It's been very quiet in the nest outdoors for the last two days. "Quiet" meaning no activity at all, save for a small moth that seems to have been in there a few weeks - and doesn't seem to have done any harm. 

It's cold now, down to 3 degrees or so overnight at times and only peaking at about 12 degrees during the day, so we don't expect any activity and we certainly don't hold out any hope for any larvae in their wax pots that had been developing. In fact today I took the decision to remove the small infrared lamps from underneath the lodge. Chances are they were have no useful effect anyway, not to mention they are only partly functional.

Notwithstanding, we've left the nest intact for now, just in case. We've been surprised so many times this year, that we will just wait a week or so and be sure there is no life left in the lodge. Then we'll have the (fairly) gruesome job of cleaning it out and examining just how much work our 4 queens and their workers have done. We've contemplated sealing the lodge and placing it in the garage - still monitored by CCTV - just as the final stage. 

However, indoors we have a happier tale. Our tiny rescued indoor bumble, the last survivor of the nest was rescued two days ago and has survived indoors for two full nights and is now entering her third. At times she's caused us a little concern with her stillness, but in general she's been agile and we've seen her take a very good drink today, so she's getting nourishment.  

Of course her rhythms will be all over the place as she has no siblings to work with; has 5 or 6 fewer hours of daylight than would be the case in summer; is not in a fully sealed/dark location and, indeed, is subject to the artificial lighting in our home. Although we do try and maintain a fixed routine of light to help her rhythms. Having said that, it is already established that bumblebee Circadian Rhythms are rather elastic: while forgaging has to take place during daylight, we've observed much activity that takes place over night. (Take our little bee that spent 7 hours through the night fixing up the nest bedding we added!). There's lots that happens through the night, so we shouldn't be surprised if our little guest rests during the day from time to time. 

We've been helping to heat her tub a little by placing it near or on a microwaveable wheat bag, just to improve the ambient temperature. We noticed today she was particulalry responding to this - when the bag is intially hot she moves away from it to another part of the tub. When it is at a nicely warm temperature she comes and tucks up towards it as close as she can get (through the plastic box of course). You can see an example of this in the picture below. 

little bee warming up close to the wheat bag outside her tubWe noticed at one point we probably made the wheat bag too warm and she very quickly scooted off to the other side of the box! It confirms the bumbles are sensitive to temperature and definitely have a favourite comfort zone. 

In case you are wondering, for this very reason we don't heat the whole box, just a region of it. This means she has the freedom to find the perfect spot in the temperature gradient. We've also added materials she can climb on and get right away from the floor of the tub, such as a "bridge" made from a cardboard toilet roll inner-tube. We saw her climb it today which was entertaining to see! And tonight she is tucked up sleeping underneath it - perhaps she feels secure with something over her head.

We've also noticed that she tracks the temperature gradient as the box cools down. To start with she is typically tucked up close to the edge of the wheat bag, where the rest of the tub is cool. Gradually she moves as the wheat bag cools, until, as in the picture above, she is tucked up to the now-warmest part at the front of the box. Just like Holly she seems to like the warmth. 

Finding her wings

Mid morning we noticed she was stretching flapping her wings. While it's good to see her wings are well-formed, it creates a dilemma for us, because we've only ever kept bees indoors that couldn't fly. If she could fly we would feel like she was being unfairly caged - and yet she would have no chance of survival outdoors; there are no flowers in the vicinity for nectar, and one cold night could see her off. And she is so, so small, that her energy stores are small - meaning she needs to top up regularly (a bit like the way a baby has to feed regularly).  

We discussed the concept of being able to exercise her natural instincts (i.e. freedom to fly outdoors) versus a warm and secure environment meaning less stress on her body. While she might have instincts to leave the nest and forage, this is not an experience she has ever known and the stress to her system would be huge. We concluded that it is reasonable and right to keep her safe indoors.

As we watched her behaviour, wondering if she was indeed trying to take off, I realised her activity patterns matched something I have seen before: it looked like she was "fanning". This is what bumblebees do to try and regulate their nest temperature, especially when it is getting too hot - and it's something we managed to catch on video.

We noticed that she was moving around the box to the various temperature zones she'd already picked out and then buzzing her wings for a few minutes. On occasions it looked like she was moving to one spot, fanning to move the warm air around, then moving to a cooler spot for a few seconds to check the temperature, then coming back to where she had been and starting again. It certainly looked like she was trying to even out the temperature in the tub. What we can't be sure is if she was trying to make the warm zone cooler, or the cool zone warmer - but she was fanning in the warm zone.

