to feel celebratory at times, but I at least feel like we were able to give this insect the best chance it could possibly have for being protected and cared for and appreciated, quite frankly, for the amazing animal that it is.
JH: Yeah. I think that your enthusiasm for the species that you're working on translates in the work that you do, and is part of why so many people have... They realize that they're developing a fondness for bees and insects and pollinators. I think that that's so important, that passion that is behind your work, because it really does come through, in a lot of ways.
Now, one of the things that I would love to dive into is... Because I'm listening to you talk about these things that you've accomplished that are the dreams of conservation photographers. We all dream of doing work that can actually get a species onto the endangered species list where it can be protected, or to protect a species internationally through trade. There are so many conservation photographers who are working on projects just like this, and we want to see the results that you've been able to attain in these certain projects. But how do you even know where to begin in the what to do next after the images are taken? How do you know who to collaborate with, what that line of action looks like? Can you give us a little bit of insight into how you develop a strategy to know those next steps to take?
CB: Yeah. Well, I can do my best. I think some of it... A lot of it actually starts before the photos are ever made in terms of... I do a lot of research, a lot of... I spend a lot of time thinking about what levers need to be pulled basically, like opportunities to make a difference. There are a lot of bees that are probably not doing great that are less charismatic than the giant bee, but I also realize that this is a type of insect that people will be interested in. And so trying to make smart decisions about if I could protect this species, or if I could help protect this species, what else benefits from that? So, really spending a lot of time thinking strategically. I wish I could say that there is a tried and true thing I can do every time, but really what I begin to do is reach out to experts.
I wanna make sure everything that I'm doing is based on science. And then I, in turn, try to communicate that science in a way that's somewhat more accessible to the public, but I always wanna make sure that I have the backing of the scientific community as much as possible. And so I do a lot of time reading papers and reading books, those kinds of things, talking to people, telling them what my intentions are. And then from that point, if I'm able to achieve my piece of the puzzle, I already have a network in place that's gonna help me do that. And I'm talking specifically about these big kinds of things.
There are a lot of other things you can do with conservation that are just as valuable on a more local level that don't always require this kind of level of planning. But with these big things, I'm just always trying to make sure that I'm locked in so that once I have my piece of the puzzle, I can set it free through this network that I've helped cultivate, or either plugged into to increase my chances of success. So, I'm really only like a piece of this puzzle. And I guess I just... I don't think I'm the best photographer in the world by any stretch of the imagination, and perhaps it is just my ridiculous excitement about insects, or whatever it may be, but for some reason, it seems like I have had success working on various things just because I'm able to build a community that cares, and they help lift up the cause alongside me.
JH: Right. Okay. I'm gonna say one thing first and then kind of hammer home a point. I personally think that you are an extraordinary photographer, and I think that you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks that you aren't one of the best pollinator photographers in the world. But that said, I really appreciate that you have such a humble stance on your work, and that you make the point that you don't have to have the best photography skills to still be able to make a really powerful impact as a conservation photographer. And that's something that can be really inspiring, especially for people who are starting out, and they're so worried that their camera skills aren't good enough to make a difference. But, in fact, when you have so much passion behind something, you can make pretty decent photos and do a huge amount of work.
So, if I'm gonna sum up a little bit about what you've said, two of the things that can really help someone figure out those next steps is, in the beginning of their project, really putting in time into research and thoroughly understanding the species or the issue that it is you're documenting, and then spending time reaching out to other people, having conversations and building a network of people around this issue who can then become a really important network for those next steps. Is that fairly accurate?
CB: Absolutely. Just, for example, in the case of the giant bee, I had spent a lot of time looking at relative species to this bee, understanding how I suspected it might behave, understanding about the kinds of places it nested, spending a lot of time talking with Eli about paper, all of these kinds of things, so that when the moment came that I was able to photograph, that I was as prepared as I could possibly be. And imagine if I had just... I always use the analogy, imagine you're a sports photographer, you're assigned to photograph the Super Bowl, but you know nothing about football. It wouldn't make any sense to... You wouldn't know where the touchdowns happen, you wouldn't know what's happening, you wouldn't know what plays to cover. And for some reason, with nature, oftentimes people think, "Oh, it's nature. I don't really need to know about these kinds of things, I don't really need to know much about science. I'm just gonna feel my way through this." Which can happen, depending on the kind of work you're doing. But with conservation, I think it's so intricately tied in with science that you really do have to spend the time, not only creating a groundwork of experts, but also taking the time yourself to learn the science and the biology of what you care about.
JH: Right. You also mentioned, too, what an important asset Lindsay was for the press release creation, and that sort of thing. Is there any strategy that you would suggest in terms of targeting the right publications for certain stories in order to have that media impact that might play a role in influencing lawmakers or community members?
CB: Well, I think it really depends on your story. For example, if you're working on a local issue, doing things like writing op-eds are really important. Getting your cause out in front of the people who are gonna make a difference, that's one way you can do it. I also feel that... And I feel like if it's a more local issue, had I lived, for example, in North Maluku, I would have started locally to try to make a difference. But I feel like the other side of the coin is, for example, when I was trying to do this work to influence the Indonesian government, I wanted it to be, the story, to be appearing in the best papers. I wanted the best reporters to be writing the story so that, "Don't take my word for it," kind of thing. Like, here is a well-known story, a well-known paper, a well-known publication that is bringing attention to something that you didn't maybe pay very much attention to, or whatever you wanna say, but it's really awesome and shouldn't you celebrate this? So, I think, for me, I just base it off of what I want to accomplish, and I take that approach.
It's not always the biggest newspaper that matters the most, it's more about what the reach of that newspaper is. Knowing your audience is so darn important. And one thing I've learned, I'm actually going through a graduate certificate course right now at Colorado State, communications for conservation. And one of the things I've really thought about a lot more is... I'm not saying educate the general public is my goal. That's great, but it doesn't really... At the end of the day, educating the public is not necessarily shown to have a huge impact, but what does have an impact is bringing a story to the right kind of people that have the power to make a difference. And, yeah, it's great if everybody else gets excited, but you really wanna make sure, first and foremost, if you're influencing the right people.
JH: Right. The right people are not necessarily those that are supporters.
CB: Right, exactly. Sometimes you have to influence decision makers who may not be in line with you on a lot of things, but they may care about clean water, or they may care about wetlands because of something that happened that they grew up on the wetlands. I don't know, there's just a lot of things that you can do to say, "Okay, this is the person I want to influence." And so I think of my work as having multiple facets. More and more I'm thinking about things like policy, although my heart yearns to do more local projects, and so I'm trying to find that balance right now in my own work.
JH: You mentioned a lot about research, not only in a strategy to really understand your subject so that you can photograph it well and know the next steps to take, but also the research that you did when you were just getting started in on researching bee species and your interest that developed there. And you've kind of become like the bug guy. In fact, this is a really random little story, but I actually had a tour client who had gone to a summit workshop, and she said, "Yeah, it was really fun. There was this one guy, this bug guy, I really liked him." And I was like, "Was that Clay Bolt?" She's like, "Yeah, him." [chuckle] So, you've been known as someone who's kind of a go-to resource for pollinator species. So, I feel like a conversation with you would be, I would be remiss to not ask, what are some of the most important things that you've discovered about our pollinator species in the research that you've done?
CB: There are so many things, but I think, just on a general level, first of all, how abundant they are, how beautiful they are, the different roles that they play in the environment, like how a bee is not a bee. They're doing different things, they're visiting different types of flowers. And I think on the flip side of that, of course, we know that bees are not doing well, but I've also realized how little we know about bees. To the best of my knowledge, Montana, where I live, still hasn't completely been surveyed for bees. We have a general idea of a number of species that we have, but there are dark spots basically on the map where we haven't explored in a place like Montana here in the US. The other thing I've learned, which I do think offers a lot of hope, is that bees are very resilient. Insects are very resilient, generally speaking, if you give them half a chance. And so there are some very common sense things we can do in our own communities to try to help protect them, and that's the kind of thing that drives me home. And some of the work that I'll be working on, I think, in the coming next few years will be looking more at my hometown and seeing how I can make an impact.
JH: Are there any things that you suggest people to... Especially conservation photographers who are interested in working on pollinator species, what kind of things should they be researching right now to understand our pollinator decline?
CB: Well, on a very general basic level, the understanding of how native wildflowers influence bees. Like us, insects need a balanced diet, they need to eat food throughout the time when they're out and about, which is early spring all the way until late fall. So, working with your local communities to figure out do you have places for native wildflowers to grow. Those things are super important. The other kinds of things that I think are really interesting to look into are the threats that the pesticides play. I am strongly convinced, after a lot of the research I've been doing here for World Wildlife Fund over the last several weeks and months, looking at the effects of neonicotinoids, which is a systemic pesticide that affects the nervous system of bees and other insects, is creating a second Silent Spring, essentially, here in the US and around the world. And it's starting to affect not just insects, but some birds and deer. And their evidence, of course, that these neonics, these toxins that mimic the chemical properties of nicotine, are affecting people as well. So, like looking for the effects of those kinds of things. Not only documenting the beautiful, but also documenting the other side of the story, I think, is super important.
But if you're wanting to do something locally, it doesn't take very long to go talk with local NGOs, or sportsmen, people who are going out in the forests a lot who notice changes, just figure out what's changed in the last 20 years here, what good things have happened, but also did you use to notice more porcupine here, whatever that may be. And then begin to follow those leads and figure out what's happening. And sooner or later, you'll get to a piece of the puzzle that needs more exposure, and that's when your work really starts to shine.
JH: That is such a beautiful statement to end on. I wanna thank you so much for providing us with not only stories about your inspiring work, but also some ways that people can really understand how they can do the same level of work that you're doing, because I view you as one of the most impactful conservation photographers that I have the pleasure and joy of knowing as a friend. And I think that you do some really incredible work that can motivate people who might feel like they don't necessarily have the power to do big, big, big things like this, but in fact, they do. Because I think that you're one of the most down-to-earth, normal, humble people that I know, and yet look at these massive important changes that you're making through dedicated passionate work. So, thank you for everything that you've been doing, and thank you for giving us some of your knowledge today.
CB: I wouldn't necessarily say that I'm normal. [laughter] But thank you very much, Jaymi. You made me feel encouraged, and I appreciate all you're doing to bring this information to the public. And I'm always happy to help any time.
JH: Awesome. Well, I am gonna make sure to include a lot of what we've talked about in the show notes for links for people to go follow and explore some of the stories that we talked about, the film that we talked about, and get a little bit more points of reference. A lot of details and links will be in the show notes. And meanwhile, thank you so much, Clay, and I cannot wait to find out what you're working on next when you're ready to reveal that.
CB: Thank you so much, Jaymi, I appreciate it.
JH: Before we wrap up, I would love to ask you to do one quick thing, subscribe to this podcast. As a subscriber, you'll not only know when each week's episode goes live, but you'll also get insider goodies like bonus episodes. You might miss them unless you're subscribed, and I don't want you to miss out on a thing. So, please tap that subscribe button, and I will talk to you next week.
Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast