Excitedly we took delivery of our new Beepol bumblebees on 28th July. It contained a colony of (according to the literature) about 40 worker bees, a Queen and an established nest of Bufftailed (Bombus Terrestris Audax).
This certainly seemed to be reasonably close to the truth as the nest is visible through the clear lid of the internal 'hive'. We also took delivery of the special "lodge" that can be used to house and protect it. It all came together in a large single box delivered by the courier. Initial observations are as follows:
- The bees are delivered by Citylink - a company of which I have a very low opinion, unfortunately. I honestly dread to think what treatment the bees have to endure when in the care of a non-specialist courier. As it was we saw the courier nearly lose grip on the box and tip it over, which over course could be disastrous for the nest. I do not think Citylink is a good choice of transport for such a precious load.
- The bees are not packaged to anywhere near the standard and level of thought of the Koppert system. The Koppert hive comes in a cardboard box that is stapled to a large chipboard "w" shaped palette. It seemed cumbersome at the time but we realise now that it serves two very useful purposes. 1) The palette can actually be used as a mounting platform for the bee nestbox in the wild (although we used bricks). 2) The palette provides stability to the package and makes it almost impossible to turn over, either accidentally or out of sheer stupidity (e.g. by not realising which way is UP).
In contrast the Beepol box was marked with two "this way up arrows" and a "caution: live bumblebees" sticker. Frankly I doubt most couriers even read that. Also, there was nothing by way of ventilation in the packaging. So, I'm not ashamed to admit that my first impressions were of a lower quality product (for a higher price!), with less detailed design attention than the Koppert equivalent. Hold that thought.
- The lodge itself is a very aesthetically pleasing piece of equipment. Much smaller than you might imagine, and a lovely piece of 'furniture' to have in the garden. It's made of cedar but doesn't appear to be treated so we will do that later at some point to ensure water-tightness and longevity.
- Some aspects of the lodge are well thought out: there is a nice shelf by the entrance for the bees to rest on, and a slot at the back to run a camera wire internally (which is perfect for my needs). We haven't tested its stability to wind, which is something we must do.
- Other aspects of the lodge are less good: one of the corners did not join particularly and despite me trying to tighten the screws, this was not sufficient - so there is a small gap we have to fill. The same is true of the 'trueness' of the lid, which also has a small gap along the front. We are now paranoid about wax moth being able to enter through any nooks and crannies, so we plan to stick the 'soft' half of a strip of velcro to this edge to create a good seal.
We did not install the lodge and inner hive straight away. Instead BCW first sprayed the hive thoroughly with Certan solution (using 10mls plus 190mls water). This was enough to drench it thoroughly. Certan is a biological larvicide for wax moth, so it is one line of defence we are putting into place. It's probably of limited use as it is unlikely we would get wax moth laying eggs on the wood of the lodge (more likely to go fully inside the plastic hive). But after recent experiences we are taking every precaution we can.
At the weekend I had prepared four bricks already with grease. These provide a solid base for the lodge and the grease prevents ants being able to access it. My job now was to equip the lodge with CCTV. I decided on a similar set as with the Koppert: one camera internally, one along the flight path and one watching the entrance. I fitted the first two to the lodge, which was a lot easier than the Koppert box as I could just screw them onto the wood. The views are rather different but I will discuss that in a later posting.
The entrance camera is going to be a problem as there is nothing to fit it to, so I will solve that later.
The other thing we had to do was fit brushes to the entrance holes. This is another line of defence agains the wax moth, as suggested by Beepol themselves. We had a quite a palaver making and fitting the brushes and again, I am not confident in the security of this solution; but we have to try.
The lodge was all prepped and checked by about 8pm, so we decided that rather than leave the bees cooped up all night we'd give them some opportunity for fresh air and to acclimatise to their surroundings, on the basis that they probably had around 90 mins flying time still available (all my previous measurements coming in handy there). This was a case of adding the plastic hive into the lodge then releasing the special flap keeping them secure.
That was when the trouble started.
Release the Bees!
It is worth point out that the Beepol box comes with something called the "Beehome" system. What this means is that the plastic hive has two entrance holes. However, one is protected by a special "one way" flap that means (theoretically) the bees can only enter the box through that flap.
This system is put into action by shutting the main hole and leaving the one-way hole open. In this way the bees can return into the hive but cannot get out. You would do this when you need to collect the bees up, e.g. because you need to spray surrounding crops; or if for some reason you need to move the hive completely. You let all the bees come home, and stay stuck in the hive.