Other factors made it look like she wasn't really trying to take off: she was often up against the tub (so much so her wings were catching it) and facing the wrong way; and the tell-tale sound was that of her wings "fizzing" in the air, rather than her thorax buzzing, which is what gives bumeblebees their disctinctive "throaty" buzz when they fly.  There's a certain stance too and a certain way of spreading their wings which, I presume, increase surface area. 

It's very quiet, but I was able to record the sound of her fanning on my iPhone - you can play it below:


If we are right, then there are two things I find amazing about this:


  • Nothing has taught her this - this is inbuilt, instinctive behaviour to use her wings to control the temperature of her environment. She's not had any time with live siblings and not seen this behaviour. It's totally in her genes. 
  • It means she has accepted the tub as her nest - so, even though it is missing many features, such as a Queen, other siblings, wax pots, the right smells, the right lighting, and even an exit(!), she must have accepted this is "home". This means, that although we can't let her outdoors, she can play out her nest instincts and do some of what nature intended. That makes it a little easier to accept we have her in a closed environment indoors. 


We just take each day as it comes now - every one is a bonus, for her and for us. As the remaining survivor of her family line we hope she can hang around for a little while yet. 

The gift of security & dignity

It's just over a week since my last update and - as has become the stock phrase of our encounter with bumblebees - it's been another week of surprises.

In the last installment our Queen (the 4th one to brood in succession) had been rescued and brought indoors, though was in a very weak and poor state of health, precariously perched on the lip of the nest.

rescuing our last queen - motionless for hours on the nest lipI was rushing off on business and sadly while I was away she died.

The last of our queens - wonderfully brightly coloured

At the time we were still "leaving room for surprises" and we were wise to do so. When I got home I scanned the CCTV as usual and discovered that the day after a small new bumblebee was crawling about inside the nest - a brand new hatchling, the remaining legacy of our queen.

That was the thursday and she was visible for just a few minutes. On the friday she was visible again, this time on the outside ledge of the nest. From the CCTV it was impossible to see how she'd got there and indeed how she suddenly disappeared. My heart sank at the thought she might have fallen from the ledge, and we know only too well that if this happens we inevitably lose the bee. (They typically crawl off into the lawn, never to be found - or to be found by the birds). She was in a very sorry, bedraggled state, so sadly we had to accept that without knowing where she was, there was no prospect of finding and saving her. 

On Saturday we then went out to bury the Queen and as a matter of routine I checked around the nest. To my astonishment I saw little new bee flailing deep in the grass (badly needing cutting too!) She and the grass were soaking wet and she looked in terrible condition. We quickly rescued her and brought her inside to warm up. We offered both sugar water and honey water to see which she chose. She totally ignored the sugar water and gorged herself on the honey water - presumably she had been out on the lawn for 2 whole days, freezing cold, without sustenance. We were so glad to have rescued her. 

She really perked up and we could see she would unable to fly due to her imperfectly formed wings (slightly bent). We added bedding and after going through the usual stages of exploring her tub, then claiming ownership of it, she took great delight in "nest fixing" - i.e. weaving the hamster bedding into wonderful circular swirls. It is amazing to see, both in action and as an end result. (here's an earlier example). 

On Wednesday we woke to find her quite lethargic and uninterested in her food - never a good sign. I took her into my office to keep warm - but as you can see she was not looking healthy, but crumpled and untidy. 

"baby bumble" in a sorry stateLater that evening she died

You'd think that was the end of the story - I certainly did. But what I discovered going over the latest CCTV footage from the previous two days (I was away from home) was that yet another baby bumble had emerged inside the nest. I feared greatly for her survivial, because on camera she was shaky, fell over on her back and was clearly not in good condition. Not surprising with no food to be had. BCW had a look in the nest to try and find her, we even tried to heat it up with the halogen garden heater to encourage her to get on the move - but nothing. Again we resigned ourself to the fact she was probably buried deep in the nest, destined never to see the light of day.

The today BCW popped her head into the CCTV room and exclaimed - is that a bee??!! It was.  She was on her back, miraculously balanced on a plastic rim inside the box. We already thought she was probably dead. Without hestiation BCW went out to scoop her from the nest and bring her indoors. She too was in a very sorry state and we both thought there was no chance for her. 

Our bumeblebees are amazing fighters - every one of them has been - several of them have shown Lazarus-like recoveries. This latest addition was no different - within an hour she was scooting round her tub and bedding as if it was silverstone, a remarkable turnaround from what seemed like moments from death.  

She is quiet and fairly still again tonight as I write, snuggled up against the warm wheat bag we have placed against the outside of the tub. She's alive, she's had some nutrition, but we don't know if she'll be here in the morning. But at least we know she is safe and warm and not going to freeze to death.

Our last surviving bumble?

She will never meet her mum, she will never fulfil her destiny, she will never know the thrill of fresh air rushing over her wings, she will have a short life.

But we will give her security and dignity. It's the least, and sadly the most, we can do.





Interfering with Nature

Yet another day of intrigue in our beepol hive.

Late the night before we had a quick check inside the nest, our first look in about 3 weeks. 

quick snapshot inside the beepol nest

There wasn't a single murmur from the nest as we quickly opened it to provide some honey water and take a photo. Everything was intact, if anything the bedding was a little more fluffy and 'aerated'. All the bees were obviously tucked well down and bedded in at the bottom of the nest: there was no sound or movement from them. 

The biggest sense of relief was that there was no evidence of intrusion, such as wax moth. I did see a small moth in the box the other evening, but I don't think it was a wax moth (too small). 

The day began with a slow start - even our "stop out" bee that has been coming in a 6.30am (sunrise) didn't show up till 8.50am, the latest we've seen. Down here in the south east we are experiencing an obnormally warm end to September which I think is really confusing the colony - the light levels and daylight hours do not match the temperature. 


Once again, by late morning we saw Big Mamma making an appearance. She is slow and lethargic and bus-like! We can't figure out if she's old and tired or has put on too much weight for a winter hibernation; but she struggles to move around. We inserted a small piece of cardboard through the lid/base gap in the lodge to act as a shelf for her to stand on to reach the entrance. 

The bees quickly learned to navigate the new shelf and although Big Mamma can drag herself up onto it, she has still not made it to the entrance; and indeed, has not really tried, which seems a bit surprising. What she does seem to do is go for the crack of light where the lid meets the base. It's very optimistic if she thinks she can fit through there!

We are at a loss how to deal with this - it's agonising to see her struggling to leave, but where do you draw the line at interfering with nature? There are several issues:


  • We don't really know what she's trying to do, it could be to go and die, it could be to go and hibernate - so we don't know the best way to help her
  • If she does exit the nest, she might not be able to fly, which could leave her in trouble - helping her out might be a bad thing
  • Even if she does want to hibernate and we put her in our hibernation box, there's no guarantee it's anything like what she wants/needs - in which case she might be be unable to go and find a suitable site for herself. 
  • The pure practicalities of getting her (and only her) safely out of the nest without damage to her or any of the rest of the colony (and of course not getting stung!)


So, for now, we are sitting back with great interest, a certain amount of trepidation and watching events unfold. 

For those wondering why we would want to even intervene, here is the logic:

The whole reason for getting and protecting the colony is to conserve the bumbles and give a small extra boost to their population. Because they are essentially annual, it's the queen who carries the "Olympic baton" in terms of surviving the winter (having mated) and emerging in spring to lay her new offspring. All the current workers and drones die. So, continuation of the life cycle is about the Queen being able to hibernate and survive the winter. It would be such a tragedy if, after all this work (on the queen's part) she was unable to fulfil that role, for something as simple as, say, not being able to get out of her nest. By not being able to do so, she would have "broken the chain" and denied the future another colony and new queens to carry the baton next year.

The whole situation is compounded by not knowing which queen she is - i.e. is she the colony's original queen, born summer 2010, hibernated and set up this colony spring 2011. If that's true, then actually she's destined to die soon (and that could be why she wants to leave). She's done her work and created new queens to carry that baton. They've gone and are probably now beginning their hibernation phase.

OR: is she the product of that original queen - a new queen born August 2011, destined to hibernate this winter and begin her brooding cycle in spring 2012. This is what we actually think, for two key reasons:


  1. We saw an old queen leave and die back in August when we installed the nest - she was the only one there for a short while, before we then saw about 5 new ones. 
  2. This queen has been brooding a new colony: the new hatchlings we've seen emerging almost every day for the last week.  She's not really meant to have been doing that, but it is a phenomena known to happen with Bombus Terrestris. With the extended warm weather, instead of going straight off to hibernate and lay next spring, she started laying now. The original mother queen, tired and old, would not do that


 So, this is the source of the uncertainty and our desire, if possible, to help her see it through the winter. 

Still Growing

The colony is still growing - the crackling and squeaking sounds we've been hearing we're starting to attribute to new birth; there is a distincy correlation. We'd been hearing that in short bursts each of the last few days. Usually the day after it's heard there's evidence of a new addition to the nest. Their behaviour pattern is quite noticeable - they crawl round the nest following a "search" pattern. I.e. they do not directly head from A to B, but explore: twisting and turning and feeling their way. Usually they head towards the exit several times, drawn by the light, but they do not leave. They turn round, come back inside and repeat. 

Eventually they pluck up the courage to properly explore the exit - where we have set up a "porch" and trapdoor system. They can explore round this in safety and this time they are but millimetres from the wide open world. They will do this about once or twice before building the confidence to exit. Standing on the ledge, they turn to face the nest and launch, arcing left and right, up and down to commit the view of the nest to memory. It's wonderful to watch and is the sure marker of a bumblebee making its first outdoor flight.

Sometimes they come back in after a few seconds - satisfied their wings work and that the weather is not really enticing enough. The rest of the time, they fly up and over the wall - their maiden voyage., brimming with apparent confidence and certainty.

Once such baby bee did so today. My hunch from the day said I thought she existed and sure enough, here she was. She's the same size as the baby bee (1) that's already working like crazy. (Note: the moniker baby refers to their size, not maturity; they will both always be referred to as baby). She took off at 12:35 and returned three minutes later - a nice short flight to get her wings. 

But that was it! Now she was a fully fledged member of the team - and she spent the rest of the day, along with original baby bee, bringing back basket-loads of bright orangey pollen. For this reason counting became a little tricky, as two two babies are very hard to distinguish on the CCTV.

Both babies were out of the nest in the late afternoon when I saw yet another similar sized one inside - it seems like there has been yet more hatching. I wait with interest to see when she emerges. 

More confusion

We continue to see new behaviour patterns that we can't explain. One of these has been the bee that stays out every night, doesn't seem to bring pollen back to the nest, but comes back for honey water from the entrance and every so often goes right into the nest and spends a few minutes in there. We don't know if this is boy behaviour or, perhaps, a worker who is not very effective (e.g. malformed pollen baskets). If we could tell she was collecting pollen then we'd assume she's just not very good at it and is using more energy than most for very little return; but it's proved extraordinarily hard to tell if she is carrying any (which suggests she isn't).

The other mad theory that occured to us: is she feeding another nest?

Further confusion arose when saw (what we think was) this same bee actually turn up with full pollen baskets, spend five minutes in the nest, then leave again with full pollen!

coming in with pollenGoing back out again with the pollen

But, if we though this has been a crazy day, it was nothing of what was about to come.. 




She's leaving home

It's been another eventful day in several ways.

Firstly, we were able to confirm that the drowned bee we rescued, which then 8 hours later showed miraculous signs of life, pulling herself to her feet and moving for 20 minutes, didn't make it. We tried to warm her up and get her dry and even offered some honey water. But she was unable to get to it, with her tongue trapped under her body and not enough strength the raise her head. She's been completely still now for 24 hours. 

Back in the nest, the day started quietly, in terms of activity. Our "stop out" bee, which normally comes back at 6.30 in the morning didn't show up till 8.35 - that immediately signalled something different about the way the day was starting. Indeed it seemed colder, despite (or indeed because of) the clear blue skies and bright sun. 

A lot of scraping and scratching sound was coming from inside the nest, as well as some high pitch squeaks. I'm starting to equate this with the emergence of new bees. Not necessarily hatching, but drying out and preparing to leave the nest for the first time; a process that can take a few days. 

Just after 9am big mamma bee came up on top of the bedding and rested right in front of the infra red camera, no doubt to keep warm; she stayed there till 10:45. There was very little activity during this time, just one or two mid-size bumbles taking a few foraging trips.

As we headed towards midday, the activity levels increased. The little baby bee in the nest, who worked so hard yesterday, started her trips at exactly midday, remaining unseen until then. Her exit from the nest allowed us to confirm the existence of a new tiny bee in the nest. I'd had a hunch about this yesterday and the 'squeaking' earlier in the morning I think might have been attributable to her. The final proof of her "newness" would be to see her leave the nest for the first time.

Prisoner in her own home

During this time, big mamma was appearing regularly on camera. It became apparent she was trying to leave the nest. She was absolutely huge, larger than what we remember and she struggled to climb toward the nest exit, falling back under her own weight time after time - it wasn't good to watch. Then, of course, we realised she'd be fattening herself up now in readiness for hibernation and that would explain her increase in weight - clearly her strength no longer matched her weight. Consequently she spent a lot of time scratching at the join of the lid and base of the lodge - and I realised this accounted for a good deal of the scratching sound we'd been hearing. 

