Big Mamma & her gang

Well, another week has flown by and our bees have been busy flying too. There's no doubt now that we have at least 6, if not 8 bumbles in the colony.

The number is never static or definitive because obviously there is birth and death occuring, as well as the fact that some bees will stay out overnight (see picture), and any males will be leaving the nest to mate. So, at times it can be tricky to be 100% sure how many are colonising the nest at any one time, but what I can do is come up with some numbers based on those I can distinctly identify by sight and also tracking how many are in and out at any one time. 

A cheeky bee that stopped out all night, sloping in at 6.30am!

It's this latter metric that gives my current estimated count; at one point this morning there had been 6 exits from the nest without a corresponding return, which means there are a minimum of 6 bees on active duty. However, at the same time I had two on undetermined status - I had seen two leave the night before, with no corresponding return in the meantime.

Bear in mind, it doesn't matter about matching each bee with its own exit and return, it's just a case of counting 1-in-1-out and seeing how the numbers tally. If three leave and two return, it doesn't matter which ones they are, or what order, it means that there is still one out. That's the basis of my counting. 

So, I had two unaccounted for away from the nest and then another six on top of that. It's at this stage you start to go slightly bonkers and wonder whether you have miscounted or whether the tech has missed recording some of the activity, because it all seems a bit incredulous when you have no idea whether a queen has been laying and how much (or whether) hatching is going on!!

Anyway - that's 6 - 8 bees actually on active outdoor duty, but we can still add to that...

Who's the boss here?

This week I've had 3 additional glimpses of "big mamma" as I affectionately call her.

A rare glimpse of big mamma - she easily spans the two horizontals

She hasn't been out of the nest, so she is not counted in the above numbers. She is the biggest bee in the nest and her description fits one of the five or so big bees we saw before our holiday while we were still lifting the nest lid at night. Our gut feeling is she is a queen and is responsible for the brood that has been developing. This is fitting with the following facts: 

  1. we did see these big bees collecting pollen a few weeks ago, which is what they would do before their brood is underway
  2. she's now in hiding - she doesn't leave the nest and barely comes into view - just occasionally having walked across the camera zone
  3. not forgetting we've had some hatching, so we must have had a queen and she must have laid something, even if she has stopped doing so

It's possible that the three sightings of "big mamma" relate to more than one big bee, as it's not possible to prove they are identical from the CCTV footage. However, this seems unlikely from a behavioural point of view, as although bumblebees are eu-social, they do also fight over owning the brood, so it's hard to imagine several queens co-existing harmoniously. Although, of course, we did directly observe them co-habiting for a short while a month ago before we went on holiday. 

A rather large and long bumble at the entrance - could this be a queen?

Crunch time

The other thing we observed yesterday was the strange crunching/crackling sound that has troubled me in the past. It lasted about 15 minutes and through the CCTV system it sounds rather like a kind of crunching or munching sound. It's the volume that surprises me, and every time I hear it I dread that it's the sound of wax moth larvae destroying the nest, chewing their way through the wax. Our last check inside the nest was two weeks ago and at that time there was no evidence of such an infestation, so I am hopeful this is still the case (despite having seen a tiny moth in the nest yesterday, but not - I think - a wax moth). 

It was shortly after this burst of sound, which was accompanied by a reasonable degree of buzzing, that we caught a glimpse of big mamma

My revised hunch is that this is the sound of hatching - of a baby bumblebee, known as a callow - breaking free from its wax pot, helped by its co-workers. I would love to see this in action to confirm this, and just to see it anyway, so I'll be giving some consideration for how to achieve this next year. 

This ties up with another part of my hunch, which is that there may be another new callow in the nest. What I've seen is a small bee darting about the place for a while, exploring as if learning the layout of the nest. It moves quickly with apparent curiousity and goes to the entrance, explores, but doesn't leave. Having seen this a few times, I think it's the behaviour of a new-born as it orientates itself and prepares for its launch into the big wide world. In the meantime it is able to stay in the nest, supplied with food by its sisters and helping with any remaining brood and various nest duties. Indeed, the smaller bees are thought to generally adopt this as their role.

So, I'll be on the lookout for this small one, particularly if it leaves, in which case we'll hope to spot it memorising the nest on its first flight. 


Here's a rundown of the current occupants we know about:

  • Big Mamma - the largest in the nest, rarely seen
  • "Stripy bee" - there have been two of these, fairly large, with unusual tail markings; one was a nest fixer, the other collected pollen - we haven't seen much of the nest fixer lately, so may not be around any more
  • Mid-size - there are at least two midsize bees on duty
  • Small - there is at least one small bee on duty; it's quite hesistant about coming back into the nest when it returns - it always seems to fly up then leave for 15 - 120 seconds before actually coming in. Don't understand why!
  • tiny - there was a tiny bee we saw last week, the first confirmation we had of new births. We've seen her occasionally, but not sure really what she's up to if still around


These numbers don't add up to my earlier total, so there must be some lookalikes in there I haven't accounted for.

Oddly there is no real apparent "nest fixing" or patrolling going on now, although on of the "stripy bees" continues to stick its bum out of the door to check the temperature in the morning!

sticking the tail out as a thermometer

Times are tough

It's also proving hard work for the team to collect pollen, though they are very busy trying. During the warm sun the activity levels have been quite high, almost to the level when we first got the nest with the original (though small) colony. But the pollen is in short supply, with them often returning with a small amount, and never the bulging pollen baskets that we saw during the summer. In some cases they return only for a sip of the honey water in the entrance, and go straight back out again. Trip times can now be anything from 10 minutes to an hour or two.

Thankfully they are still finding something (orange and light yellow) and we have actally tried putting out some artificial flowers with a bit of pollen on to see if they will try visiting them. We don't really expect it to work and so far it hasn't!

Each day brings a new surprise and it is fascinating to see our colony fighting for survival, a colony that has emerged against all the odds and proved just how remarkable our little Bombus friends are.

There's no doubt about it, a hat tip is due to Big Mamma.