See the year's best wildlife photos

National Geographic contributor Karine Aigner earned top prize for her photo of mating cactus bees in Texas.

By Jason Bittel
Published 12 Oct 2022, 12:52 BST
The big buzz by Karine Aigner, USA Winner, Behaviour: Invertebrates
A buzzing ball of cactus bees spins over the hot sand. After a few minutes, the pair at the ball's center—a male clinging to the only female in the scrum—flew away to mate.
Photograph by Karine Aigner, Wildlife Photographer of the Year

In southern Texas, cactus bees hatch underground in tiny, pollen-stocked burrows. Males emerge first, and then wait above for the females, which they mob as soon as their heads peek above the soil.

The writhing ball of mating bees is “something people don’t often see,” says Karine Aigner, a Washington, D.C.-based photojournalist and regular National Geographic contributor.

A lot more people will see it now, though. Aigner’s photo, taken in the spring of 2021, has earned her the coveted title of Wildlife Photographer of the Year—an annual award given out by the Natural History Museum in London. (See last year’s winning images.)

“You will be missed.” These are the words photographer Brent Stirton had for Ndakasi, an orphaned mountain gorilla, after her death in 2021. “If I could speak to her, I would say it was one of the saddest moments I’ve had in my career to witness your passing,” says Stirton, who won the Photojournalism category.
Photograph by Brent Stirton, Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Unlike many of her other projects, Aigner came upon cactus bees by accident, while driving around a Texas ranch. In fact, when she first saw fuzzy balls on the ground, she mistook them for anthills. But the more she learned about the native pollinators and their life cycle, the more obsessed she became.

Her cactus bee photography “solidified for me how intricate nature is, and how much we disrespect the intricacy of everything around us,” says Aigner. “So I wanted to show sort of the personalities of these things that people call bugs.” (See close-up pictures that reveal the beauty of bees.)

Photographer Dmitry Kokh won the Urban Wildlife category with this shot of polar bears lurking within an abandoned settlement in Russia’s Chukchi Sea region.
Photograph by Dmitry Kokh, Wildlife Photographer of the Year
It’s tough to tell where Earth ends and the heavens begin in this winner of the Natural Artistry category by Japan-based photographer Junji Takasago. Taken in the world’s largest salt pan, located in Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, this photograph shows an ecosystem under severe pressure from lithium mining.
Photograph by Junji Takasago, Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Natalie Cooper, a senior researcher at the museum and member of the selection jury, described Aigner’s winning shot as “a beautiful, dynamic image at a scale we often overlook.”

“The violence and aggression displayed by these male bees is more intense than that seen in big cats on the African savannah, and all taking place right under our noses,” says Cooper.

It was a good day for Aigner, who also took home the prize for the Photojournalist Story Award for an image featured in a National Geographic story profiling Cuba’s captive songbird competitions.

More than a hundred feet below the East Antarctic ice, French photographer and biologist Laurent Ballesta reveals a hidden bonanza of cold-water life. To capture this living mound of sponge, sea stars, and giant ribbon worms, Ballesta made a series of 32 dives in below-freezing temperatures, including the deepest, longest dive ever recorded for Antarctica.
Photograph by Laurent Ballesta, Wildlife Photographer of the Year
A cage holding a Cuban bullfinch hangs alongside a road, so that the bird becomes accustomed to the hubbub of street life and is therefore less likely to be distracted during a singing competition. “The pictures make it real,” says Karine Aigner of her Photojournalist Story Award-winning shots of captive songbirds in Cuba. With this assignment, Aigner says she wanted to make people think about the way we exploit wild animals for our wants and desires. “When you look at these photos, and you see how it really is, the smallness of the cages, you get a stronger sense of the reality for these animals,” she says.
Photograph by Karine Aigner, Wildlife Photographer of the Year

As with the bees, Aigner says she hopes to make people think differently about the birds being captured for the pet trade.

“These are wild animals with wild lives, and their own biographies, and their own families and communities,” says Aigner, who was born in Saudi Arabia. “And I want people to pay attention to that fact and start to think about the things we do that we actually don’t need to be doing.”

Another National Geographic photographer won accolades at the ceremony as well. Brent Stirton’s image of a mountain gorilla’s dying moments earned him the award for the Photojournalism category.

To illustrate the plight of the spectacled bear in Ecuador, Daniel Mideros wanted to show the animal against a backdrop of its disappearing habitat. Mideros accomplished the feat by stationing camera traps along a high-altitude wildlife corridor. This shot won the Animals in their Environment category.
Photograph by Daniel Mideros, Wildlife Photographer of the Year
This year’s winner of the Animal Portrait’s category goes to José Juan Hernández Martinez of Spain for his depiction of a male Canary Islands houbara and its courtship dance. The photographer says he had to dig into the sand to get down to the fanciful bird’s level.
Photograph by José Juan Hernández Martinez, Wildlife Photographer of the Year
This year’s winner in the category of amphibian and reptile behavior belongs to Fernando Constantino Martínez Belmar, who captured a Yucatan rat snake with a mouth full of bat. This kind of predation is common enough in the Mexico’s Cave of the Hanging Snakes, but being able to capture the behavior in low light and at a second’s notice before the snake retreated into its hole are what makes this shot unique.
Photograph by Fernando Constantino Martínez Belmar, Wildlife Photographer of the Year
In New Zealand, southern right whales were nearly hunted to extinction in the 1800s, which makes this image of two adults copulating all the more magical. Richard Robinson shot the love affair under permit from the New Zealand government. The image is the winner of the Oceans: The Bigger Picture category.
Photograph by Fernando Constantino Martínez Belmar, Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Stirton met the gorilla, named Ndakasi, in 2007, after her mother was killed under mysterious circumstances in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park.

After being orphaned at just a few months of age, Ndakasi spent the rest of her life in the care of the Senkwekwe Mountain Gorilla Center. Fourteen years later, Stirton was there again when Ndakasi passed away in the arms of her long-time caregiver, Andre Bauma.

Shot with a drone by Daniel Núñez, this winner of The Bigger Picture: Wetlands category reveals an ecosystem turned toxic. Runoff from Guatemala City and farmers’ fields pours into the Lake Amatitlán, where it causes deadly cyanobacteria to surge.
Photograph by Daniel Núñez, Wildlife Photographer of the Year

“I am always intrigued at the potential for communication and understanding between humans and animals. I think we are only scratching the surface of that,” Stirton says by email while on assignment for National Geographic in India.

“Seeing the depth of relationship that existed between Andre and Ndakasi only reinforced that for me.” 

Photographers don’t always get the luxury of returning to a subject. However, Stirton has traveled back to Virunga National Park several times as the region continues to contend with paramilitary groups and poachers. With just around a thousand mountain gorillas remaining in the Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda, the endangered primates are often trapped in the middle of the conflict.

“Issues in Virunga have only become more intense, and the public needs to appreciate the extraordinary work these people do to preserve global wildlife heritage in the most difficult of circumstances,” he says.

“People like Andre Bauma and the ranger force of Virunga deserve more attention.”

Tony Wu watches the electrifying reproductive dance of a giant sea star. As the surrounding water filled with sperm and eggs from spawning sea stars, Tony faced several challenges. Stuck in a small, enclosed bay with only a macro lens for photographing small subjects, he backed up to squeeze the undulating sea star into his field of view, in this galaxy-like scene. The ‘dancing’ posture of spawning sea stars rising and swaying may help release eggs and sperm, or may help sweep the eggs and sperm into the currents where they fertilise together in the water.
Photograph by Tony Wu, Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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