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See the buzzworthy winners of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition

<em></em><strong>Invertebrates Winner:</strong> <em>The big buzz</em>. South Texas, USA. The world's bees are under threat from habitat loss, pesticides and climate change. With 70% of bee species nesting underground, it is increasingly important that areas of natural soil are left undisturbed.
Karine Aigner
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Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Invertebrates Winner: The big buzz. South Texas, USA. The world's bees are under threat from habitat loss, pesticides and climate change. With 70% of bee species nesting underground, it is increasingly important that areas of natural soil are left undisturbed.

Updated October 13, 2022 at 9:16 AM ET

Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to witness the reproductive dance of a giant sea star, watch ibexes spar (from a safe distance), gaze upon sun-dappled mushrooms in a fairy tale forest, or meet the gaze of a polar bear through the window of an abandoned house? Now you can, thanks to the 2022 winners of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards.

London's Natural History Museum, which runs the competition, announced the winning images this week and will display them in an exhibition set to open on Friday. It will eventually tour across the United Kingdom and other venues in Europe, as well as North America (including Texas and Michigan), Australia and New Zealand.

<strong>Natural Artistry Winner:</strong> <em>Heavenly flamingos. </em>Salar de Uyuni, Daniel Campos Province, Bolivia. High in the Andes, Salar de Uyuni is the world's largest salt pan. It is also one of Bolivia's largest lithium mines, which threatens the future of these flamingos.
Junji Takasago / Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Natural Artistry Winner: Heavenly flamingos. Salar de Uyuni, Daniel Campos Province, Bolivia. High in the Andes, Salar de Uyuni is the world's largest salt pan. It is also one of Bolivia's largest lithium mines, which threatens the future of these flamingos.

The museum said in a release that an international panel of experts had selected the 19 finalists out of more than 38,000 entries from nearly 100 countries, based on their "originality, narrative, technical excellence and ethical practice." Then, they awarded two of those winners — one in each age category — the top prize.

<strong>U</strong><strong>rban Wildlife Winner:</strong><em><strong> </strong>House of bears. </em>Kolyuchin Island, Chukotka, Russia. In the Chukchi Sea region, the normally solitary bears usually migrate further north in the summer, following the retreating sea ice they depend on for hunting seals, their main food.
Dmitry Kokh / Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Urban Wildlife Winner: House of bears. Kolyuchin Island, Chukotka, Russia. In the Chukchi Sea region, the normally solitary bears usually migrate further north in the summer, following the retreating sea ice they depend on for hunting seals, their main food.

American photographer Karine Aigner was named wildlife photographer of the year for a close-up shot of a "buzzing ball of cactus bees spinning over the hot sand on a Texas ranch" that she calls "The Big Buzz."

All but one are males intent on mating with the single female bee at the center, the museum explains, adding that the bees are threatened by pesticides, climate change, habitat loss and disruptive farming practices.

Aigner is just the fifth woman to win the title in the competition's almost six-decade history, according to organizers.

The meaning of the photo, and the win

Aigner told NPR by phone on Thursday that wildlife photographers spend a lot of time alone.

"So when you're recognized for literally laying in the dirt, in the sun, destroying your camera gear, it reminds you that you're part of a tribe who cares," she says. "I'm grateful and thankful to the community that recognized the work I do, and I hope that somewhere down the line those accolades help make a difference to the animals that we care so much about as photographers."

Aigner also reflected on the significance of being one of just a handful of women to win the top prize in more than five decades. She says it's not lost on her that she was shooting photos of female bees, and also works with young female photographers as part of an organization called Girls Who Click. She feels the award is "for the girls."

"This one's for every girl out there who, in a male-dominated field, thought she couldn't do it," Aigner says. "Because you can do it, you can attain it, you just have to do it."

As for how she did it: Aigner is based in Washington, D.C., but spends a lot of time in Texas, where she has long photographed families of bobcats (she describes her work as focusing on the relationship between humans and animals, especially "what we're doing to them").

Aigner happened to be driving down a ranch road when she noticed what appeared to be hundreds of small ant holes, and pulled over to take a look. They were actually the ground nests of cactus bees, which she has since learned have a fascinating life cycle.