The hive itself is basically a moulded plastic tub with all the required nest materials and food supply inside. It gives the impression of being much lower quality than the Koppert box. In a way it stands to reason: the beepol box is very much aim at gardeners and hobbyists, whereas the Koppert system is much more "industrialised", designed for farmers and crop-growers. It is therefore more robust and is more "one click" to use.
As soon as we had a close look at the nestbox itself, we knew there was a problem: there were bees trapped in the "one way" entrance. We took a quick decision that we had to release them first. Unfortunately that released half a dozen or more, because the one-way system was clearly not working, the bees were wedging it open. They were pretty angry and agitated and we didn't want to hang around too long to get stung, so the plan was to open the other entrance, close the lodge lid and then clear off! There was no point trying to consider a "controlled" opening of the main entrance using the supplied foam bung, as by this time bees were already freely emerging, so speed was of the essence. The trouble was, they were now landing on the lodge edge, making it impossible to shut the lid. This of course had the effect of keeping them exposed to light and thinking the top of their nest had been ripped off, so this just caused more agitation to the bees. The whole situation was self-perpetuating and rather stressful for all concerned!
So, it begs the question: what went wrong with the beehome system? It has to be said the construction of it seems a rather flimsy affair, again inferior to the Koppert equivalent (which is almost too good, as some bees wouldn't get through it the in the proper direction, let alone the wrong direction!). What I suspect actually happened was the courier didn't keep the box fully level - well, actually we know that for a fact because he mishandled it retrieving it from the van and let it tilt sideways.
Behaviour of the Bees
We were quite concerned that the bees were getting out of the box with the lodge lid up and thus not using the proper lodge entrance holes. This wouldn't have been so bad if it wasn't for the brushes that were now fixed to the box.
I felt that if the bees hadn't learned to push their way through them from the inside in the first instance, they may return to the box, find the lid replaced and no obvious entrance and they may not figure out pushing through the brushes. So as soon as the right moment presented itself we lowered the lodge lid.
Although some of the bees flew off doing their customary "circle navigation" as they learnt their position some of them were rather lethargic and crawled onto the lodge lid and also onto the grass. This started to become a concern as by now the light was failing and we were worried not only about stepping on them, but also that if they were too cold to fly, they had no way of getting back into the box for the night. As much as possible we tried to pick them up carefully and place them back onto the lodge lid or entrance shelf and in the main this was very successful.
Then it happened...
One of the bees tried to sting BCW through the suede gardening glove. It didn't reach BCW but within a few minutes we realised that the sting was trapped in the glove fabric and the bee couldn't release itself. It was getting very stressed and tugging to try and get away and at risk of doing itself some fatal damage. We racked our brains to think how we could resolve this. We cut the finger of the glove off, which allowed more freedom of movement but didn't help to release the bee. We then cut as much away of the glove as possible, hoping that maybe we would see the sting on the underside of the glove and could tease or press it out. Again, this was fruitless, the sting didn't come all the way through the glove.
The sun had now set and the light was very poor (I'd actually been in London all day and not eaten a single thing and it was now 10pm) and we were both getting a bit stressed out and upset by the situation, as this poor wee bumble, through no fault of her own, was destined to die if we couldn't release her. I knew that the only solution was to cut through her sting, though BCW was initially reluctant to let me do so - given that we neither had precision tools, nor did we really know what damage or pain our bumble would incur. But on the other hand, when faced with death, drastic situations call for drastic measures. And so it was agreed.
We very gently prized the glove material apart a bit and exposed as much of her sting as possible, without actually ripping her abdomen off. I then got my extremely sharp stanley knife and very very carefully slid it towards the sting, as far into the glove as I could manage and made a gentle incision. She was free.
Clearly traumatised by the whole affair, our bumble didn't go anywhere, just clung to the remnants of the glove finger. We placed the whole thing quickly into the lodge lid area and closed it again - we could from this point onwards monitor her on the CCTV.
I'm pleased to report that she seems to have survived and recovered from the whole incident - though I'm not so sure if we have!
So, a word of caution: Suede gardening gloves and bumblebees are not compatible. They offer fine protection to humans, but are perilous to the bees.
Anyway, in order to end on a high note, here are some of our new bumbles emerging for the first time: