Karine Aigner had no idea what she was witnessing when she chanced upon a field of what looked like mini volcanoes on a ranch near Cotulla. The sometime Texan and itinerant wildlife photographer was driving on a dirt road when she noticed masses of tiny mounds across the landscape. Thinking they were ant mounds, she pulled over.
Aigner quickly realized she wasn’t looking at ants. “I was looking at individual bees,” she said.
The bees’ behavior, witnessed on the South Texas ranch where Aigner has been working and living for several years and captured in the striking photograph above, earned her one of her profession’s top awards last year.
Aigner monitored the bees’ plot for several weeks. One day in May 2021 she was on her way back to the ranch house when she noticed birds dive-bombing toward the ground.
“As I got closer I could see the entire ground seemed to be moving,” Aigner said. “There were bees ‘balling’ all over the place. … They would form a ball, then dissipate … form then re-form.”
Aigner said she wasn’t planning to shoot photos that day, but the captivating spectacle inspired her to retrieve her Sony a7RIII camera and a Laowa macro probe lens and start photographing. She snapped about 1,200 photos over several hours.
In October 2022, one of the photos, titled “The Big Buzz,” won the Natural History Museum in London’s prestigious 2022 Wildlife Photographer of the Year award. Carrying a £10,000 prize (about $12,000), nature photographers consider the recognition equal to an Academy Award.
A solitary species
What Aigner captured constitutes one dramatic moment in the reproductive cycle of the solitary Cactus bee, Diadasia rinconis. The Cactus bee, one of approximately 20,000 bee species worldwide, lives a lonely life most of the time. Unlike European honey bees, solitary bees don’t build hives, make honey or have intricate social networks led by a queen.
“We don’t really hear much about them because when most people hear ‘bee,’ they only think of the European honey bee,” said bee expert Jessica Beckham, associate professor of instruction in UTSA’s integrative biology department. The fuzzy insects can be spotted in San Antonio, she added, citing recent observations on iNaturalist, the citizen science nature observation app.
Beckham explained that Cactus bees are ground nesters. The anthill-like mounds Aigner observed were formed by the soil the female bees had dug up, burrowing inches into the earth. The bees dig tunnels with individual chambers in which they lay their eggs.
Beckham said some Didasia species complete their metamorphosis underground and emerge the same year they are laid; others overwinter as larvae and emerge in the spring. The males emerge first.
When the female Cactus bees emerge, the males await them. The male bees compete to pass along their genes by fighting in a bee brawl like the one captured by Aigner.
“It’s pretty brutal,” said Beckham.
Aigner said she didn’t even know solitary bees existed before the Cotulla encounter. “I fell in love with this species,” she said.
Drawn to Texas ranchland
Aigner found her way to Texas more than 10 years ago after serving as a judge for the Coastal Bend Wildlife Photography Contest, which later changed its name to Wildlife in Focus. At the judges lunch, she met Claire Vaughan, a longtime San Antonio resident, rancher and conservationist.
Aigner and Vaughan became friendly and after learning that Aigner had never been to a ranch, Vaughan invited the photographer to visit her and husband George Vaughan’s place in South Texas, about 90 miles southwest of San Antonio.
Aigner did, and was struck by the stunning biodiversity and wealth of wildlife. The first time, she stayed in the Cotulla area four months, and while she owns a condo in Washington, D.C., she spends more time at the ranch and on the road than in the nation’s capitol.
Aigner and Vaughan have been working together on photography conservation projects ever since, staging photography workshops for children and adults in wild settings to promote wildlife conservation.
“We’re connecting people to the land with a camera,” said Aigner.
One of Aigner’s pet projects has been documenting the life of a family of bobcats that have joined her solitary lifestyle by taking up residence under the porch of the cabin where she sleeps. Her solo presence has created a bond with the wild creatures and they seem to have accepted her, allowing incredible access for close-ups and video that she shares on social media as the “the Bobcat Chronicles.”
Aigner has become so friendly with the bobcats that she’s assigned them names: Momcat and LG for the adults.
She described a scene in which a coyote seized a bobcat kitten when the family was hanging out near the cabin. Aigner went on the porch with her camera and sat down. The adults sent the remaining two kittens up a tree while standing guard — one on a nearby ledge, the other sitting next to Aigner after calmly sniffing her camera.
Does she ever worry the bobcats will attack her? “No!” she said. “People always ask and I just don’t have an innate fear. … I’ve always seen animals as individuals with lives and am never afraid of being with them.”
The daughter of a commercial airline pilot and flight attendant, Aigner grew up in Saudi Arabia and the Netherlands, and can’t seem to stop traveling. She earned a degree in television from Boston University, taught English in Taiwan, worked in New York City at NBC and then at Psychology Today magazine. Eventually she landed at National Geographic Kids magazine, where she served as photo editor for nine years.
She quit in 2011 because she “wanted to do what I was hiring people to do —photograph wildlife.” Since then, it’s been a freelance and free-wheeling life. She has photographed apes in Kenya, jaguars in the Amazon, bats at Bracken Cave and Cactus bees near Cotulla.
When she’s not traveling on assignment or communing with bobcats or bees, Aigner organizes wildlife photography tours and workshops and participates in the nonprofit Girls Who Click. The organization provides free photography classes to teen girls while encouraging them to enter the mostly male field of nature photography and to use their work to further conservation efforts around the world.