Winners of the 2022 Big Picture Natural World Photography Competition Announced

From mating bees to starfish devouring a sea lion, the photos captured the beauty and diversity of life on Earth

An image of cactus bees mating. They are all piled into a ball.
The image captured in South Texas shows cactus bees (Diadasia rinconis) in a rare and intimate moment as they swarm into a mating ball for a chance to mate with one female bee.
  Karine Aigner/BigPicture Photography Competition

The winners of the 2022 BigPicture: Natural World Photography Competition celebrate life cycles and natural resilience. The California Academy of Sciences puts on the contest, which judges photos that capture nature in eight different categories. This year’s competition encouraged photographers to submit images showcasing life on Earth and illustrated some of the planet’s threats, Alan Taylor for the Atlantic reports. 

“Each photo, in its own way, inspires viewers to protect and conserve the remarkable diversity of life on Earth,” notes bioGraphic, the Academy’s online magazine of nature and conservation, and the official media sponsor of the BigPicture competition.

The grand prize was awarded to photojournalist Karine Aigner for her image titled Bee Balling. The image, taken in South Texas, shows cactus bees (Diadasia rinconis) in a rare and intimate moment as they swarm into a ball for a chance to mate with one female bee. The ritual lasts only 20 seconds before the ball disbands, and the female bee flies away with the triumphant male clinging onto her back, Popular Science's Stephanie Stone reports.

"We don't often see small organisms in Grand Prize images," says Suzi Eszterhas, BigPicture Jury Chair, in a statement. "Aigner was able to capture a rare and tiny phenomenon and turn it into something spectacular. Observing this mating ball from the lowest point possible gives us an intimate perspective of this unusual behavior."

Winning photographs from the eight categories were selected from more than 7,000 submissions that came from 65 countries. All stunning images will be on display at the California Academy of Sciences in the fall for visitors to view and are published online at bioGraphic.

 Check out the first-place winners in each category below:

Grand Prize Winner: Bee Balling- Karine Aigner 

An image of a ball of bees
Aigner captured this image in Texas on a warm spring morning after the female cactus bee emerged from her tubular underground nest. Upon arising, she was swarmed by dozens of patrolling male bees buzzing for a chance to mate with her. Aigner waited on the ground to snap the image of the frantic cluster of bees. Cactus bees are crucial pollinators to native plants in Texas. Karine Aigner/BigPicture Competition

Aquatic Life Winner: Sea Lion Fall- David Slater

An image of a California sea lion laying on the ocean floor with dozens of bat stars covering its body.
Slater captured this somber image of a California sea lion's final resting place at the bottom of Monterey Bay, covered by dozens of bat stars. The image was taken on a deep-sea dive Slater took in September 2021. David Slater/BigPicture Competition

Terrestrial Wildlife Winner: Spider Web- Bence Máte 

An image of a beaver chewing on a tree. The image is backlit with with the sun's rays.
Máté laid still on a floating hide in Hungary's Kiskunsag National Park to shoot this image of a Eurasian beaver gnawing on a tree. The photo is backlit by dawn's early rays and highlights the beaver's whiskers and the spider resting in the middle of its transparent web. Bence Máte/BigPicture Competition

 Winged Life Winner: Frame Within A Frame- Sitaram Raul

An image of bat framed by leaves of a tree
Raul's image shows a fruit bat as it flies towards a custard apple tree for a meal. The tree's leaves frame the bat as it approaches. To snap this stunning image, Raul spent three weeks observing the bats in his backyard to predict their behavior and eventually photograph the award-winning shot. Sitaram Raul/BigPicture Competition

 Landscapes, Waterscapes and Flora Winner: The Hidden Beauty Beneath Our Feet- Tom St. George

An image of an underwater cave with thousands of stalactites piercing the water
Deep within the cave systems of Mexico's Riviera Maya, St George shot this spectacular dimly lit underwater cavern with thousands of stalactites. While the space appears lifeless, it is part of an extensive subterranean network of sinkholes, flooded passages and caves that are home to unique fish and zooplankton only found in the Yucatán Peninsula. George hopes his image will bring attention to the cave’s beauty and threats that endanger the fragile ecosystem. Tom St. George/BigPicture Competition

 Art of Nature Winner: Insect Diversity- Pål Hermansen

An image of insects placed against a white background
This image of a tapestry of insects results from Hermansen taking a walk one March morning in Norway. During it, he noticed an outdoor light that had been left on all night attracted dozens of insects to the light's shell. As he cleaned out the insects, Hermansen snapped a photograph of the happenstance collection to highlight the diversity present. Pål Hermansen/BigPicture Competition

 Human/Nature Winner: Sickening Delicacy- Bence Máte

An image of frogs with missing legs floating around in water
Máte's image was taken while traveling Romania's Carpathian region. The shot features the remains of frogs after they were hunted during spawning time. The frog's legs were removed for consumption and the carcasses thrown back into the water. Máte wanted to capture the visceral and heart-breaking nature of the frog leg trade. Bence Máte/BigPicture Competition

 Photo Story Taking Action Winner: Coexistence With Predators- Nayan Khanolkar

An image of a city contrasting with a mountainous landscape.
In Mumbai, where the photo was taken, the city abuts directly with the hills of Sanjay Gandhi National Park. It is not uncommon to encounter a leopard in the city. Khanolkar hopes this image demonstrates that humans and wildlife can co-exist. Nayan Khanolkar/BigPicture Photography Competition