Magical Memorisation Moments

Sadly the was no time on Saturday to go bumblebee catching, as we had a guest arriving, but it was another beautiful day. Likewise Sunday and this time I found time to go out and do a bit of queen hunting. It was about 14 degrees but there was a chilly wind and I regretted only wearing a t-shirt!

I saw a small buff tail nest searching up at the far end of the nearby ditch, but not much other activity there. This location seems to be favoured later in the day when it has had a little more sun and warmed up.

Further along, at the field corner, was a redtail (QB2012-10) searching in amongst the crop stalks, which are now about 15cm - 20cm high. She was about 5 or 6 metres in, scanning the dried ground amongst the stalks. I thought she'd never land, but eventually she did, and without ado I caught her in our tube. She was naturally a little agitated at first, but within 30 seconds was calm.

I took her back to the Pilkington box and without any fuss she crawled into the box and started exploring. Our strategy now is to give them about 30 minutes for this process and then unblock the entrance so they can leave freely. This we did, but she didn't seem so keen on leaving! We waited and waited and kept removing loose moss from the entrance to allow more light into the box, but still we waited. It seemed a bit unusual.

By now it was 3.30 and I wanted to head out and find another queen before they began resting and settling down for the afternoon, so although I wanted to stay and video her exit, in the end I decided to head back out to the field.

I saw a couple of buff tails scouring the ditch amongst the large stones (like bricks) by a drainage tunnel. I thought I could catch one by having her walk out straight into my tube: but she was having none of it. Finally I found a third in the same area and I had to pounce quickly when she finally landed. (QB2012-11)

I was nearing then garden when BCW called me and said our redtail had left; but there was much excitement - she had done the most amazing orientation / 'memorisation' flight. The best she had seen, even comparable or better than our new born babies last year! I couldn't believe it and I was absolutely kicking myself I had not stayed to video it.

She'd crawled out of the box and stumbled/slipped a little off our funnel entrance onto the gravel. She preened a little then took off. BCW fully expected her to shoot off, but she turned and did several small arcs close to the nest entrance, memorising its pattern. Her arc and height increased as she continued to do this, and again, eventually resulting in circles over the garden at a great height. Even when she appeared to fly off over next door's garden, she conducted a big high level swoop, coming back over ours and taking it all in, before finally shooting off like a 'flying saucer' into the distance.

Let me tell you, this is a magical thing to see - for a brief moment, there is a connection with the queen; the sure knowledge that she has found something she wants to remember. It is a unique moment, because, as with the babies, it only happens once (usually) so it is a privilege to experience. I was kicking myself again and again at having missed her!

I duly brought the new buff tail to the box, but she took a full 20 minutes to enter. Perhaps the recent scent of another bumble was off putting. We were concerned our redtail might return while the operation was in progress, and we'd be blocking her entrance to the nest. Indeed, we were hunched over the box when a redtail buzzed back into the garden nearby. Had we ruined her chances?

Our buff tail was slow to leave as well - the entrance was full open for a good 10 - 15 minutes before she crawled out. Her exit was not as impressive and although she circled a little, did not look like full memorisation and certainly not like the redtail. This is partly why I call these flights 'memorisation' and not 'orientation', because in general the bumbles always seem to do some form of 'orientation', if only to get their immediate bearings: you have to remember they've been transported half a kilometre from where they last remember being.

I videoed her exit: 

Soon after there was buzzing again in garden - we turned and there was a redtail nest searching. Was she our recent captive? She was searching along the gravel edge and nearly went into my 'plant pot' entrance. She also checked out my newly created moss area and flew over to our open grass cuttings bag which was open on the patio. She went inside the bag and checked it out, but finally emerged and left the garden. It was fascinating to watch and the most intensive searching action we've seen in the garden so far - so we were thrilled.

So, we are definitely now on lookout for our redtail returning!