pretty bee header

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:


a hive arrive-o!

Great excitement ensued on Wednesday (10th April) as our Beepol hive arrived from Dragonfli. My parents were staying with me as part of the welcoming party, which perhaps was lucky as it meant I held my breath slightly as the citylink courier swung the hive to his ear and exclaimed 'what you got there? Well b*gger me, it's bees. I coulda been stung', stringing together more words in one go than was probably good for him. I was livid and thought he probably should have been stung: the guy was clueless (and toothless) and had no idea what he'd been transporting or how to care for it, despite jumbo lettering all over the box.

The bees, of course, were going nuts after this, so we left them to calm down in the garage, hoping there was no major nest damage. We have never ever had a decent experience from citylink by the way, and I recommend that you never ever use them.

beepol hive as it arrives in its packaging..

Everything was prepped for installation of the hive into the lodge (CCTV etc.) so we just had to wait. We removed the outer transport packaging and checked the internal nest box. Sadly we discovered a stain seeping through the box - from the colour I guess honey, although a quick check with Dragonfli on twitter and they thought maybe some of the sugar water supply. Either way, NOT GOOD. The bees hate stickiness and I hate the thought of the bees and/or their nest and hard work getting damaged.

the beepol hive itself - with some staining

PLEASE NOTE: THIS PROCEDURE IS INVASIVE ON THE BUMBLEBEE NEST AND CARRIES A HIGH RISK OF STINGING. IT IS NOT RECOMMENDED FOR NORMAL DOMESTIC ENJOYMENT OF THE BEEPOL NEST

The plan was to site the box during the dark and and then remove the plastic lid that is glued to it. This is not for the faint hearted, as Dragonfli say on their site, there is a significant risk of getting stung! But i'd done it last year without a problem so intended to do it again. The point of this 'unauthorised' modification, by the way, is two fold:
1) removing the plastic lid allows the next to extend in height into the lodge space; allowing the development of more bumblebees and potentially longer lifespan of the colony.
2) we've got multiple cameras in the nest now, one is pointing down, and for the best view we need the plastic removed.

We placed the hive box inside the lodge in our garage, to keep the light down as much as possible and then allowed the bumblebees to settle down again for a few hours. Poor things must have been very stressed by all the day's moving about. Then, under cover of darkness we ventured out to go back into the lodge and remove the plastic lid. We used a red light so that we could see with minimal disturbance to the bumblebees. However, they can of course tell that something is happening by all the vibration and inrush of cold air.

beepol bumblebee "hive" showing the plastic container and lid

Getting the plastic lid off is actually a bit tricky and proved to be moreso than last year. It clips onto the main box the best is in, but it is also glued - so these glue seals need to be broken. Generally a screwdriver will do it, but it took a fair bit of 'levering' this time. Of course, as soon as you do that the bees come rushing and some were starting to force their way out through the lid edge before I'd got it removed (but as the seal was lifting).

I pressed it down and got it to the point I thought it was free and quickly tried to lift it. The idea was to whip it away quickly and shut the lodge before the bees even got a chance to really get far; but this is not how it went.

In fact, one corner of the lid was still glued, so it didn't come away. Meanwhile I'd lifted it and the bees came rushing - all over the lodge perimeter and fizzing like crazy. All over the lid too. One even shot off across the garden, flying in near dark, which amazed me. I thought she'd come for us, but she just flew off. I guess we lost her.

I had to make a snap decision - the lid was covered in bumblebees and I thought if I removed it, I'd have all these bumbles in the garden in the dark and no way to control them or return them to the lodge; so I quickly abandoned the lid and left it in the nest.

However, the drama was not over, as by this stage several bees had dashed outside the lodge, some dropped to the ground and others were on the lodge lip, making it impossible to shut the lodge lid. This was less than ideal.

We knew that the only was to resolve this was pretty much to leave the bees to calm down of their own accord. We captured the ones on the ground using jars/card and placed them on the lodge roof. Of course they were not happy, giving full 'level 4' warning (I.e. aiming sting at you) and one of them even shot its venom at me from a distance. However, in all cases they fairly quickly found their way back into the lodge via the open lid. (which was a relief, as I had no backup plan, other than to trap them in tubs overnight for safe keeping).

We then propped open the lodge lid as another four or so bumbles stood guard on the lip; we just had to wait until they sensed no threat and returned into the nest. So, we went indoors and poured a dram to calm down!

last remaining escapee being encouraged to rejoin the colony

After about 45 mins we returned back outside and, as expected, all four guard bees had gone back into the nest and we could use the infrared camera in the lodge to confirm there were none still on the lip. So, we quickly removed our wedge and shut the lodge with all our bumbles safely back inside (except the one that flew off). The plastic lid, of course, is still inside, loose; so some time very soon I have to go back in a try and grab that out before the bees build round/on it. This will also improve our camera picture which is, of course, part of the reason for doing it.

Notwithstanding, things looked pretty reasonable on the cameras - the ankles and positions were good and despite the transparent plastic lid obscuring some of the view we could definitely see some wax pots filled with honey; and' of course, the sound was unaffected (and loud).

This colony has way more workers than the Beepol we got in August last year (not surprising) so this whole process was more risky and more intense. Last year I managed it myself all in one go with barely a murmur from the few bees in the lodge. And we were able to open it up once every night to check and take pics without the bees even noticing! I think it's different because there are many more bees in this colony at the moment and also it's much colder at night now, so they will notice the lodge being opened.

It was probably a mistake to attempt it all in one go with this many bees - I probably should have cut the lid loose without trying to remove it, and then closed the lodge and let the bees all settle down again. Then gone back in either an hour later or the next evening to remove the lid. That will probably be my preferred strategy going forward.