Two much excitement for one day

Turned into an interesting day today with two bits of news.

Getting Sensitive

First of all I was contacted back by Zettlex - a small company in Cambridge who make "non contact" distance sensors. Their systems are very small and light, based on magnetic resonance, and can very accurately measure the distance between the sensor and an 'antenna' device attached to a moving object.

Now, before you go thinking I'm sticking sensors to bumblebees, I'm not! (That's next year's idea!) ☺ 

The plan, actually is to mount a sensor on the wax moth trap door, so that when it is in use (see below), the movement can be detected. 

bumblebee using the wax moth flapI wasn't sure if Zettlex would have been able to supply such a small, single unit, but they have very kindly offered to help me out - so the least I can do is sing their praises! 

Of course, there will be a lot of work still to get the sensor working, hopefully integrated with the iobridge platform so I can get realtime data and alerts out to the internet and beyond. I'm actually really excited about the possibilities, because over and above tracking simple activity data, such as start and end times of the day, I may be able to get data about how the flap is actually used: for example, how long it takes a bumblebee to master its usage. 

Hitting the screen

Even more exciting news came this afternoon with confirmation that some of our footage has made it into the final "Britain in a Day" film. I'm mentioning it here, because although we submitted several hours worth of material we know that the piece that has been selected concerns our bumblebees. It's actually a lovely segment, filled with emotion and despite its short length, a strong storyline and message; which is probably why it succeeded in being picked.

I don't want to give away too much, so that's all I say; but if you are in the UK, the film should be showing on BBC2 on June 2nd 2012. 

Here's some information about the whole "Britain in a day" project:


Britain In A Day is a major new project designed to capture a unique snapshot of Britain on one day, and people from all corners of the United Kingdom are invited to take part.
On Saturday November 12th we asked people in Britain to film something that captures the intimacy and singularity of their life and to upload it to a dedicated channel on YouTube. With the support of executive producers Ridley Scott and Academy Award winning Kevin Macdonald, director Morgan Matthews will use the rich trove of material submitted to craft a feature-length documentary film that captures the variety and vibrancy of life in Britain today. 
The result will be broadcast on BBC2 next year in the run up to the Olympics.
The idea is based on Life In A Day, the global, user-generated feature film produced by Ridley Scott’s company Scott Free London and directed by Kevin Macdonald. 80,000 videos were submitted to YouTube by people all over the world, wherever they were and whatever they were doing. The result was a powerful and inspiring portrait of the world on a single day. 

We feel privileged to have been selected and are really looking forward to seeing the whole film. If it turns out anything like "Life in a Day" (the original global version) it will be brilliant!



A new Queen line-up

I wasn't quite sure what to expect today, having come to the conclusion that three queens chose to share the nest last night, one of which we think is brooding.

One of the others has been in there a few days and we've not had concrete visibility of her, so it's possible she's actually died in the nest, as indeed our "August" (2nd Generation) queen did. 

The third queen turned up yesterday and was quite happy to head into the nest and stay there overnight. I didn't know if she would venture out today or what her behaviour pattern would be. 

I got my answer at 10am when she was the first queen to leave, because she tentively crept out of the nest and performed memorisation circling around the entrance to memorise the location of the nest. This means it was her first exit and that she planned on coming back. Sure enough, 21 minutes later she returned and from what I can tell, spent the rest of the day in the nest, probably trying to keep warm. 

A new visiting queen, memorising nest location

It was a cold day again today, peaking at 12.4 degrees, so I didn't expect to see much activity or foraging. How wrong I was - trip count was up again on yesterday at 46, levels not seen since September. The Queen (can't be sure which one) is contributing to these trips (8 Queen trips today) which is helping to lift the activity level. 

In fact activity stats for the last few days are as follows:


  • 11/10/2011 8
  • 12/10/2011 10
  • 13/10/2011 5
  • 14/10/2011 21
  • 15/10/2011 12
  • 16/10/2011 17
  • 17/10/2011 22
  • 18/10/2011 21
  • 19/10/2011 46

As we can see, quite an upturn in the last few days, despite the temperature drop. This, I suspect, is driven by the Queen brooding. Bombus Terrestris are natural pollen collectors - they just keep doing it when the nest is functioning. So despite the fact the workers have shifted loyalty from their (expired) mother queen to a new queen, they seem quite happy working hard for her. 



