Pecking Order

We've not said a lot about the Queen we have indoors - she's been with us 4 days now (found Monday 30th April) when we discovered her bedraggled in the garden, unable to fly. 

She's got a problem with her wings; in fact, they seem as though they haven't inflated properly and become large and rigid enough, and consequently she can't generate the lift needed no matter how hard she flaps. We're still not 100% sure, we keep expecting her to take off at some point, but we've tried allowing her to do so numerous times and it just doesn't happen. 

Consequently we've kept her indoors and fed her. She has fed fine on honey water and loves the Kapok we provided - burrowing deep down with ease, often disappearing from sight altogether!

Where's she gone? :)Up till now we have kept our two worker bumbles and the queen separate as we weren't really sure how it would work out putting them together, or indeed what we should do with the queen long term. We've sought additional expert advice, and the best suggestion is that the kindest thing to do is actually keep our queen alive (she will perish outdoors) and take the opportunity to study her behaviour.

a clearer view of our queen's imperfect wingsIn fact, her behaviour has been a mild source of concern as she has basically spent a good deal of her time buried in the Kapok, very still. Not that there is a lot to do, of course, but it's kind of worrying to see her so inactive. So, we took a calculated decision to introduce the workers to the same space as her to see whether as a small community it would have a beneficial effect.

We ensured that we had a backout plan and introduced them together late this afternoon. Well, the good news is there was no fighting! 

Actually the behaviour has been rather intriguing as we watch for subtle cues of their interaction.

The first reponse seemed to be that our two workers were interested in the queen and kept going over to her to explore. She was a bit annoyed by this - and has given then warning signs, as well as nudged them out of the way, and the occasional kick. Lucky, the smallest, was most interested. In general the Queen was ignoring them except when they came to her. 

That broad pattern has continued, however, at times the queen has now pro-actively followed the workers. She shows signs of exerting her dominance by nudging them, possibly biting at them a little (legs/side) - though that's hard to tell. But what is obvious, is she stands right over them and engulfs them with her whole body (see video). She does not appear to harm them in any way, but it's a real apparent show of dominance/submission and quite intriguing. 

Even more remarkable, however, is the behaviour of the workers, because every so often - lucky in particularly - approaches the queen and actually walks right under her, assuming the same position as described above. So, this appears like a deliberate show of submission to the Queen, which I certainly never expected.

All throughout this there is a certain sense that the queen is a bit agitated by the attention. We have to remember, of course, that these bumbles are sisters, not mother daughter, and I wouldn't doubt for a minutes that they could tell the difference in smell. Perhaps our queen has to work up to producing the pheremones that her mother would normally produce to help control her offspring; and we know that behavioural dominance is a key part of the dynamic in the ordinary nest. (see my reference papers). Of course, there are mechanisms, such as smell for cuckoo bumblebees to take over the dominant role in the nest, so we know it can happen - and perhaps we are seeing some of that here. 

The other thing that has become immediately noticeable, though we will have to observe for a few days to determine if it is coincidence, is that the workers - Nedine in particular have suddenly shown an interest in the pollen that they have never done so before. Both the workers have spent more time amongst the pollen that is in the corner of the box, seemingly just walking through - but tonight we clearly observed Nedine's mandibles in action, picking at small grains. Has the presence of a queen suddenly triggered an interest in pollen? If so, the effect was within a matter of hours. 

So, we wait a little nervously for this first night, hoping all will be intact in the morning - remembering back to when we introduced our workers and boy last year and he created chaos in the nest!