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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:


What's the story?

It's been a fun and busy last two days as our project got picked up by Wired Magazine for a story. (I have to thanks Hans at ioBridge for putting them in touch with me). Of course, the glory is short lived as news stories have a very short half-life these days, but for a humble hobbyist like me, it's a happy achievement. 

Wired were really intrigued to understand the motivation of the project and how the tech made it possible for our bumblebees to generate tweets based on their activity. We had to explain the lifecycle of bumblebees and the challenges they face and why climate is affecting them. 

I spent half an hour or so talking to Olivia, associate editor, and answered a few email questions and she did a wonderful job of writing the story and included my pictures too - so, to say I was thrilled is an understatement. 

Thankfully I didn't suffer a "Stephen Fry" on my site - i.e. a total deluge that takes it out - but there has been plenty of interest in the story. We got a retweet too from Martha Kearney (radio 4 presenter and avid honey bee keeper) which generated some more traffic. Most of the reaction has been "awesome" or "what a cool idea!" - obviously I would agree! The reaction has been really positive and encouraging. The good news really is that it helps to further raise awareness of bumblebees and their plight and that can only be a good thing.

Under the covers

Key to the whole story is what goes on "under the covers" to monitor the activity of our bumblebees. My current implementation is nothing better than a prototype or "proof of concept", but I'm delighted that Zettlex (a company in Cambridge, specialising in high tech sensors) have really taken up the challenge of helping me create a "next-generation" wax-moth flap system that can track the entrance and exit activity from the nest very accurately. I really can't thank those guys enough and I can't wait to go live and take our data capture and monitoring to the next level. I must also mention Dragonfli, providers of the colony and lodge, who have also donated some "wax moth kit" components to help make it all happen.

There's something wonderful about the way these smaller companies are able and willing to help, and tackle new challenges - it's very inspiring and I'm very grateful to them. 

To give an insight into the type of data we'll be collecting, our bumbles were very co-operative today and fairly busy. The data from my current system is show below:

This is very, very basic data, as you can see - and making sense of it to draw insight is a challenge I still have. For the meantime, we generate some simple tweets which gives visibility of what information is being generated. 

However, the Zettlex system is way surperior, and the sensor itself offers the ability to do things like measure and time the inputs (e.g. the amount the flap is moved) to create different triggers. It could, therefore, in principle detect the difference between workers and queens using the flap. Or detect the difference between entrance and exit by the way the flap is pushed and extended. There's a whole ream of possibilities, most of which we haven't though of yet. I'm very excited - gotta run before we walk though. ☺

It's still early days, but I think it's fair to say this part of our project has captured the imagination and has the potential to reveal some fascinating insights into just how busy our busy bees are.