Man hunt

So, where were we?

Oh, yes; earlier this week we noticed an unknown boy turn up to the nest. How did we figure that?

Well, for starters, I'm counting and tracking every single bee in and out of the nest at the moment, so I recognise any that are "foreign" and also any that do not have a corresponding initial trip out of our nest. Ultimately, all the bees from our nest must have been born inside it and so must have been through a "first flight" memorisation procedure on the first time they leave. So, that leaves me with a pretty good idea of which bees are ours.

Then, out of the blue, this different looking bee turns up, not having come from inside our nest. Something was going on. Also, he was larger than any of ours and had a distintive white fluffy tail (less pointed than a girl's). Finally, behaviour gave it away. He was clearly a visitor, flying round and checking the outside of our lodge rather than going straight in. He then also spent a lot of time working along the edge of the lid/base, getting a scent and - I suspect - leaving one. None of our girls have ever shown this behaviour. 

[video to come]

We were surprised to see a boy; given their lifespan, he must have been under 2 weeks old, which puts him having been born mid-September at the earliest. For a "first colony" nest (i.e. from a queen born last year), that would probably be quite late. So, perhaps we were seeing a boy from a "second colony" such as ours (but, as far as we can tell, not from ours). 

However, that would also be a bit puzzling, because it would imply the colony had laid workers, boys (and presumably queens) in fairly rapid succession. As it happens, we're trying to piece together the behaviour of "second colonies" to figure our how their lifecycle (which starts sometime around August) compares with their host colony (which starts around April). In particular, does a "second colony" queen go on to hibernate and start another new colony next year, or does she die after laying? (As ours has done; although she seemed to be fattening up to hibernate). Also, if the queen lays workers (females) during this season, is she still able to lay fertilised eggs next year, or is she left only able to lay unfertilised eggs? These turn into boys, who do not work for the colony, and so the colony would not survive. 

So, the existence of this boy adds another piece to the jigsaw. If he's come from a second colony, then it implies that both girls and boys are laid. It also adds credibilty to the suspicion we had that some boys were being laid in our second colony, because at want point we were seeing quite a large attrition rate from the nest: bees leaving and not coming back.

This in itself adds an intriguing twist to the story of "second colonies". Take ours, for example; it started to emerge towards the end of August after the original colony collapsed (partly due to heat damage in the nest). This means its lifespan is compressed into a time period of 5 weeks or so, very much shorter than the 10 - 12 weeks or longer of the original colony. So, we're intrigued to understand how well such a colony can perform and whether the Queen specifically compresses its lifespan into this time period by laying girls and boys in quick succession (and even Queens?) The evidence we're seeing is that she does lay both boys and girls - so the question is, what triggers the laying of the boys?: it would seem more likely that it must be due to seasonal/environmental conditions rather than how long she has been laying for. 

Lady Luck Turns

Our boy came and went and while we were intrigued, we thought no more of it, other than to keep an eye on him over the coming days.  

As is becoming the norm, the next day our collective jaws dropped when a massive bumble turned up at the nest entrance: lo and behold, it was very clearly a queen. She must surely have only been here for one thing - boys! 

Visiting Queen trying to figure out a way into the nest entrance

It's possible, of course, she was looking for a hibernation spot, so we had to reserve judgement. But not only had she turned up just a day after the boy, but there she was, exploring the outside of the lodge in all the same places he had, picking up his scent. It was all a bit uncanny.  Also, she'd shown no interest in the hibernation spots we've specially set up. These are much more disguised than the lodge as much more natural surroundings and also facing the preferred direction (North). 

She visited again later that day and again showed interest in where the boy had been and tried to get into the lodge - but was thwarted by the plastic flap at the entrance. There was no real excuse for that to be so - all the other queens we had in the nest previously managed to navigate it very well. But they had the benefit of starting on the inside and being able to push their way out and thus confirm for themselves how the flap worked and that it indeed is the entrance. 

It's a little different starting on the outside, as the flap has to be lifted, not pushed, so it's not necessarily immediately obvious it is the way into the test. And, to be honest, this is part of its design, because it's intended to keep foreign interest away from the inside of the nest. 

Boy & Queen meet at the nest together - but she still can't figure out how to get in

We had no idea whether this was a "one-off" visit, though she turned up twice during the day (and the boy turned up 5 times!). We presumed that if she was looking for a hibernation spot, having been thwarted by the entrance flap, she wouldn't turn up again. However, on the offchance we wedged the flap open a bit. This would allow her access to the entrance, and even if she didn't want to go right into he nest, she'd be able to drink some honey water that we provide just inside.

She turned up again the next day, in fact made twice as many visits, and did indeed explore inside the nest. Our boy, who we think stayed inside the nest overnight never quite co-incided with her, but we couldn't help but get the feeling that the two were trying to track each other down.

Over the course of the week our Queen and Boy have kept coming back to the nest (stats below). They've both been inside and he has stayed in there overnight a few times (from what we can tell). On the whole they have kept missing each other, though there have been a few occasions where they were in the nest together; but not for long and not such that we saw them actually hook up. 

Here's a graph of the activity over the last few weeks:

Grey: Return Nest Trips | Green: Newborn "memorisation" flights | Blue: Boy visits | Pink: Queen visits

We can see that there was a huge surge in Queen visits on 7th October. We were slightly baffled by this until we realised that there were TWO  queens now visiting the nest (and two boys as it happens). At one point we caught them both in shot together - it was all quite amazing.

TWO queens arrive at the nest

We continue to allow them to go into the nest and benefit from the honey water and they seem quite happy to spend stretches of about 20 minutes at a time in there. The Queens never stay overnight in the nest though, they always leave (often close to sundown) off to where they came from. (Would love to know where that is). 

This repeated visiting to the nest does not seem to make sense as hibernation activity - one or two checks on the location would confirm whether it is satisfactory or not, so we conclude that this is indeed mating behaviour. Unfortunately neither of the Queens or boys really seem to have managed to co-incide with each other yet, but we remain hopeful.  

My big worry is that they leave it a bit too late to go and hibernate, as the weather has suddenly returned to its more usual seasonal level - but we have to trust in their own body clocks to do the right thing. I also hope they don't end up trying to use our nestbox to hibernate, as it will not really be suitable. The old nest in there will not be hygenic for them; but from what we can tell, it wouldn't be normal for them to choose a nest site for hibernation, nor indeed for next year's nest. 

I do also have to wonder when these Queens were born, given they are now looking for males. The first "batch" of males was around August time, so we are two months down the line. That suggests they are also from a "second colony"- but certainly not ours. Our first colony produced half-a-dozen queens; there's part of me wonders if they are from that brood. There's no real way to find out, but it does seem surprising that they wouldn't have found a mate already over the last 8 weeks, so the behaviour remains a bit of mystery; or perhaps just a quirk of timing due to the abnormally warm weather conditions. 

Either way, it's a privilege to have them visiting and yet another source of fascination.

[Video to follow]




All Change

So, the weekend that marked the beginning of October passed and along with it the uncannily warm weather (still reaching 25 degrees and more) subsided too. I think for our bees this has finally marked the proper transition to Autumn and, if anything, come as a bit of a shock. Temperatures today were down to the 12 / 13 degrees mark - half of what they were a few days ago.

So, it goes without saying, that seeing activity levels drop is to have been expected. To put this into context, here is the data for recent trip activity:

  • 28 Sep - 23 
  • 29 Sep - 17
  • 30 Sep - 12 
  • 1 Oct - 13 
  • 2 Oct - 28 (-2)
  • 3 Oct - 22 (-2)
  • 4 Oct - 12 
  • 5 Oct - 8 (-1)
  • 6 Oct - 1 

In fact some of these are not "round trips" - i.e. these are exits from the nest that have not necessarily been matched by an entrance (the numbers shown in brackets). This highlights another noticeable fact: we've been losing bees at a fairly sizeable rate. Some of our busiest and most effective bees have left the nest and not returned. Sometimes they do leave near to sunset, timing it just a bit too late to get back to the nest in time, and end up having to stay out overnight. But then you see them come back in first thing in the morning. In fact, for a few weeks we had one bee that did this by choice! It always slept away from the nest. 

But my heart always sinks when I count the bees in and out of the nest during the day and as dusk falls there are 2, 3 or 4 unaccounted for. This is always a bad sign. At most usually only 1 or 2 come back the next day. 

We lost our biggest bee this week. She was near identical twin to the one that drowned and had been quite a hard worker, making long trips often up to several hours (one we timed at about 5 hours). Maybe these long trips themselves were symptomatic of something - such as old age. 

