There's definitely a plot thickening and developing in our Beepol bumblebee hive.
But let me wind back a little.
We've had the beepol hive fractionally under three weeks (at the time of writing) and ever since we've had it, it's not been hugely active - not like the Natupol hive before it. We weren't too concerned as we figured it was "end of the season" (sort of) back at the start of August when we got it and that we ought to expect the nest to be in decline. It turns out, however, after expert confirmation, that the nest suffered overheating somewhere along its lifetime - melting and damaging the wax and thus also some of the colony.
After a few days of stabilising the hive and its wooden lodge, getting all the CCTV installed and configured, I began tracking all activity in and out of the nest. I couldn't do this with the natupol box as it was too much data for someone with another day job to process! However, the activity levels were low enough in the more-recent beepol box for me to start this tracking.
What we discovered by the time a week had gone by was that activity levels consisted of somewhere in the region of 25 total trips a day. We can't say is how many bees exactly were responsible for these trips, but my hunch was about half a dozen. What I can say is that there were, at one point, at least 5 bees out of the box at the same time (i.e. 5 more total exits than returns during one time period).
We'd also seen a few new-born bees emerging from the box - which we can tell by their circling/memorisation behaviour the first time they leave the nest. These were mainly workers, coming back with pollen. I started counting the pollen trips too and it represented most of the trips. So far, so good - nothing unusual, just a hive of workers doing their thing.
But we noticed something curious...
...We had queens. Several. On about day 4 of our installation 2 new ones emerged, then the next day 3 more emerged for the first time. There was quite a collection. It was beautiful and touching, but of itself nothing particuarly surprising. Indeed, the destiny of our Mother Queen, any Mother Queen, is to lay new queens that will carry the baton over winter hibernation to begin next year's colonies. We were seeing that process unfold, having suffered the disappointment of the Natupol colony not quite making it that far. Wonderful. Destination: destiny.
A little more surprising was the fact that some queens were bringing pollen back to the nest. Unmistakable. There is really only one concrete reason for this: that they are laying and hatching young. Their own young. Queens do not really co-operate in the nest like workers - indeed may fight for dominance. Oddly, our handful seemed to be co-operating. This was a jigsaw with a lot of missing pieces.
As the next two weeks passed, aside from some inclement weather, activity significantly dwindled to the level of about half a dozen trips a day, if that. That could be just one bee. And It's really tailed off the last few days.
We've been checking the nest at the dead of night and trying to see how many live bees are in the there.
For the last week the number has been anywhere between 5 and 7 and 4, with rises and falls in number that could really only be explained by some of the bumbles managing to find a hiding spot in nest. I felt despondent at the drop to 4, thinking yet again "this is all over now". But then the next night we saw 6 maybe 7. Foxy things these little bumbles.
My hunch instinct was working overtime too. You have to remember that over the course of this season, I have scanned so much CCTV footage (much at high speed) that my ability to recognise and decipher CCTV images of bees has become like a seventh sense. I felt we were down to one, maybe two Queens bringing pollen back, though there were more in the nest. We were still thinking this was some kind of misguided (and co-operative) behaviour. Maybe one of them was Mother Queen...? maybe one of them was helping with some of Mother Queen's previously layed babies? No - actually - it didn't stack up.
On top of that, we had seen a queen or two "fussing". "Fussing" is my technical term for doing something to a wax pot that you can't see (because they are on top, obscuring your view). Is "fussing" keeping the temperature up? Is "Fussing" helping to break through the wax? Or something else?
Either way, there was "fussing" but it didn't fit the mental jigsaw we were currently picturing. We didn't know yet that maybe we had the wrong jigsaw.
Then something really surprising happened this weekend (about 17/18 days in). A small, fluffly, faded bumble, with a dislocated wing, crawled to the entrance of the nest and didn't know what to do.
Where had little "1.5" wing been all this time? Actually (s)he was rather bedraggled and lethargic. We've seen this before; it means one of two things: new born or very poorly. Or both. Quite often the bees come out of the nest, almost in a trance-like daze when they are ready to die. Sad, poignant, and utterly amazing.
