Nature photographer Anand Varma brings bees, birds, bats and parasites into focus for National Geographic

National Geographic Live: Invisible Wonders

Des Moines Civic Center, Sunday, April 30 at 6:30 p.m., $15-48

Anand Varma photographing a bee’s hive. — courtesy of DMPA

Honeybee populations have been declining for more than a decade. To keep one of nature’s most prolific pollinators alive and busy, the USDA has been mixing mite-resistant bees and bees kept by commercial beekeepers.

“To say it like that makes it sound like we’re manipulating and exploiting bees, and the truth is we’ve been doing that for thousands of years,” Anand Varma explained in his 2015 TED Talk, where he covered the first 21 days in the life of a honeybee.

Varma is an award-winning photographer whose work focusing on the more miniscule parts of the natural world has been prominently featured in National Geographic. Bees are just one of many creatures he’s captured under his lens.

“We took this wild creature and put it inside of a box, practically domesticating it and originally that was so that we could harvest their honey,” he said in that TED Talk. “But over time we started losing our wild pollinators, and there are many places now where those wild pollinators can no longer meet the pollination demands of our agriculture.”

Varma goes on to explain that, in his view, saving bees involves saving our relationship with bees by understanding their biology. That’s where his photography comes in. By finding unique ways to photograph creatures like bees, he hopes to broaden our knowledge of the organisms we share the planet with.

When Varma arrives at the Des Moines Civic Center on April 30, he’ll be doing exactly that. His presentation — titled Invisible Wonders — will help audiences understand bees, and a few more of Earth’s most fascinating organisms.

“I go through four stories that I’ve photographed for National Geographic,” Varma told Little Village when asked about central Iowa engagement. “That ranges from hummingbirds, to honeybees, to mind-controlling parasites to carnivorous bats.”

His work photographing bats took him to the Yucatán’s rainforests where he documented the woolly false vampire bat in the act of hunting. On the avian end of capturing creatures in flight, Varma’s footage and photographs of hummingbirds has provided details of the creature typically unseen by the human eye, like how its forked tongue facilitates the drinking of nectar. The portion of the show on mind-controlling parasites represents Varma’s first National Geographic story, published back in 2014.

Though Varma has been working with National Geographic for roughly a decade, his time with the publication has been somewhat accidental. In fact — after graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in integrative biology — he didn’t originally intend to become a photographer.

“It happened almost by accident. I was dead set on being a biologist,” Varma said, recalling his childhood in Atlanta, Georgia. “At the end of high school I picked up my dad’s old camera just to kind of experiment. My favorite thing to do was to explore the woods with my friends … it became a fun hobby that I brought with me to college, but I had never really aspired to be a photographer.”

That changed when he got a summer job where he got to put his picture taking to use, helping to document cave dwelling creatures. That job led to another in Hawaii and another in Costa Rica and then South Africa and so on.

“I was really resistant to becoming a photographer — but having traveled and met lots of cool scientists — every project that passed I’d tell myself, ‘I can’t say no to this — I’ll finish up this project and I’ll still go to grad school,’” Varma said with a laugh. “I’d say that I’m still sort of in that position.”

Anand Varma’s ‘National Geographic’ photograph of a ladybug hosting a parasitic organism, in this case, a developing wasp’s egg. — courtesy of DMPA
Green Violetear (Colibri thalassinus), photographed by Anand Varma — courtesy of DMPA

For the moment at least, he’s still hard at work on his photography. He’s been working on photographing jellyfish and he’s in the process of constructing a facility that’s one part photo studio, one part biology lab to help inspire new generations.

“This is kind of formalizing what I’ve been doing about my career in informal ways, which is drawing on science to produce innovative photography [and] drawing on photography to advance science,” he said.

Whether in a magazine article or during this upcoming appearance, what Varma wants most is for people who encounter his work to view the world differently — to consider the parts of the planet they don’t often or ever see.

“I hope this is a glimpse of the hidden secrets that the world has yet to share,” Varma said. “I hope I’m just peeling back one hidden layer, to glimpse just a fraction of the wonder that’s out in the world.”

This article was originally published in Little Village Central Iowa issue 013.