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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:


2 plump girls causing a stir

Last year there was never a dull moment in the bumblebee nest, always a surprise in store, and this year is already turning out to be no different. 

As I blogged yesterday evening, I was already intrigued by the possible sighting of our queen, having seen a few very large bees, but then seeing a massive (or, as I say on twitter, mahoosive) behind trailing over the pots underneath our camera. The difference was very noticeable in her wide, plump tail and abdomen, which I had just managed to catch a parting shot of. 

Queen's tail - top rightThat all changed this morning as I time and time again I saw a massive bumblebee passing under the camera - here's a comparison shot with other the worker bumbles:

A queen-size bumblebee (bottom left) dwarfs the workersMy heart was racing trying to capture pictures of her, because what I really wanted to find out was if she was laying eggs in this part of the nest. And, if she was, the prospect of capturing a bumblebee first emerging from a wax pot upon hatching. It would be amazing footage to capture.

I couldn't figure out if she was laying or not - not entirely knowing what to look for doesn't help. But my heart was soon pounding even harder when I saw this:

TWO large bees at the entranceNot one, but seemingly TWO huge bees at the entrance, one showing an interest in the outside. You might think the size is no big deal, but here's a pic that shows some relative sizes. 

Two large bumblebees alongside normal size workersThis is where the measuring grid I have installed has now come into its own. A typical worker is quoted at 15mm - 20mm in size, though there are many in our nest much smaller than that - e.g. 10mm and last year we had 7mm bumbles. In contrast a queen is typically 25mm.

You can see from the picture below that this bumblebee is easily 25mm - and she's slightly scrunched - I put her nearer 28mm at full stretch. But apart from length, the staggering thing about her size is her width!

measuring the queenHer width poses an interesting question. The queens we saw develop last year were not wide like this - whereas queens in the wild now are moreso, because they've been fattening up to start laying eggs. So, it begs the question - is this an egg-laying queen (e.g. the queen that started this nest) or is this a queen that's been laid. And if so, how come so soon?

Not knowing the answer to this, I was concerned about the desire to show some interest in leaving the nest - and indeed, during the day both of them did. The first did a short 5 second memorisation flight and returned immediately, but that led to a 20 minute soujourn later in the day. I saw no pollen being brought back. Surely they are not going out to look to mate? There are still winter queens looking for nest sites; we're nowhere near laying boys yet (June/July typically)

Now some pics outside the nest:

Queen memorising the nest entranceAnd on the ledge (CH1) - which is nearly 3cm wide (deceptive! I'm going to add measurement markers!)

Queen crawling back into the nest - ducking down to get under the flapI saw both these bumblebees leave and return during the day, but no obvious pollen being collected. (Unlike the workers, who are bringing back plenty). 

So - for now it's a mystery: could two queens somehow have been in the nest from the start? (seems extraordinarily unlikely). Is one a new queen already? Are they both new queens (after all, they both left the nest) - in which case where is our mystery mother? Can't wait to see how this develops!

Other Activity

The morning was very quiet in the nest - it was raining on and off outside, temperature was hovering below 10C and it was very windy, up to 10mph. A handful of small bumbles tried to brave it, most of them turned round immediately and came back in straight away. Two actually hung about in/around the inside entrance most of the day, once braved it on the porch roof above the thermometer and another (see CH1 pic above) actually stayed under the flap!

By 2.30 activity really picked up and they were playing catch up - so despite the ongoing wind there were plently foraging trips. I think some were being a bit foolhardy. In fact around 6pm I ended up rescuing a small worker that seemed to emerge for the first time and instead of going back into the nest, crawled off the ledge and disappeared.

I found her in the grass, warmed her up indoors and managed to get her back on the ledge. She disappeared again and I don't know (until I review the CCTV) whether she went back into the nest or not - I hope so!