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We created the World's first tweeting bumblebees, and now we've won the Internet of Things Award (Environmental) 2012! Thank you to our readers for your votes!

Introduction

Our Bumblebee nesting project started in 2011 as a bit of conservation to help the declining bumblebee population by encouraging one (or more) to nest in boxes in our garden. We discovered it's not easy, and our project quickly evolved into an ongoing and intimate study of these amazing creatures, which we are sharing here for the benefit of all. 

Amongst our unexpected successes are: 

  • A short clip in the film "Britain in a Day" by Ridley Scott (Broadcast by the BBC in 2012)
  • Featured in Wired Magazine for creating the World's first tweeting bumblebees
  • Winner of the Internet of Things award 2012 - Environmental Category
  • Oldest recorded age we can find of a worker Bufftailed Bumblebee - at 103 days

We've discovered, observed and collected a sizeable amount of real-world data, still being analysed and written up (Overview here). Additionally,

  • We've sourced several live colonies from commercial providers and have been looking after numerous disabled bees indoors.
  • We've learnt to recognise individual bees, spot specific/individual behaviour patterns
  • We measured efficiency and can predict some of their behaviour triggers. 
  • We have some CCTV cameras pointing at the nestboxes and inside
  • You can also follow BeeBoxALula on twitter where our bumblebees tweet live for themselves!

Insights

We're also using tech to monitor the lives of our bumblebees - visual, audio, temperature, sunlight, weather. We can see how the environment impacts their behaviour and understand, capture and share the marvels of their secret lives.

As a species under great threat, we've brought the critical study of Bumblebees into the Multimedia age and revealed intriguing and new insights based on direct observation.

You might want to start with our project summary or project motivation.

Blog:


Open Sesame - Nestbox Entrance Design

Over the weekend we made yet further modifications to the layout and entrances of our nestboxes. It has been a process of constant tinkering, which in itself might be argued contributes to a lack of success attracting a Queen Bee. On the other hand, all the information we've read suggests that commercial nest boxes like those we are using have very low success rates. Apparently even research scientists struggle to achieve 10% occupancy in nest boxes. 

So, our strategy has been to apply "bee logic" as we have gone along: to take all we have read and learned alongside everything we have observed in the wild to try and combine all the best elements as seen through "bee eyes". This has been a process with several phases, making adapations to the following elements:

 

  • the internal layout of the box
  • the position of the boxes
  • the environment surrounding the boxes (including other plants and flowers)
  • the features of the entrance both internally and externally

 

In this article I'm going to discuss the latest enhancements to the entrance. It should be borne in mind that when I say "enhancements" this combine human enhancements (i.e. things that improve our ability to work with the nestbox) and suspected bee enhancements (i.e. things we think will appeal to the bees).

Box Tube with Funnelled Entrance 

One of the pieces of advice we had read regularly but not yet acted on was to use some tubing inside the nestbox, which is thought to create a stronger sense of going underground for the Bumblebee. Since most of them either insist, prefer or are happy to nest underground, it seems like good advice. And to be honest, we probably should have tried it earlier. 

We've seen this technique in two separate guises and we have combined both:

 

  • a short tube inside the box which leads the bee towards the nest area
  • a longer tube outside the box, possibly paritally buried, which gives a sense of tunneling underground

 

I tried a few bits of random tubing I had lying around to no avail - nothing really fitted properly and we were also concerned not to make the entrance too narrow for the bees to safely pass through. So, in the end I opted to use some cable ducting, designed to make the cables at the back of your TV tidier. This tubing is actually split all down the centre so that you can adjust it's diameter to any size. 

So, here's the first piece of tubing:

Entrance tubing using cable tidy tubingI trimmed the tube so that the overlaps were minimal. The gaffer tape is keeping the tube together at the "narrow end" which inserts into the actual nest box entrance. I suspect the ridges are quite useful as they will channel any water, although the aim is to keep it as dry as possible as bees do not like the wet. I also used a bradawl to create holes all along the tube so that it can drain whatever orientation it is.

A short piece of tube like this was pushed halfway into the entrance hole inside the box - nothing more to do there.

For the outside we needed to create a flat or funnel shape, because if we are manually introducing bees to the box, we need to be able to "dock" the pot we capture them in; i.e. we have to be able to seal the pot against the box so that the bee cannot escape. The solution I can up with was to attach the top of a soft-drink bottle to the tube:

full entrance pipe with "docking funnel"It all looks a bit heath robinson but do bear in mind this is just a first version, so there is scope to improve it going forward. The gaffer tape actually serves a very useful purpose aside from being great at holding it all together: it helps to create smooth, soft edges. 

It also turns out that the pot BCW (Bee Catching Wizard) is using to catch bees actually fits this diameter perfectly and will "dock" into the funnel such that it can be left hands-free. See below:

Fully "docked" entrance tubeIn case you are wondering what the hi-vis reflective tape is for, this is to help us see the entrance when it is in situ, because it is quite well camouflaged and surrounded by grasses. It also helps at night when we have found it very hard to see: a quick flash of a torch will easily locate the entrance. 

In the next picture you can see the full system fully assembled:

fully assembled "docking" system on nestbox 1The picture above shows nestbox one - which our best equipped box (it has two cameras). You can see the overall layout inside the box too, as well as the two cameras. The reflective tape inside the box serves a similar purpose: it helps align the cameras and make sense of the view once the lid is on and it is dark. There is nothing particularly special about the pattern of stickers, it's fairly random!

Once the tube is installed we are able to apply some camouflaging, as below:

camouflaged entrance on front boxSince taking this picture, we've actually greatly increased the foliage and camouflage around the entrance and it looks fabulous. The good thing is - and here comes the bee logic - it looks like a really obvious hole in the foliage that is surely worthy of exploration by any curious Queen Bee. I'm pretty confident if they were poking around this part of our garden they would be tempted to have a look; which is the (w)hole point!

Box Tube with Foam Entrance

Because we have the luxury of two boxes, we have tried something a little different on the second box. This is really just to hedge our bets as we don't know if a bee is smart enough to tell the above entrance is a bottle and possibly a piece of litter. Or maybe it is too shiny and smooth. When we reflect on our observations of where Bumbles are looking for nests, it's in long tall grasses or dried, cracked muddy embankments, quite often near trees or bramble bushes. So, these are all parameters we have to consider and try to mimic. 

So, for the rear box, we have used some "dry foam" (which is used for flower arranging) as a block into which to mount the entrance tubing. In all other senses the box is the same, although the exterior camouflaging is also different and the box only has one camera.

box 2 layout Once installed this is how the box looks with a bee's-eye view (see below). Although the exposure in this picture is a bit bright, the foam block is light brown and resembles a piece of muddy embankment. (We could even carve some rough shapes in it, if we were so inclined.)

new "foam block" entrance on box 2Here is a picture of Bumblebum 28 resting on the foam block. She refused to enter both boxes and tucked herself up under the grasses to sleep.

BB28 resting on the foam block, box 2

We've not yet tested these designs in the wet, so once that has happened there may be further work to do. In particular, I'm not sure how well the foam will stand up to the rain, so that is something I will monitor closely. Aside from that I'm very pleased with the effect - and I just hope the Bees are also suitably tempted by the new "look".