More mystery

It's amazing how time flies - 10 days since the last update, and more mystery to report. 


At the last count we have had a single queen in our outdoor colony and she was busy collecting liquid supplies for, what we presume, was a colony she has been brooding. Over the last 10 days we've continued to see her coming and going and drawing from the supplies we have been offering, though oddly not collecting any pollen: usually a key initial role for brooding queens. None-the-less we assumed this was what she was up to until things took an unusual turn yesterday.

My suspicions were first aroused when I saw what I thought was the queen resting on the inside roof of the box for what has now been (at the time of writing) almost 28 hours. Has barely moved, nor fed. On closer examination of the CCTV it turns out this is a female bumblebee from outside. I know her identity exactly as I actually marked her: she has been coming to feed on our supplies of honey water and also collecting pollen (so not a cuckoo) - but for another nest. For some reason yesterday she came into our nest (with surprising great ease via the flap, I might add) and has stayed there (very still) since. 

Oddly, not long after she arrived, our queen went out (about 7.15pm on 28th July) and at the time of writing has not returned. This is rather confusing and concerning - we wonder whether she has intentionally abandoned the nest, or went out foraging and met with difficulties, but it's now been 26 hours or so. We've seen this kind of thing before, and happy outcomes, but not with a seemingly brooding queen - it doesn't make sense. Whether it coincides with a change in the weather from a spell of record-breaking hot days to much wetter and cooler weather, who knows? Of course, we had not been looking inside the nest to see what was going on for fear of causing the queen to flee - but she may have done for some reason anyway.

Once again, we find ourselves waiting with certain trepidation.


The incredible news from our indoor colony of disabled bumblebees is that Dusty is now at least age 101 days and Nedine at least 99. (We say at least because that's how many days we've had them in care - they may have been several days old when we found them). 

These are truly remarkable numbers for worker bufftails who generally are thought to only live a few weeks (maybe 3 - 6). In general they are both still as active/energetic as ever and we continue to supply occasional bits of bedding for dusty to organise (it's her role) and new pollen for Nedine to work with (that seems to be her role). We are working on the basis that new research into bees shows that social roles in the nest can extend their lifetime and mental capacity, and that it might also apply to bumblebees.

The less good aspect is that dusty is showing some apparent signs of her age. Despite being energetic she has started being apparently less co-ordinated and shaking a bit more. It is not (yet) the classic symptom we have seen of bumbles becoming weak and unstable, but it is definitely a change. She falls over a lot (but is able to right herself) and doesn't make good progress when she walks - tends to be two steps forward, one step (or fall) back. On some occasions it seems like maybe her eyesight just isn't so good - but on others it seems more like something neurological (akin to dementia or Parkinson's in humans). She also seems to have lost most of her colour - only two very slight yellow flecks remaining on her shoulders.

We are closely monitoring her. 

You can see in the video below, she is quite energetic, but sort of "frantically dysfunctional"



On the edge

After all the intriguing activity from our new queen a few days ago, I thought "that was that". I spent the evening collecting all the numerical data from her honey-water collection trips (she made 75!) and assumed she had now filled all her stores in the nest and would probably get on with the next phase of brooding.

Unforunately, though, the supplies on the nest ledge had attracted a persistent male and when they ran out, he also figured out how to get into the nest. Over the course of the next few days, despite me setting up numerous decoy supplies (which of course attracted even more bumblebees!), he continued to raid the nest over and over, and I suspect has emptied it completely of all the supplies the queen set up.

This was heartbreaking to watch especially since my intervention was not working - and I became really concerned that it would all go wrong for our queen: either she would not realise there were no supplies, and too focussed on brooding might not collect any more (not to mention the fact the weather has been unsuitable anyway. Or, she would simply run out of food for herself due to the inclement weather.

The good news is, I have seen her, so she is not simply "locked down" and ignoring what is happening in her nest. However, the bad news is, when I saw her today near the entrance she was incredible weak - barely moving. It brought back all the horrible memories from last year seeing some of our queens unable to survive. Although previously she would come to the ledge to check for honey water (that I had been removed), she wasn't doing this - she was simply too weak to come out of the nest.

It seemed to me this was a critical moment - I had to intervene to save her. Rather than go into the nest to intervene, I simply squirted some honey water into the entrance where she was resting (be careful to avoid her). It clearly worked as she spent a minute or so drinking and then moved back into the nest at about 5x the speed she had come to the entrance.

As I write I haven't seen her come for more - which seems a little odd - so I wait with baited breath to see how it unfolds. Notwithstanding, I have put supplies right at the nest entrance so that she cannot leave without discovering them.

Furthermore I have deal with the theiving male with a different strategy - I have finally captured him and intend to relocate him too far away for him to get back here. This would not be something you could do with a girl, as they are servicing their own nest. But the boys just feed, rest and mate and do not service a nest - so as I long as I take him somewhere safe, he can survive ok. My brother suggested experimenting with different distances to see how far he can/will fly. Perhaps if I had more time and less concern for our queen I would do so, but I think in this instance I'm just going to go about 10 miles in the expectation that's too far for him to navigate back from. I will report back!

Going Potty?

I haven't been doing many updates on our colony because of its decline and essentially I have been waiting to see whether all the remaining bumblebees (2 or 3) would perish - in which case we'd probably order another colony; or whether a second colony might develop as did last year. 

So, for the last few weeks I've been keeping an occasional eye on what's been going on  - with the possibility that the largest bumblebee in the colony was actually a queen. That was my hunch, and finally some measurements from some of the CCTV stills confirmed that to be correct.