Over the course of several weeks, a female will dig underground burrows, bring down pollen, lay an egg and die. Then new bees are born, with males emerging a little earlier and waiting for the females. She says she would see male bees try to get into the burrows and grab the females out, in what she described as a "big chaotic orgy, so to speak, of wild animals."

Aigner hopes her photo will help raise awareness of native bees and the existential threats they face, specifically pesticide use and habitat degradation. Because cactus bees nest in specific parts of the ground, she explains, if someone starts paving things over they'll have nowhere to go. Aigner even asked people on the ranch to avoid driving on that particular road while this process was happening, and they complied.

Even though most people won't find this kind of bee in their backyard, Aigner hopes they will do more reading about native pollinators and how to help them.

"These animals are like the glue to the environment, and when we lose them, we lose our birds, we lose everything," she adds. "We lose our flowers, because they pollinate everything. It's a web of connection that we all do not pay attention to at all."

More accolades and poignant shots

The award of young wildlife photographer of the year went to 16-year-old Katanyou Wuttichaitanakorn, of Thailand, who captured an almost abstract snapshot of a Bryde's whale surfacing near his boat to feed on small anchovies. It's titled "The Beauty of Baleen."

<strong>15-17 years Winner:</strong> <em>The beauty of baleen</em>. Upper Gulf of Thailand. Bryde's whales have up to 370 pairs of gray-colored plates of baleen growing inside their upper jaws. The plates are made of keratin, a protein that also forms human hair and nails, and are used to filter small prey from the ocean.
Katanyou Wuttichaitanakorn / Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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Wildlife Photographer of the Year
15-17 Years Winner: The beauty of baleen. Upper Gulf of Thailand. Bryde's whales have up to 370 pairs of gray-colored plates of baleen growing inside their upper jaws. The plates are made of keratin, a protein that also forms human hair and nails, and are used to filter small prey from the ocean.

Wuttichaitanakorn was moved by the contrasting colors and textures of the whale's "dark skin, pink gum and the brush-like mass of baleen hanging down from its top jaw," the museum says, referring to the plates of baleen that certain types of whales use when lunge-feeding, in order to filter small prey from the ocean.

<em>Tiny spider versus little chick. </em>Crane Beach, Ipswich, Mass<em>. </em>Beach wolf spiders are rarely aggressive unless provoked, making this attack on the unsuspecting plover especially remarkable.
Rajan Desai / Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Tiny spider versus little chick. Crane Beach, Ipswich, Mass. Beach wolf spiders are rarely aggressive unless provoked, making this attack on the unsuspecting plover especially remarkable.
<strong>Amphibians and Reptiles Winner:</strong> <em>The bat-snatcher</em>. Kantemo, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Every evening at sundown in the Cave of the Hanging Snakes, thousands of bats leave for the night's feeding. It is also when hungry rat snakes emerge, dangling from the roof to snatch their prey in midair.
Fernando Constantino Martínez Belmar / Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Amphibians and Reptiles Winner: The bat-snatcher. Kantemo, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Every evening at sundown in the Cave of the Hanging Snakes, thousands of bats leave for the night's feeding. It is also when hungry rat snakes emerge, dangling from the roof to snatch their prey in midair.

"Wildlife photographers offer us unforgettable glimpses into the lives of wild species, sharing unseen details, fascinating behaviors and front-line reporting on the climate and biodiversity crises," said Dr. Doug Gurr, director of the Natural History Museum. "These images demonstrate their awe of and appreciation for the natural world and the urgent need to take action to protect it."

<em></em><strong>Photojournalism winner:</strong> <em>Ndakasi's passing. </em>Senkwekwe Center, Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Stirton photographed Ndakasi's rescue as a 2-month-old after her troop was brutally killed by a charcoal mafia as a threat to park rangers. Ndakasi laid in the arms of her rescuer and caregiver of 13 years, ranger Andre Bauma.
Brent Stirton / Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Photojournalism winner: Ndakasi's passing. Senkwekwe Center, Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Stirton photographed Ndakasi's rescue as a 2-month-old after her troop was brutally killed by a charcoal mafia as a threat to park rangers. Ndakasi laid in the arms of her rescuer and caregiver of 13 years, ranger Andre Bauma.

