2013 Bumblebee season begins

It's all been rather quiet for the start of 2013 on our bumblebee project due to our new baby project! We were thrilled to introduce Edan to the world in February, and have been very busy since taking good care of him and feeding him every few hours night and day!

I have to admit that last year's lodge is still needing to be cleaned and I haven't fully decided whether to source a colony for study this year or just rely on trying to encourage natural nesting. The other complexity is that my CCTV monitoring room is now Edan's bedroom and I haven't figured out anywhere suitable for all the CCTV equipment, other than perhaps the garage.

Anyway, it's been a moot point, as the bees themselves have been very slow to emerge after all the cold snowy weather we've been having through February and March. I'm sure there were a few false starts for some of them, but we've only seen our first bufftailed queens in the last week.

This weekend was a turning point for the weather and I was able to get out into the garden to cut and shape the grass (more on that later) and also create some more potential nest sites. It's remarkable to think that this time last year we had 21 new queens itching to leave the nest and yet this year we are only just seeing hibernating queens coming out and looking to set up home.

The other remarkable thing is that today alone I saw 9 queens in the garden looking for a nest site. (At least two were there together, so granted it could be two bees who made 9 visit to the garden in total). This is unprecedented - we are used to seeing 1 every few days. It leads me to wonder whether a) their normal habitat has been destroyed or rendered less suitable or b) whether these are our own queens coming back to where they were born; indeed, most of them explored the area where the nest had been sited on the stones by the garage wall.

Anyway - a quick run down of what I've done to create additional nest environments - since all the bees I've seen are definitely looking at ground level and digging down, I figured I needed to do something different to my above-ground boxes - I.e some underground cavities.

Transient

First, the grass has been cut (or more correctly, left) in strips that lead to the existing boxes. The bumblebees love to search in the long grass for possible burrow holes and explore the linear edges as a guide - so the strips naturally lead the bumbles to the entrances for the existing boxes (which are tubes hidden in moss).

Transient
Transient

Next, I have created two underground nest sites, inspired by the buried teapot idea. First is a plastic tub, upside down (thus waterproof) with a tube running down into it. The turf on top can be removed for observation if necessary, and I packed some stones and bedding inside. Any bee that chooses to explore that tube is going to find a 5 star residence!

Whilst packing all my tools away after burying the tub I spotted the baby formula tubs we were sending for recycling. I immediately thought that these two would make great underground cavities, being moisture proof and with a handy clippable lid that would also serve well as an observation hatch. So, today I buried one of those, again running a tube into it and packing it with some stones and bedding and moss.
I tried to make the entrances look authentic with some grass cuttings, but will need to let the surrounding lawn grow to encourage searching.

Here's a picture of the two boxes together.

Transient

So, now with underground and on-ground sorted it was time to deal with above-ground. So, I have placed a blue-tit bird box on the fence about a metre above ground - again packing it with bedding material. I've heard numerous folk talk of their blue-tit bird boxes being chosen for bee nests, so I'm hopeful ours will too.

So, looking forward to the next week to see if we get more queens and if they discover what we've laid on for them! :-)


Connected Bumbles take 2012 Environmental "Internet of Things" Award

I'm thrilled to report that our bumblebees were voted by readers as the winner for the 2012 Internet of Things award in the Environmental category! This is a great end to a busy year with the bumblebees, where I installed a lot more technology to monitor their behaviours and environment.

I've created an explanatory page to help explain the relevance and benefits of the technology to our project.

It turned out that for the main colony (as widely reported) it was actually a pretty disastrous year. Foraging proved difficult with so much rain and we had a brood of about 20 early queens in April that all left the nest - none were produced over the summer.

One surviving queen did seem to have an attempt to build a second colony, but it was doomed as no workers emerged and her honey supplies were robbed by other bumblebees.

So, 2012 proved to be quite a different year to 2011, with no colony activity beyond August (November in 2011) - but with the added delights of a short spot in the BBC's Britain in a Day film and the IOT award to round things off!