We also lost two new-born bees as well. They were very tiny, like beatrice (who is indoors), so not fully developed. One could definitely not fly, so she crawled over the nest entrance, then fell to the floor. It was only later that we saw this had happened and despite a full search of the garden, by then we couldn't find her. It's such a shame, because it would have been wonderful for beatrice to have a companion. A similar thing happened two days later with another tiny new bee. It's such a joy to see them emerge, and this one was capable of some flight and began her "memorisation" procedure. But she too dropped to the ground, rose again, but then disappeared from the CCTV. We never saw her make the nest again. 

So, as of today, we only saw one of our small, regular bees making any trips, down from at least four - and only just one trip at that. No sign of the others at all. It's possible they were bedding down as it has been exceptionally windy, but we've not even seen them inside the nest. 

Outside Interest

It's not been all "doom and gloom" this week though. For starters, we saw another instance of some kind of larvae/debris being removed from the nest (and later saw some kind of moth inside the nest).

It started with interest from a larger bee (not one of ours) circling around the outside of the lodge, examining the joins and cracks, then finally finding the entrance and creeping into the nest. What's going on here then? Twenty minutes inside the nest before leaving and circling. That confirmed this was not a "native" to the nest and he or she was memorising the location with a view to coming back!

Later in the day he returned, as we expected and went back into the nest, staying for about half an hour. I was convinced he was a boy - was he looking for a Queen? Sadly he was out of luck - our Queen had already been laying and now sadly expired inside the nest.

Out of Luck? How wrong we were.

[To Be Continued...]


We all want cool air

When we went to check the nest last night, there were two bees actually resting in the entrance tunnel. This scuppered our plans to have a good check of the nest and really figure out what was going on with our Queen - who we saw inside the nest, still, between the wall of the wooden lodge and inner cardboard box. We have a picture from the previous night though - the Queen is not visible but she's down the edge on the far bottom left. 

 late night nest check

Given that she's previously spent all her time hidden away under the bedding, brooding, this is a major shift in behaviour; although of course, we've seen her wanting to leave and not succeeding, so we know that all is perhaps not well. 

Anyway, we took a decision to partially lift the lid quickly just to look for her, rather than check everything. She was in the same place, still still. The likely prognosis, of course, is that she has sadly died in the box - possibly she's even got trapped between those sides and run out of energy. I cling onto the slim hope she might have started hibernating there, but it's extremely unlikely. 

The other bees are still working the nest though - I saw four in action yesterday and three today: large, "baby" and "tiny" (or venti, grande and tall as Starbucks would call them). 

They are starting quite late now - 9.52 yesterday and 9.51 today - how about that for timekeeping!? It was another scorching day, in fact the UK record for October temperatures was broken. So, although the bees have wonderful weather for foraging, the light and length of day is not so good. And our nest is (deliberately) in the shadiest part of the day. We already discovered that their behaviour is triggered by light and temperature change, so it's not surprising they are starting significantly after sunrise.  They are finishing about 10 minutes before sunset. 

Overall activity rates are dropping though, certainly in terms of number of trips. This is not just because they are spending longer on each trip finding pollen (although for some bees that is true: our big bee spent 4.5 hours out foraging on one trip yesterday). But also because they are spending more time in the nest. Whether this is due to temperature or some other reason, I don't know. I don't imagine there is any hatching going on, so there is no requirement for them to be in the nest from that point of view. 

There is also no bee collecting regularly honey water (the one that was died) which is use to fill the honey pots. Again, they won't be needing them now anyway if nothing is hatching. So that doesn't explain the time in the nest either. Maybe they are getting old and tired. 

The last four days the trip count has been: 23, 17, 12, 13 - quite a tail off. Maybe they've twigged they dont really need the pollen! (Bombus Terrestris are known as "pollen collectors" - they gather pollen all the time, regardless of how much is needed). 

What we've also seen the last few days is "fanning" - when the nest gets hot some of the bees will go near the entrance and "fan" air into/through the nest. To be honest, one lone bee doing this in our lodge will have minimal impact, but they are still conditioned to do if needed. The biggest bee in the nest has taken main responsibility for this and actually started at 9:53 - for about 10 minutes at a time. 

There's at least one also sleeping near the entrance tonight again - which is preventing us getting into the nest at all. Perhaps they are feeling the heat and like the occasional waft of cool air.