A NewTube phenomenon (part 1)

Well, you can't rest when it comes to bee conservation! I didn't have time to report yesterday, so  there is a bit more to write today, and it's been a very interesting two days with some significant new learning; so it's in two parts. 

Starting with yesterday; we managed to each catch a redtail bumblebee within about 30 minutes of each other. (Am I now officially a Junior BCW?) It had been a hot day, possibly hottest of the year, about 10 degrees above the normal average so we left it later to go hunting. It's funny how the bee searching goes: we're not seeing as many now (except for cuckoo bees emerging) and I get a bit disheartened that we've run out of time to find a queen that hasn't nested yet.

And then, usually when we've given up and are walking home we'll see one random bee, probably thinking the same as us, just giving up and going home! And we pounce. This strategy works on several levels (in our heads, at least):


  1. if we bring them to the box earlier in the day, there's a greater chance they will just leave immediately and carry on their daily business
  2. we are genuinely trying to be as kind as possible to the bee - so if it is near to the time when it needs to bed down safely, we are offering excellent overnight accomodation!


Anyway, I digress. Prior to catching the redtails (BB21 & BB22) we had agreed on a new strategy. For a second day we were going to seal the entrance for a few hours to see if they would stay in the box longer; but we were going to add about 10cm of tubing to the entrance to simulate "going underground", hoping this might be more of a convincer. We were also going to unseal the pipe after dark, assuming the bee would be asleep, cover it in a bit of grass (such that the bee could burrow out if necessary) and see whether this made any difference to behaviour the next day. So, that's what we did.

The behaviour we observed was both new and fascinating and, interestingly pretty much identical for both bees.

Unlike the cuckoo bee of the day before, when these two red tails were introduced to the box they were darting around the box, clearly looking for the exit which we had sealed. Of course, we can never know whether a bumblebee feels truly "anxious" or whether it is simply following a pre-programmed reaction - it's own system of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (assuring security). Of course, we don't deliberately want to stress the bee, so if we felt it was excessive and entirely undue we would let the bee go. However, we know that the bees do settle down and also it is not our default strategy to seal the box; we were doing it specifically as a piece of learning. 

It was fascinating to be able to compare two redtails simultaneously. The bee in the front box searched the box, but then calmed down relatively quickly and just mooched around a bit. In contrast the bee in the back nestbox (essentially in identical conditions) was far more active and feisty, with a lot more buzzing for a lot longer. Within about an hour they were both fairly still and quiet and we assumed they were going to sleep as BB20 had done the night before. 

By this time is was dark, although fairly warm at 16 degrees ambient temperature (presumably much more inside the box) so we carried out the next part of our plan which was to unblock the tube in the entrance and semi-seal it with grass. We did this at about 45 minute intervals, but in both cases we were amazed to see the redtail emerge within about 30 seconds of us doing so, even in the darkness.  We confirmed they were safe; in the case of the front box she wandered along the outside of the tube and then into the grass around the box. 

I was happy this was sufficient for the bee to be safe overnight given past observations, having seen them sleep under the box roof and under a heather pot! So, we let them bee! There was no sign of them in the morning.

We were both astounded by this behaviour having not seen it before, so I think we take away a few learning points from this:


  • the bees do get agitated when the box is sealed and (from other observations) it seems to be the case they instantly know whether the box is sealed or not - we are still figuring out how they do
  • the vestal cuckoo bee from the night before was placid and just quietly went to sleep, unlike these two redtails. Perhaps that is a difference between the bee types: it makes sense that the cuckoo bee would be quiet and stealthy and hang around to see what goes on inside the box. In contrast, the proper queens are more concerned to find a safe location
  • if the bee is not happy with its location it will even be prepared to come out into the dark to get 'safe' (whatever that means in bee world)


Needless to say, we are not planning to seal the box again - the experiment is over and showed that it offers no benefit in terms of encouraging the bee to stay (arguably the opposite). We can't of course comment on the success or otherwise of the new tubing, other than we can confirm that the bees can traverse it safely.