Interfering with Nature

Yet another day of intrigue in our beepol hive.

Late the night before we had a quick check inside the nest, our first look in about 3 weeks. 

quick snapshot inside the beepol nest

There wasn't a single murmur from the nest as we quickly opened it to provide some honey water and take a photo. Everything was intact, if anything the bedding was a little more fluffy and 'aerated'. All the bees were obviously tucked well down and bedded in at the bottom of the nest: there was no sound or movement from them. 

The biggest sense of relief was that there was no evidence of intrusion, such as wax moth. I did see a small moth in the box the other evening, but I don't think it was a wax moth (too small). 

The day began with a slow start - even our "stop out" bee that has been coming in a 6.30am (sunrise) didn't show up till 8.50am, the latest we've seen. Down here in the south east we are experiencing an obnormally warm end to September which I think is really confusing the colony - the light levels and daylight hours do not match the temperature. 


Once again, by late morning we saw Big Mamma making an appearance. She is slow and lethargic and bus-like! We can't figure out if she's old and tired or has put on too much weight for a winter hibernation; but she struggles to move around. We inserted a small piece of cardboard through the lid/base gap in the lodge to act as a shelf for her to stand on to reach the entrance. 

The bees quickly learned to navigate the new shelf and although Big Mamma can drag herself up onto it, she has still not made it to the entrance; and indeed, has not really tried, which seems a bit surprising. What she does seem to do is go for the crack of light where the lid meets the base. It's very optimistic if she thinks she can fit through there!

We are at a loss how to deal with this - it's agonising to see her struggling to leave, but where do you draw the line at interfering with nature? There are several issues:


  • We don't really know what she's trying to do, it could be to go and die, it could be to go and hibernate - so we don't know the best way to help her
  • If she does exit the nest, she might not be able to fly, which could leave her in trouble - helping her out might be a bad thing
  • Even if she does want to hibernate and we put her in our hibernation box, there's no guarantee it's anything like what she wants/needs - in which case she might be be unable to go and find a suitable site for herself. 
  • The pure practicalities of getting her (and only her) safely out of the nest without damage to her or any of the rest of the colony (and of course not getting stung!)


So, for now, we are sitting back with great interest, a certain amount of trepidation and watching events unfold. 

For those wondering why we would want to even intervene, here is the logic:

The whole reason for getting and protecting the colony is to conserve the bumbles and give a small extra boost to their population. Because they are essentially annual, it's the queen who carries the "Olympic baton" in terms of surviving the winter (having mated) and emerging in spring to lay her new offspring. All the current workers and drones die. So, continuation of the life cycle is about the Queen being able to hibernate and survive the winter. It would be such a tragedy if, after all this work (on the queen's part) she was unable to fulfil that role, for something as simple as, say, not being able to get out of her nest. By not being able to do so, she would have "broken the chain" and denied the future another colony and new queens to carry the baton next year.

The whole situation is compounded by not knowing which queen she is - i.e. is she the colony's original queen, born summer 2010, hibernated and set up this colony spring 2011. If that's true, then actually she's destined to die soon (and that could be why she wants to leave). She's done her work and created new queens to carry that baton. They've gone and are probably now beginning their hibernation phase.

OR: is she the product of that original queen - a new queen born August 2011, destined to hibernate this winter and begin her brooding cycle in spring 2012. This is what we actually think, for two key reasons:


  1. We saw an old queen leave and die back in August when we installed the nest - she was the only one there for a short while, before we then saw about 5 new ones. 
  2. This queen has been brooding a new colony: the new hatchlings we've seen emerging almost every day for the last week.  She's not really meant to have been doing that, but it is a phenomena known to happen with Bombus Terrestris. With the extended warm weather, instead of going straight off to hibernate and lay next spring, she started laying now. The original mother queen, tired and old, would not do that


 So, this is the source of the uncertainty and our desire, if possible, to help her see it through the winter. 

Still Growing

The colony is still growing - the crackling and squeaking sounds we've been hearing we're starting to attribute to new birth; there is a distincy correlation. We'd been hearing that in short bursts each of the last few days. Usually the day after it's heard there's evidence of a new addition to the nest. Their behaviour pattern is quite noticeable - they crawl round the nest following a "search" pattern. I.e. they do not directly head from A to B, but explore: twisting and turning and feeling their way. Usually they head towards the exit several times, drawn by the light, but they do not leave. They turn round, come back inside and repeat. 

Eventually they pluck up the courage to properly explore the exit - where we have set up a "porch" and trapdoor system. They can explore round this in safety and this time they are but millimetres from the wide open world. They will do this about once or twice before building the confidence to exit. Standing on the ledge, they turn to face the nest and launch, arcing left and right, up and down to commit the view of the nest to memory. It's wonderful to watch and is the sure marker of a bumblebee making its first outdoor flight.

Sometimes they come back in after a few seconds - satisfied their wings work and that the weather is not really enticing enough. The rest of the time, they fly up and over the wall - their maiden voyage., brimming with apparent confidence and certainty.

Once such baby bee did so today. My hunch from the day said I thought she existed and sure enough, here she was. She's the same size as the baby bee (1) that's already working like crazy. (Note: the moniker baby refers to their size, not maturity; they will both always be referred to as baby). She took off at 12:35 and returned three minutes later - a nice short flight to get her wings. 

But that was it! Now she was a fully fledged member of the team - and she spent the rest of the day, along with original baby bee, bringing back basket-loads of bright orangey pollen. For this reason counting became a little tricky, as two two babies are very hard to distinguish on the CCTV.

Both babies were out of the nest in the late afternoon when I saw yet another similar sized one inside - it seems like there has been yet more hatching. I wait with interest to see when she emerges. 

More confusion

We continue to see new behaviour patterns that we can't explain. One of these has been the bee that stays out every night, doesn't seem to bring pollen back to the nest, but comes back for honey water from the entrance and every so often goes right into the nest and spends a few minutes in there. We don't know if this is boy behaviour or, perhaps, a worker who is not very effective (e.g. malformed pollen baskets). If we could tell she was collecting pollen then we'd assume she's just not very good at it and is using more energy than most for very little return; but it's proved extraordinarily hard to tell if she is carrying any (which suggests she isn't).

The other mad theory that occured to us: is she feeding another nest?

Further confusion arose when saw (what we think was) this same bee actually turn up with full pollen baskets, spend five minutes in the nest, then leave again with full pollen!

coming in with pollenGoing back out again with the pollen

But, if we though this has been a crazy day, it was nothing of what was about to come..