So, where were we?
Oh, yes; earlier this week we noticed an unknown boy turn up to the nest. How did we figure that?
Well, for starters, I'm counting and tracking every single bee in and out of the nest at the moment, so I recognise any that are "foreign" and also any that do not have a corresponding initial trip out of our nest. Ultimately, all the bees from our nest must have been born inside it and so must have been through a "first flight" memorisation procedure on the first time they leave. So, that leaves me with a pretty good idea of which bees are ours.
Then, out of the blue, this different looking bee turns up, not having come from inside our nest. Something was going on. Also, he was larger than any of ours and had a distintive white fluffy tail (less pointed than a girl's). Finally, behaviour gave it away. He was clearly a visitor, flying round and checking the outside of our lodge rather than going straight in. He then also spent a lot of time working along the edge of the lid/base, getting a scent and - I suspect - leaving one. None of our girls have ever shown this behaviour.
[video to come]
We were surprised to see a boy; given their lifespan, he must have been under 2 weeks old, which puts him having been born mid-September at the earliest. For a "first colony" nest (i.e. from a queen born last year), that would probably be quite late. So, perhaps we were seeing a boy from a "second colony" such as ours (but, as far as we can tell, not from ours).
However, that would also be a bit puzzling, because it would imply the colony had laid workers, boys (and presumably queens) in fairly rapid succession. As it happens, we're trying to piece together the behaviour of "second colonies" to figure our how their lifecycle (which starts sometime around August) compares with their host colony (which starts around April). In particular, does a "second colony" queen go on to hibernate and start another new colony next year, or does she die after laying? (As ours has done; although she seemed to be fattening up to hibernate). Also, if the queen lays workers (females) during this season, is she still able to lay fertilised eggs next year, or is she left only able to lay unfertilised eggs? These turn into boys, who do not work for the colony, and so the colony would not survive.
So, the existence of this boy adds another piece to the jigsaw. If he's come from a second colony, then it implies that both girls and boys are laid. It also adds credibilty to the suspicion we had that some boys were being laid in our second colony, because at want point we were seeing quite a large attrition rate from the nest: bees leaving and not coming back.
This in itself adds an intriguing twist to the story of "second colonies". Take ours, for example; it started to emerge towards the end of August after the original colony collapsed (partly due to heat damage in the nest). This means its lifespan is compressed into a time period of 5 weeks or so, very much shorter than the 10 - 12 weeks or longer of the original colony. So, we're intrigued to understand how well such a colony can perform and whether the Queen specifically compresses its lifespan into this time period by laying girls and boys in quick succession (and even Queens?) The evidence we're seeing is that she does lay both boys and girls - so the question is, what triggers the laying of the boys?: it would seem more likely that it must be due to seasonal/environmental conditions rather than how long she has been laying for.
Lady Luck Turns
Our boy came and went and while we were intrigued, we thought no more of it, other than to keep an eye on him over the coming days.
As is becoming the norm, the next day our collective jaws dropped when a massive bumble turned up at the nest entrance: lo and behold, it was very clearly a queen. She must surely have only been here for one thing - boys!
It's possible, of course, she was looking for a hibernation spot, so we had to reserve judgement. But not only had she turned up just a day after the boy, but there she was, exploring the outside of the lodge in all the same places he had, picking up his scent. It was all a bit uncanny. Also, she'd shown no interest in the hibernation spots we've specially set up. These are much more disguised than the lodge as much more natural surroundings and also facing the preferred direction (North).
She visited again later that day and again showed interest in where the boy had been and tried to get into the lodge - but was thwarted by the plastic flap at the entrance. There was no real excuse for that to be so - all the other queens we had in the nest previously managed to navigate it very well. But they had the benefit of starting on the inside and being able to push their way out and thus confirm for themselves how the flap worked and that it indeed is the entrance.
It's a little different starting on the outside, as the flap has to be lifted, not pushed, so it's not necessarily immediately obvious it is the way into the test. And, to be honest, this is part of its design, because it's intended to keep foreign interest away from the inside of the nest.
We had no idea whether this was a "one-off" visit, though she turned up twice during the day (and the boy turned up 5 times!). We presumed that if she was looking for a hibernation spot, having been thwarted by the entrance flap, she wouldn't turn up again. However, on the offchance we wedged the flap open a bit. This would allow her access to the entrance, and even if she didn't want to go right into he nest, she'd be able to drink some honey water that we provide just inside.
She turned up again the next day, in fact made twice as many visits, and did indeed explore inside the nest. Our boy, who we think stayed inside the nest overnight never quite co-incided with her, but we couldn't help but get the feeling that the two were trying to track each other down.
Over the course of the week our Queen and Boy have kept coming back to the nest (stats below). They've both been inside and he has stayed in there overnight a few times (from what we can tell). On the whole they have kept missing each other, though there have been a few occasions where they were in the nest together; but not for long and not such that we saw them actually hook up.
Here's a graph of the activity over the last few weeks:
We can see that there was a huge surge in Queen visits on 7th October. We were slightly baffled by this until we realised that there were TWO queens now visiting the nest (and two boys as it happens). At one point we caught them both in shot together - it was all quite amazing.
We continue to allow them to go into the nest and benefit from the honey water and they seem quite happy to spend stretches of about 20 minutes at a time in there. The Queens never stay overnight in the nest though, they always leave (often close to sundown) off to where they came from. (Would love to know where that is).
This repeated visiting to the nest does not seem to make sense as hibernation activity - one or two checks on the location would confirm whether it is satisfactory or not, so we conclude that this is indeed mating behaviour. Unfortunately neither of the Queens or boys really seem to have managed to co-incide with each other yet, but we remain hopeful.
My big worry is that they leave it a bit too late to go and hibernate, as the weather has suddenly returned to its more usual seasonal level - but we have to trust in their own body clocks to do the right thing. I also hope they don't end up trying to use our nestbox to hibernate, as it will not really be suitable. The old nest in there will not be hygenic for them; but from what we can tell, it wouldn't be normal for them to choose a nest site for hibernation, nor indeed for next year's nest.
I do also have to wonder when these Queens were born, given they are now looking for males. The first "batch" of males was around August time, so we are two months down the line. That suggests they are also from a "second colony"- but certainly not ours. Our first colony produced half-a-dozen queens; there's part of me wonders if they are from that brood. There's no real way to find out, but it does seem surprising that they wouldn't have found a mate already over the last 8 weeks, so the behaviour remains a bit of mystery; or perhaps just a quirk of timing due to the abnormally warm weather conditions.
Either way, it's a privilege to have them visiting and yet another source of fascination.
[Video to follow]