More mystery

It's amazing how time flies - 10 days since the last update, and more mystery to report. 

outdoors

At the last count we have had a single queen in our outdoor colony and she was busy collecting liquid supplies for, what we presume, was a colony she has been brooding. Over the last 10 days we've continued to see her coming and going and drawing from the supplies we have been offering, though oddly not collecting any pollen: usually a key initial role for brooding queens. None-the-less we assumed this was what she was up to until things took an unusual turn yesterday.

My suspicions were first aroused when I saw what I thought was the queen resting on the inside roof of the box for what has now been (at the time of writing) almost 28 hours. Has barely moved, nor fed. On closer examination of the CCTV it turns out this is a female bumblebee from outside. I know her identity exactly as I actually marked her: she has been coming to feed on our supplies of honey water and also collecting pollen (so not a cuckoo) - but for another nest. For some reason yesterday she came into our nest (with surprising great ease via the flap, I might add) and has stayed there (very still) since. 

Oddly, not long after she arrived, our queen went out (about 7.15pm on 28th July) and at the time of writing has not returned. This is rather confusing and concerning - we wonder whether she has intentionally abandoned the nest, or went out foraging and met with difficulties, but it's now been 26 hours or so. We've seen this kind of thing before, and happy outcomes, but not with a seemingly brooding queen - it doesn't make sense. Whether it coincides with a change in the weather from a spell of record-breaking hot days to much wetter and cooler weather, who knows? Of course, we had not been looking inside the nest to see what was going on for fear of causing the queen to flee - but she may have done for some reason anyway.

Once again, we find ourselves waiting with certain trepidation.

indoors

The incredible news from our indoor colony of disabled bumblebees is that Dusty is now at least age 101 days and Nedine at least 99. (We say at least because that's how many days we've had them in care - they may have been several days old when we found them). 

These are truly remarkable numbers for worker bufftails who generally are thought to only live a few weeks (maybe 3 - 6). In general they are both still as active/energetic as ever and we continue to supply occasional bits of bedding for dusty to organise (it's her role) and new pollen for Nedine to work with (that seems to be her role). We are working on the basis that new research into bees shows that social roles in the nest can extend their lifetime and mental capacity, and that it might also apply to bumblebees.

The less good aspect is that dusty is showing some apparent signs of her age. Despite being energetic she has started being apparently less co-ordinated and shaking a bit more. It is not (yet) the classic symptom we have seen of bumbles becoming weak and unstable, but it is definitely a change. She falls over a lot (but is able to right herself) and doesn't make good progress when she walks - tends to be two steps forward, one step (or fall) back. On some occasions it seems like maybe her eyesight just isn't so good - but on others it seems more like something neurological (akin to dementia or Parkinson's in humans). She also seems to have lost most of her colour - only two very slight yellow flecks remaining on her shoulders.

We are closely monitoring her. 

You can see in the video below, she is quite energetic, but sort of "frantically dysfunctional"

 

 

On the edge

After all the intriguing activity from our new queen a few days ago, I thought "that was that". I spent the evening collecting all the numerical data from her honey-water collection trips (she made 75!) and assumed she had now filled all her stores in the nest and would probably get on with the next phase of brooding.

Unforunately, though, the supplies on the nest ledge had attracted a persistent male and when they ran out, he also figured out how to get into the nest. Over the course of the next few days, despite me setting up numerous decoy supplies (which of course attracted even more bumblebees!), he continued to raid the nest over and over, and I suspect has emptied it completely of all the supplies the queen set up.

This was heartbreaking to watch especially since my intervention was not working - and I became really concerned that it would all go wrong for our queen: either she would not realise there were no supplies, and too focussed on brooding might not collect any more (not to mention the fact the weather has been unsuitable anyway. Or, she would simply run out of food for herself due to the inclement weather.

The good news is, I have seen her, so she is not simply "locked down" and ignoring what is happening in her nest. However, the bad news is, when I saw her today near the entrance she was incredible weak - barely moving. It brought back all the horrible memories from last year seeing some of our queens unable to survive. Although previously she would come to the ledge to check for honey water (that I had been removed), she wasn't doing this - she was simply too weak to come out of the nest.