Organizers will be accepting entries for next year's contest — from photographers of all ages, experience levels and nationalities — between Oct. 17 and Dec. 8. In the meantime, check out some of this year's champions:

<em></em><strong>Wetlands Winner: </strong><em>The dying lake. </em>Lake Amatitlán, Villa Canales, Guatemala<em>. </em>Cyanobacteria flourishes in the presence of pollutants, such as sewage and agricultural fertilizers, forming algal blooms. Efforts to restore the Amatitlán wetland are underway but have been hampered by a lack of funding and allegations of political corruption.
Daniel Núñez / Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Wetlands Winner: The dying lake. Lake Amatitlán, Villa Canales, Guatemala. Cyanobacteria flourishes in the presence of pollutants, such as sewage and agricultural fertilizers, forming algal blooms. Efforts to restore the Amatitlán wetland are underway but have been hampered by a lack of funding and allegations of political corruption.
<em>Sloth dilemma.</em> Tasty Waves Cantina, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica. Sloths live in trees and rarely descend to the forest floor. With increasing habitat loss, they are forced to make vulnerable journeys across urbanized areas to find food, suitable habitats and mates.
Suzi Eszterhas / Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Sloth dilemma. Tasty Waves Cantina, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, Costa Rica. Sloths live in trees and rarely descend to the forest floor. With increasing habitat loss, they are forced to make vulnerable journeys across urbanized areas to find food, suitable habitats and mates.
<strong>Animal Portrait Winner</strong>: <em>Puff Perfect.</em> La Oliva, Fuerteventura, Spain. A Canary Islands houbara male returns annually to its courtship site to perform impressive displays.
José Juan Hernández Martinez / Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Animal Portrait Winner: Puff Perfect. La Oliva, Fuerteventura, Spain. A Canary Islands houbara male returns annually to its courtship site to perform impressive displays.
<em></em><em>Trick or tragedy?. </em>Cuba and the U.S. Owners and birds have strong relationships, but there can be a dark side to the trade, with some birds being taken from the wild and stored and trafficked in inhospitable conditions.
Karine Aigner / Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Trick or tragedy?. Cuba and the U.S. Owners and birds have strong relationships, but there can be a dark side to the trade, with some birds being taken from the wild and stored and trafficked in inhospitable conditions.
<strong>Underwater Winner: </strong><em>Shooting star. </em>Kinko Bay, Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan. This is a male Leiaster leachi sea star broadcasting sperm into murky water in a shallow bay. Other nearby sea stars were broadcasting sperm and eggs into the water in synchrony.
Tony Wu / Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Underwater Winner: Shooting star. Kinko Bay, Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan. This is a male Leiaster leachi sea star broadcasting sperm into murky water in a shallow bay. Other nearby sea stars were broadcasting sperm and eggs into the water in synchrony.
<strong>Plants and Fungi Winner: </strong><em>The magical morels. </em>Mount Olympus, Pieria, Greece. Morels are regarded as gastronomic treasures in many parts of the world because they are difficult to cultivate, yet in some forests they flourish naturally.
Agorastos Papatsanis / Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Plants and Fungi Winner: The magical morels. Mount Olympus, Pieria, Greece. Morels are regarded as gastronomic treasures in many parts of the world because they are difficult to cultivate, yet in some forests they flourish naturally.
<em>Bear bonanza</em>. Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska. When the salmon arrive in summer, so do the bears. Though they are usually solitary, they congregate in large numbers to fish.
Adam Rice / Wildlife Photographer of the Year
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Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Bear bonanza. Katmai National Park and Preserve, Alaska. When the salmon arrive in summer, so do the bears. Though they are usually solitary, they congregate in large numbers to fish.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year is developed and produced by the Natural History Museum in London.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
Estefania Mitre
Estefania Mitre (she/her/ella) is a production assistant for social media who works with visual elements to amplify stories across platforms. She has experience reporting on culture, social justice and music.