If it was a worker from the Mother Queen, it didn't make sense. We'd seen the last of her worker brood all emerge two weeks ago (and we suspect Mother Queen was the queen who came out to finally be laid to rest in our spare nestsbox). So, really only two explanations fit:
- this was a male born a few weeks ago (pehaps to Mother Queen - that fits) who has been unable to fly, stayed in the nest, and now at two weeks old has come out to die (a typical lifespan for a male). But, we'd have expected him to follow his instinct and leave the nest earlier anyway, hoping to mate.
- this is a newborn of one of our new queens. She's been laying, brooding and hatching - that would explain the pollen. Chances are it would be a male from an unfertilised egg. But, I suppose there is the possibility a Queen has mated (we know one did with a redtail, for sure) and layed a fertilised egg. In which case this is a girl.
Either way, the latter conclusion means that we have an "offspring" Queen laying new bees. Building a second colony. In the same season as she was born in. A sort of "Colony Deja Vu". This is not the natural order of things; she is suppoed to go off an mate and hibernate. But it is known to happen with Bombus Terrestris on occasions. How amazing for us to witness it.
Sadly, little 1.5-Wing didn't last the night. We took him/her indoors for intensive care, but demise was quick and thankfully peaceful.
The next day I was leaving at 6am for a drive to work. I quickly scanned the overnight CCTV footage and was intrigued to see a small bee spending the entire night on the inside wall of the nest by the entrance. Hunch mode.
I've learnt lots of behaviour patterns and this one is typical of a new bee. This is their first time preparing for the big wide world; they are programmed to do it, but they show a sense of uncertainty; of a need to prepare - just like fledglings leaping from a nest for the first time. New bees seem to take their time, figure out where the exit is, emerge a little nervously - and then.... launch backwards with all their might, hoping to stay airborne while memorising their surroundings in sufficient detail to be able to find their way back again.
Imagine that moment for our little bumblebee - it's a bigger event than breaking out of their wax pot to gasp the safety of the nest air; this, instead, is the Apollo moment.
At one point in the footage I spotted a queen making for the exit and I managed to grab a screen shot of them side by side. You can see very clearly, one is a queen and one is not.
About four hours later (by which time I was at work and monitoring from my iPhone), little new bee emerged into the entrance vestibule and spent another 30 minutes or so in there. I grabbed a screenshot, where you can just make her out.
The she came out onto the side of the entrance and clung on while I watched. An email arrived. I looked away. When I looked back, she was gone! I didn't know if she had flown or fallen, but I did know she hadn't gone back into the nest. I texted BCW and asked her to investigate and check the lawn. She reported back a few minutes later, although I had observed the whole episode on the CCTV anyway. Little bee had been found, clinging to our garden light. She was born disabled and deformed. She had no wings. BCW took her into care, where she has been this evening.
Pieces of the same Jigsaw?
We're trying to piece this jigsaw together. The timing of the emergence of these two (apparently) new "non-Queen" bees certainly suggests we have new offspring. That means one of our queens is laying. That explains why pollen is being collected and honey supplies built up (both at fairly substantial levels in the nest).
My big concern, though, is the deformity. Two bees in a row. It could be genetic (especially from inbreeding) but I think it's temperature - I don't think development is occuring at the right temperature (30 degrees C) and consequently the bees are not forming properly. This is easily explained by the damage to the nest and lack of insulation material available; plus the open cavernous space of the lodge which will provide poor insulation. Poor queen will be working overtime to keep her wax pots at 30 degrees and won't stand a chance.
We really want to do something to help - Queenie needs half a dozen successful workers or so to start building the critical mass to develop and supply her new colony, so she can focus on serious nest laying. If we can help her get to that point, there is a chance of a new colony starting to develop, in this tatty, damaged, melted, deserted, graveyard of a nest. It's almost two fingers up to the master plan. I love it.
As an urgent measure we need to get a thermometer into the nest and then consider whether we can help insulate and heat it. I do have a plan about how to go about this, but time is not on our side. I'm away from home at HQ for another day and then we're only home a short time before our holiday.
Conservation is always a race against time.