It's been a busy fortnight tending to our new Beepol bumblebee hive. The weather was pretty inclement for our new bees to begin with, so it was a slow start for them.
In a way that was quite useful as it gave us chance to set up their lodge properly and get all the CCTV relocated and working (which meant, for example, tweaks to motion detection).
There was not (and has not been) a huge amount of activity from the nest over its first week and I wasn't really sure whether this should be a concern or not; the hive was supposed to have about 30 - 40 workers but I wasn't sure if being towards the back end of the "season" whether this number could be lower (it obviously was). In fact, by the time I got down to analysing our CCTV footage it looked like about 6 - 10 active workers; more on that later.
We've actually made quite a number of interventions over the week so I'm going to highlight them in here and leave going into them in detail in due course. I've also been in contact with the expert at dragonfli (who supply the Beepol box) who's been answering some questions and providing some helpful information, so in due course I will fill in with some of his relevant information.
Here are the things we've had to do over the last two weeks:
- bury a new queen - possibly the first queen out of the box - she was unable to fly
- cut the lid off the beepol box to allow room for the nest inside to get taller
- begin tracking detailed activity of workers and queens in/out of the nest (with a view to assessing its decline and queen emergence)
- adding foam (steps) into the nest and honey (to help build reserves due to lack of workers)
- later we had to fix the foam as the bees (quite incredibly) moved it
- resuce a tired, cold and wet worker and put her back in the nest
- deal with a wasp "invasion" - robbing the nest of honey
- produce the video from the CCTV that captured a Redtail male mating with one of our new queens
- trying various "trap door" designs on the front of the lodge to replace the "brushes" system
- complete the CCTV with the max number of cameras as we prepare for hibernation season
All of these have had their own little saga, and time has got the better of me, so I'll deal with them in a few separate blogs.
We were establishing the nest and lodge over the weekend of 1st August, which meant making some tweaks while the bee nestbox was already inside. Gulp! One of the adjustments was to the brush system which was slightly out of optimal position. The other was to remove the "flightpath" camera as it was not proving any value on the current lodge location and to relocate it to the wall of the house (looking side on) as well as fit the "entrance camera". The entrance camera provides the motion detection at the nest entrance (see below)
It was after I had completed this work, with the utmost of care, that a bedraggled-looking Queen slowly emerged from the nest.
I cannot begin to tell you how my heart sank when I saw this. Not knowing any better my first instinct was that our queen had come out of the nest - perhaps to check on what the rattling and vibrations were. She looked bedraggled and tired - so it was a natural conclusion. We hoped she was just checking the nest integrity and would return inside, but she didn't. She dragged herself over the roof several times whilst we willed her to return. Then she fell off the edge of the roof and landed below the lodge against the greased bricks.
This wasn't ideal, but at least she was safe, so we sat and watched her, hoping for an opportunity to rescue her and get her back in the box without the risk of getting more grease on her. But it was not to be, she stayed there for about 3 hours getting progressively weaker. We came to the conclusion that whether or not she was our original queen or a new one, she had come out of the nest to die. Eventually by moving the bricks, we were able to scoop her up and place her in one of our other nestboxes where we could monitor her on camera.
We did so over the course of the evening by which time she crawled and tucked herself into the inner entrance tube (this is designed to trick nest-search queens in spring that the nest is further underground than it really is). She stayed there and overnight passed away.
Once we had retrieved her I took some macro photographs. It was clear from our close up analysis that one of her wings was damaged (creased) so we wondered whether she would have been able to fly at all. She seemed very weak when she came out of the nest - maybe she had been stuck in there without really being able to feed. We don't really know.
A Royal Entourage
Although it was sad to see her go, by the next morning our spirits were well and truly raised the next day by the emergence of another two queens. We could tell they were new by their circling/memorisation procedure as they left the nest. And oh my! They were big! We've become accustomed to seeing tiny workers all season, so seeing a queen twice the size is quite startling at first!
I started tracking activity over the course of the week and what became obvious was that more queens were emerging while the number of workers were declining. Reviewing CCTV showed 2 new queens emerging on the first day and then 3 on the second day. This was amazing!
We were thrilled that our nest was fulfilling its destiny: producing queens to go off and mate, hibernate and begin next year's new colonies. It was really quite a touching moment to realise the "circle of life" had not suffered the devastating interruption that befell our Natupol colony. At last we could feel that keeping the bees had not just been a pointless exercise but at last we were contributing to, hopefully, their growth in numbers.
We've counted a few more new queens over the 2 weeks we've had the box, but it seems as though lodging in the nest are about 4 or 5. It's hard to tell as their may have been some large workers, certainly to begin with, but their numbers have declined to, perhaps, 1 remaining.
So, there has been a whole new process of study and learning with our new queens to understand this particular part of the bumblebee lifecycle. One of the most surprising things we have learnt is that we have multiple Queens inhabiting and co-existing in an otherwise-dormant nest. We presume that the "Mother" Queen is now dead (indeed, she may have been the one that came out and we tried to rescue). We also saw one very faded looking bumble in the box, which may have been our tired and overworked matriarch and who is no longer visible.
So, here we have four or five queen bumblebees, treating our lodge as, well pretty much a travelodge: a place of security, warmth and safety to spend the night and rainy days, while otherwise going out foraging and looking for a mate.
This is all new territory for us, so we don't know what to expect of their behaviour. With that in mind, and with a view to trying to keep them resident as long as possible (partly to buy me time to build some "hibernation spaces"), we have tried to make their stay as comfortable and stress-free as possible. This has meant:
- trying to ensure that wax moth is kept out of the hive
- trying to ensure wasps are kept from robbing their nest honey reserves
- minimal disruption to the nest; we look inside at most once a day, under red light (invisible) at most for 30 seconds - since the nest is not being maintained by workers we need a supervisory role to check for any problems, such as infestation
- providing additional honey reserves into the nest if their own stocks appear low (strictly speaking this is not recommended due to the possibility of introducing disease from another colony; however, our queens only need to take this honey if their own reserves run low - e.g. after several days when they can't forage. In which case, we take the view, better to give them a chance to survive than perish from lack of energy and nutrition.)
If anything, we're now putting a lot more effort into "managing" the nest, because it is not being managed by the colony and is more-or-less an empty "shell" that could turn into somewhat of a "biohazard" if we let nature's forces simply take over immediately! We've already seen a few flies, for example, showing an interest and getting inside the nest.
Something we never expected to see happening was Queens bringing pollen back to the nest but we are certain we have observed this - here's a composite from our CCTV that shows the comparison in size between a worker and a queen, both with pollen:
You can see the queens bring a huge amount of pollen back on their legs and we can see it appearing in the nest. We take a comparison picture each evening inside the nest and we can see where the pollen has been deposited and how much was collected during the day.
There's more to life than eating and sleeping!
Of course, our Queens are not programmed merely to rest and forage all day, but now to find a mate. We know that one of them at least has managed to do so, although it was perhaps not as successful as she intended! Our CCTV recorded one of our Queens flying back to the nest with a male Redtail in tow! Not only that but she dragged him (perhaps reluctantly!) into the nest where he emerged 20 minutes later. He came back 3 more times to investigate too: on one occasion getting back into the nest, but otherewise thwarted by the brushes (what can you say, he's a boy, perhaps not as savvy as our girls).
Here's a still of one of his return visits, quite clearly a redtail:
Here's the video of the full sequence:
We don't know whether she would have realised it was a Redtail, so we can only hope she would have gone out at a later date to find a successful (bufftailed) mate.