She never made it out of the nest all day, despite hours of trying, but it was very obvious to see she wanted to exit. Sad though it seems, for it surely signals the end of brooding and stability in the nest, it is of course Nature's intended course. Indeed, we are surprised (if not a little worried) that she's stayed in the nest this long, as time is running short for her to find somewhere to hibernate. (Although we could probably keep the nest at a good temperature for her to survive the winter in, it would not be a hygenic environment: full of dead bees and unhealthy interest from other insects.) She may also have been missing her supplies - it was the drowned bee that had had the responsibility for bringing honey-water into the nest. We were baffled as to why such quantities were involved for such a small colony, but of course it's obvious now - Big Mamma was building up for winter.

Big Mamma trying to leave, but unable to find the strength to climb to the exit 

Much as we'd love her to stay, it was agonizing to see her "trapped" in the nest, so our plan tomorrow is to insert a small piece of card into the lodge that will provide a step to the exit - that should allow her to leave. Our only hope is that she is fit and well and will find somewhere to hibernate and is not leaving to go and die. She does seem to look as healthy (as much as we can tell from the CCTV). 

First Flight

At 13:19 our newest member of the colony tenatively climbed to the entrance. She turned and launched backwards as all new borns seem programmed to do. She was in flight! She circled close to the entrance and kept close to the nest, memorising everything she could see, gradually rising in height and wider arcs. We could see her easily on all 3 main cameras (1 newly positioned) but BCW was able to see her through the patio window - a tiny black speck against the sky. The in moments she was off up the street, the same way all the others go. Amazing and beautiful. 

She came back at 13:32 (without pollen) a trip time of 13 minutes - just enough for a first flight.

Overall activity

As per yesterday, I decided to collect some activity stats today, here are the main ones:


  • Total number of trips: 47
  • Trips by "baby bee": 13 (down from 21 yesterday)
  • updated average trip time for baby bee: 22 mins (stdev 6.67)
  • updated average pollen turnaround time for baby bee: 4.7 mins (stdev 2.27)


Activity levels were very clearly down and Baby Bee was pretty much responsible for all the pollen collection. Our newest "baby" addition didn't make any more trips after he inaugural flight. 

Most of the other trips are by a mid-size bee that never seems to collect pollen. In fact it takes honey water from the entrance every few minutes, but flies back out of the nest; Then every 30 minutes or so comes into the nest proper for a minute or two, then leaves, and repeats the whole cycle. So, it spends most of its time outdoors, just coming and taking honey from the entrance. This is the same bee that chooses to stay out of the nest every night. We have no real explanation for this behaviour - but our theory is, it's a boy and he's just having the easy life, and is probably not too welcome in the nest. Though we're at a loss to explain why he goes into it at all every half hour or so!

Tonight we are going to look into the nest for the first time in 3 weeks. We feel that disturbing it at this stage will not adversely affect the natural course of events, as we fully expect our Queen to leave tomorrow with a bit of help and the natural decline of the colony will set in. In a way it's a sad final chapter - but boy, it's been some journey getting here! 



Social Instincts

It was a day of mixed fortunes in the nest today.

Everything started badly when I discovered one of our bees drowned in a small glass jar near the nest. It was part of our wasp-prevention 'system' and to date had not been an issue, but it had filled with rain water and for some reason this unfortunate bumblebee had crawled or fallen into it and was unable to escape. Worse still, it was one of our larger "stripy" bees, which was a really hard worker in the nest. One of these had indeed been unaccounted for from the night before - i.e had been seen to exit (at about 4.30pm) and not come back. So, she could have been in there for anything up to 18 hours. I cannot say how upset I was, knowing, of course, that I had unwittingly placed the jar in its position. 

BCW was very nice, saying "remember all the bees you've helped survive", but I still felt terrible. She brought her indoors to quarantine in the customary ice-cream tub before we decided what to do. 

On the flip side, it seems our little "baby" bee (the smallest in the colony) was, quite literally, doubling her efforts to make up for the deficit in workforce. She made over double the number of foraging trips today, 21 compared to 10 yesterday and packed her pollen baskets with astonishing levels of pollen.

Vast quantities of pollen on the tiny legs of our smallest worker

She obviously found an abundant supply somewhere, as she was not returning with mixed yellow and orange supplies, just bright pinky/orange pollen all day long. What a trooper! I decided to calculate her key stats:


  • number of trips: 21
  • mean trip time: 22.4 mins (Stdev 6mins)
  • mean pollen deposit time: 4.73 mins (Stdev 2.12)
  • total flight time: ~ 8 hours
  • total work time: ~ 10 hours (available daylight: 12 hrs 14)


She was basically non-stop all day from start to finish - it's truly incredible to observe.

And remember, she doesn't get paid for this! It's all because of her social instincts.