It's 3 weeks since we saw the last activity in our Beepol nest and 2 weeks since I took advantage of help from my brother to dismantle the nest and lodge and photograph it.
It was really quite an interesting experience and much more pleasant than dismantling the Koppert box we had earlier in the season. That box was infested with wax moth and was in a fairly unpleasant state. In contrast the Beepol box was uninfested and fully intact, complete with all evidence of several colonies having existed (as we observed).
As we lifted the lid of the lodge there was a pleasant (though faded) smell of honey, mingled with the typically waxy odour. We could immediately see just how high the bedding had been raised since it was first added: underneath was a complete substructure of wax pots and pillars and the ceiling layer of bedding had been lined with a thin layer of wax too.
Peeling back the ceiling revealed a tall, compact cluster of we pots built by our last (third) queen. As expected, these pots were nearly all quite small and less well developed due the the September, October and November temperatures.
Most of them had hatched, which of course accounted for all those tiny bumblebees we saw and rescued and surprisingly, only one or two were unhatched. You can see a small, prominent, fully intact wax pot in the pictures. Many of the dead bees In the box were very small too, again, part of the overall pattern.
The distinction between 'levels' in the box was very prominent too. The original colony had suffered heat damage at the base of the nest and the wax was a darker brown colour and more roughly textured. It was very buried below the added bedding and a whole new upper layer of fresher, more yellow wax from the subsequent colony. There was no doubt at (at least) two distinct colonies developed in the nest.
We also tried to find the 3 queens we expected to be in the box - and we did indeed find 3 larger bumblebees although they looked surprisingly shrunken and reduced in size in their still and curled up unfuzzy state, to the extent I would have struggled to perhaps recognise them as queens if I hadn't already known they should be in there. [The backstory: The original 'mother' queen had come out of the nest to die, but one of her brood had stayed on permanently and started brooding. She seemed to get to weak or too large to leave the nest and died inside. But another 3 queens also turned up in succession and two of those seemed to brood. We did of course rescue last one of these and she died in our care, but the other two also died in the nest.]
Something that was completely new to me in this nest was a number of wax pots broken open with a white sticky substance in them. In some pots it looked like a solid mass, but in others was quite clearly composed of smaller lumps and 'clumps'. It seemed these would be eggs or early larvae of some kind, but what I wasn't sure was whether this was from a moth (we'd seen one or two in the nest) or flies (also seen inside). I turned to my expert at Dragonfli, suppliers of the Beepol nest, and he confirmed this appeared to be bumblebee eggs. Until now I had assumed that only one egg was laid per wax pot, but he confirmed that actually they do lay half a dozen to a dozen eggs in a pot then seal them in with some pollen..
There were quite a number of pots in this condition, symptomatic of a very busy queen who was struggling against the odds to get a brood to develop to critical mass. Sadly she never made it because her offspring could just not develop successfully in the cold temperatures of October and November. She kept trying day after day, and indeed, pretty much died trying - but it could never be.
So, this represents the end of the 2011 season, although the work is not complete as we clear up and decommission our setup (nest. CCTV etc), write it all up and then begin to prepare for the 2012 season.
Finally, a picture of a developing larvae as it starts to reach the callow stage. I removed her from a sealed wax pot. You can see the wings are not quite developed yet and the usual white down actually has a warm golden colour. Whilst sad, for me there is something starkly beautiful about this picture...