It seemed to me this was a critical moment - I had to intervene to save her. Rather than go into the nest to intervene, I simply squirted some honey water into the entrance where she was resting (be careful to avoid her). It clearly worked as she spent a minute or so drinking and then moved back into the nest at about 5x the speed she had come to the entrance.

As I write I haven't seen her come for more - which seems a little odd - so I wait with baited breath to see how it unfolds. Notwithstanding, I have put supplies right at the nest entrance so that she cannot leave without discovering them.

Furthermore I have deal with the theiving male with a different strategy - I have finally captured him and intend to relocate him too far away for him to get back here. This would not be something you could do with a girl, as they are servicing their own nest. But the boys just feed, rest and mate and do not service a nest - so as I long as I take him somewhere safe, he can survive ok. My brother suggested experimenting with different distances to see how far he can/will fly. Perhaps if I had more time and less concern for our queen I would do so, but I think in this instance I'm just going to go about 10 miles in the expectation that's too far for him to navigate back from. I will report back!

Going Potty?

I haven't been doing many updates on our colony because of its decline and essentially I have been waiting to see whether all the remaining bumblebees (2 or 3) would perish - in which case we'd probably order another colony; or whether a second colony might develop as did last year. 

So, for the last few weeks I've been keeping an occasional eye on what's been going on  - with the possibility that the largest bumblebee in the colony was actually a queen. That was my hunch, and finally some measurements from some of the CCTV stills confirmed that to be correct.

A Queen in the beepol colony - measuring about 23 - 25mm

So, having confirmed a Queen - what was she up to? Was she the "mother queen" of the colony, probably destined to die soon. Or was she a daughter or foreign visitor, possibly looking to set up her own colony. Certainly she'd been to and fro from the nest, but it was not obvious what she was up to. We'd expect a new queen to start off by collecting pollen, to make pollen bread, to sustain herself and her young as she stays in the nest to lay and rear them.

But we discovered today she was doing something else important which also pointed to the fact she may well be gearing up for her own colony.

Queen had come out onto the ledge and I went outside to try and get my first "real life" visual of her, mainly to confirm her size. Although she has been happily flying to and from the nest for some reason this morning she seemed to be in less good form and flew down into the grass. And she was then struggling to climb the grass stalks (not sure whether she was trying to fly or rest and warm up).

Anyway, eventually I rescued her and placed her back on the lodge shelf - and she went straight back into the nest. Slightly puzzled with her behaviour, I thought I would offer some honey water on the ledge so that if she came back out she could at least "recharge her batteries". Before long she was indeed back out and very grateful. 

Queen drinking honey waterShe spent a few minutes drinking, then returned to the nest. All seemed good. Next thing I know she's back out again drinking more. Then back in the nest. Then back out again drinking. Back in. Back out - and so on, until within about 20 minutes she'd drunk the whole tray dry!

I refilled it - and the whole scenario was repeated again! In fact, over the course of the day she drank 7 trays full (somewhere in the region of 15mls) - this is a huge amount, given that in the past we have seen 1 or 2 mls last easily for a day or two. 

So, what's going on? 

The most likely explanation is that she is brooding and that she is swallowing the honey water and regurgitating it in the nest to help make "pollen bread" (this is how bumblebees store their pollen supplies) and possibly also filling some honey pots also as storage. There's no question that the quantity of honey water she took into the nest is well beyond the realms of being anything she could possibly consume.

This would seem to underline her status as a queen building a new nest - so I now wait with anticpation to see if she also begins collecting pollen.

She's not the only one

This obsession with the honey water is not confined to this Queen only - in fact we've noticed over the last to weeks that Nedine, one of our small indoor bees, has been obsessed with the pollen supply in their box and seems to be fussing over it 24x7 and (it looks like) mixing it with honey water too. It's not entirely obvious if that's the full extent of her activity, or if she's fashioning "wax pots", but it seems like the former. It's odd that this has started in just the last two weeks - and has now become her full time role.