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We created the World's first tweeting bumblebees, and now we've won the Internet of Things Award (Environmental) 2012! Thank you to our readers for your votes!

Introduction

Our Bumblebee nesting project started in 2011 as a bit of conservation to help the declining bumblebee population by encouraging one (or more) to nest in boxes in our garden. We discovered it's not easy, and our project quickly evolved into an ongoing and intimate study of these amazing creatures, which we are sharing here for the benefit of all. 

Amongst our unexpected successes are: 

  • A short clip in the film "Britain in a Day" by Ridley Scott (Broadcast by the BBC in 2012)
  • Featured in Wired Magazine for creating the World's first tweeting bumblebees
  • Winner of the Internet of Things award 2012 - Environmental Category
  • Oldest recorded age we can find of a worker Bufftailed Bumblebee - at 103 days

We've discovered, observed and collected a sizeable amount of real-world data, still being analysed and written up (Overview here). Additionally,

  • We've sourced several live colonies from commercial providers and have been looking after numerous disabled bees indoors.
  • We've learnt to recognise individual bees, spot specific/individual behaviour patterns
  • We measured efficiency and can predict some of their behaviour triggers. 
  • We have some CCTV cameras pointing at the nestboxes and inside
  • You can also follow BeeBoxALula on twitter where our bumblebees tweet live for themselves!

Insights

We're also using tech to monitor the lives of our bumblebees - visual, audio, temperature, sunlight, weather. We can see how the environment impacts their behaviour and understand, capture and share the marvels of their secret lives.

As a species under great threat, we've brought the critical study of Bumblebees into the Multimedia age and revealed intriguing and new insights based on direct observation.

You might want to start with our project summary or project motivation.

Blog:


Bumble infrastructure & Beepol modifications

A busy day today. Busier than the bees, as it was cool and windy, so I only saw one Bufftailed queen foraging on our heather. Meanwhile I was completing off all our "infrastructure" preparations - namely the nestboxes and CCTV. 

I've created a "photo diary" of what I did, which included some desired modifications to our beepol lodge - I hope fellow bumblers will find them useful. 

beepol lodgeAbove is the beepol lodge with last year's modifications - namely the extension to hold the external entrance camera. You can also see the new wax-moth entrance flap, which screws on as an attachment. This is new for the 2012 season. Everything else about the lodge is standard. 

bumblebee nest boxesAbove our our other two nestboxes. These have had various modifications from 2011 and one of them we can now add sugar/honey-water to from outside. I prepped them internally last week, but needed to check/reset the cameras and install thermometers. 

On the right is my fake "hill" - it covers the next box and can be placed up against a wall to disguise it. The idea is to make the bumblebees think the box is underground. We put lots of plants and grasses round it to add to the effect. 

fitting & testing the internal entrance cameraThis year we are putting two cameras in the lodge rather than one and thus placing them slightly differentlt. This camera above is trained directly at the entrance hole, and indeed can see right out through it - so I think we'll get some cool shots as bees come into land and come through the entrance. But also, the other reason for placing it this way is so that we can use the movement detection on the DVR to more reliably count bumbles in and out of the nest. 

2 cameras installedAbove 2 cameras are now installed - one will point down more into the nest so we can see activity below. They are quite fiddly to place and also to decide the best view when there is no nest in the box - but I have to assume that two cameras will be better than one! The other wire dangling down is the thermometer: more on that later. 

embedded thermometer on bumblebee lodgeThe next job I undertook was to embed a thermometer in the extended entrance porch. This was no easy job - it took the best part of 90 minutes to disassemble and drill/file out a hole and get it all back together again without breaking it - it's quite soft wood. But I'm really pleased with the result. The thermometer wire runs through a hole in the back and into the second lodge entrance which would otherwise be blocked, and is attached inside to measure the ambient temperature inside the nest. It's going to be a pain if the thermometer dies or needs its batteries changing, but so be it! I tried many variations of attaching the thermometer to the inside and outside of the lodge, but this is the neatest and also the thermo is visible to the external camera, which is a big help when reviewing footage. [That's a top tip from last year: it's very useful to have the temperature visible on camera].

view from external entrance cameracable tidy at rear of lodge

The next job (above) was to start tidying up the cabling at the back of the lodge from all the cameras. Some tacked-in cable clips do the job and makes the whole process of moving the lodge a bit easier and safer. 

sealing the edges against wax moth Next I attached some velcro along the edges of the box base. This is only the "loops" part (softer) and not the "hooks" part: we don't want the box to stick together, we just want all the imperfections and very slight gaps in the wood sealed over - the sticky-backed fabric is perfect for this. 

creating a bumblebee sizing chartAnother feature we wanted to add after last year's experiences was some kind of "sizing" chart inside the box, so that when bees move across the field of view we can get some indication of their size. This is useful for understanding whether they are queen, boy or girl, or under-formed etc. And also for indentifying the bee when there are only a few in the box. I discovered the graph paper didn't show up well on the camera, so i first marked all the corners in black pen. But that didn't show up on the infrared, so I had the brainwave of poking a hole at each corner and mounting the graph paper on some diamond grade high-visibility - the result is excellent under infra-red. 

view of size guide in daylightglowing "dots" on the size chart under infraredHowveer, when the lodge is closed and the camera switches to infra-red, the high visibility backing creates a series of glowing "dots" at 1cm spacing. This will be perfect for assessing the bee sizes as they enter and leave. 

base for the beepol lodge and shelterFor the base of the lodge this year we are using an old plastic board, with some extra high vis tape for grip. Also, the bees will be able to use this bright colour to memorise the nest location very easily, so if we needed to move it around the garden a bit, they should find their way back in ok! We are using this base instead of putting the lodge directly on the stones, just to help a bit in situations where bumbles fall from the nest, so that they don't get lost or buried in the stones directly underneath.

a nestbox in situ - with its "disguise"Above is one of the completed nest boxes on its site. It is partially buried and disguised by the expanding foam shelter. More grasses and heathers to come. We wil not interfere with this box and just hope that some nest searching queens explore it and choose to use it. You can see it also has an embedded temperature guage. 

The beepol lodge in situ, showing thermometer workingAbove is the beepol lodge in its intended location. The thermometer is working a treat! The shelter is not strictly necessary but we are just shading the box a little and also protecting it from rain. The bricks are greased round the side and help to keep ants from getting into the nest. 

both east-facing nest sites: beepol lodge and disguised nest box

internal layout of 2nd nest boxAbove is the internal layout of the 2nd nest box. This box has two cameras for greater coverage and i've created a tube at the back to supply food. This could allow us to keep a queen captive if we wish to try and oblige her to brood. The food would go down the tube into the pen lid attached to the side of the box. This box will be sited south facing at the rear of the garden and will be less disguised. This is the one we'll use to try and brood any queens we capture that are nest searching.

I still have to repatch all the video on the DVR in my studio to get all the right cameras coming up on the right channels with the right names, but apart from that we now just need to wait for the queens to start nest searching in earnest!