A Queen in the beepol colony - measuring about 23 - 25mm

So, having confirmed a Queen - what was she up to? Was she the "mother queen" of the colony, probably destined to die soon. Or was she a daughter or foreign visitor, possibly looking to set up her own colony. Certainly she'd been to and fro from the nest, but it was not obvious what she was up to. We'd expect a new queen to start off by collecting pollen, to make pollen bread, to sustain herself and her young as she stays in the nest to lay and rear them.

But we discovered today she was doing something else important which also pointed to the fact she may well be gearing up for her own colony.

Queen had come out onto the ledge and I went outside to try and get my first "real life" visual of her, mainly to confirm her size. Although she has been happily flying to and from the nest for some reason this morning she seemed to be in less good form and flew down into the grass. And she was then struggling to climb the grass stalks (not sure whether she was trying to fly or rest and warm up).

Anyway, eventually I rescued her and placed her back on the lodge shelf - and she went straight back into the nest. Slightly puzzled with her behaviour, I thought I would offer some honey water on the ledge so that if she came back out she could at least "recharge her batteries". Before long she was indeed back out and very grateful. 

Queen drinking honey waterShe spent a few minutes drinking, then returned to the nest. All seemed good. Next thing I know she's back out again drinking more. Then back in the nest. Then back out again drinking. Back in. Back out - and so on, until within about 20 minutes she'd drunk the whole tray dry!

I refilled it - and the whole scenario was repeated again! In fact, over the course of the day she drank 7 trays full (somewhere in the region of 15mls) - this is a huge amount, given that in the past we have seen 1 or 2 mls last easily for a day or two. 

So, what's going on? 

The most likely explanation is that she is brooding and that she is swallowing the honey water and regurgitating it in the nest to help make "pollen bread" (this is how bumblebees store their pollen supplies) and possibly also filling some honey pots also as storage. There's no question that the quantity of honey water she took into the nest is well beyond the realms of being anything she could possibly consume.

This would seem to underline her status as a queen building a new nest - so I now wait with anticpation to see if she also begins collecting pollen.

She's not the only one

This obsession with the honey water is not confined to this Queen only - in fact we've noticed over the last to weeks that Nedine, one of our small indoor bees, has been obsessed with the pollen supply in their box and seems to be fussing over it 24x7 and (it looks like) mixing it with honey water too. It's not entirely obvious if that's the full extent of her activity, or if she's fashioning "wax pots", but it seems like the former. It's odd that this has started in just the last two weeks - and has now become her full time role. 

bust or boom?

Ten days ago we'd seen a mystery "large lady" in our colony, and she definitely looked like a queen.

I tracked her movements for a while, but she seemed very interested in the outside, while at the same time exhibiting that "never been out before" behaviour of appearing a little nervous to leave, spending time on the front inner wall of the lodge (perhaps to warm up and sense the environment).

The next day I saw her leave the nest and after that I never saw her come back. So the mystery remains, was she definitely a queen, and if so, a daughter or the founding mother? We'll never know.

The colony had been set back so far by the inability to forage (due to weather) that it was still in decline and up until a few days ago I was estimating there were only a maxiumu of 5 bumblebees making themselves known in the nest. Though we did have this "hanger on" (literally) outside for quite a while - possibly a boy hunting a queen.


Today (20th June) was a much warmer day though - it was already about 24C at 9.30am. This encouraged more activity in the colony and after reviewing the CCTV I could see more trips being made, albeit by a small number of bees. However, the other unusual observation was one or two (seemingly) new larger bees. I'm pretty certain there are two in there at least. One made itself known last night, almost stumbling around the lodge, at one point looking like there was bedding all stuck to her tail.

No evidence of the debris today, but two larger bumbles were mooching around in the nest, and one of them flew at one point, even performed what looked like memorisation, but only partial. The size is about 20mm so they are right on the edge of large-worker vs. small queen, so I can't be sure if they are queens.

So, just as I was about to monitor the colony for its final "death" it's turned up a surprise, and who knows, maybe a resurgence in activity is on the cards?


The Mysterious Queen

It's been another few weeks since the last update, for a couple of reasons. Apart from anything else we've been away for a while, but more significantly, there has been very little activty in the colony. We haven't looked in at night yet - we will soon - but I'm convinced that we're actually down to under a dozen bumblebees alive in the nest. Even on the warmest of days, activity is confined to a few trips per hour, rather than a few per minute. 

It's a bit unusual, but the weather has been so atrocious that the early peak of our nest (20 queens produced in April) has been totally out of sync with the food supply. Lots of rain and wind and unusually cold temperatures for May/June have kept the bumblebees trapped in the nest for extended periods of time and ultimately it seems they have perished. 

However, we have not written everything off yet - we have learnt that bumbleworld is full of surprises and Friday (June 8) was no different. For a few days I'd seen what I thought is a bufftail male scouting the nest, looking for a mate. The behaviour is distinctive - flying around the outside of the nest and especially checking all the edges where he can smell the nest. Then he tries to get into the nest, but he has more trouble with the wax-moth flap than the nest inhabitants; although he does eventually manage it. 

But that's not the most intriguing thing, because it actually seems that on Friday there was also a queen in our nest. You can see from the picture she is at least 2 "squares" in length (nearer 2.3) which would make her 20 - 23 mm in size - definitely queen size and definitely the largest bee we've seen in a while. 

A lone queen appears in the nestIt's not clear if she has come from the nest or come from outside, although most likely she has come from the nest. Nor is it clear whether she is the "mother" queen of the nest, or a later "daughter" queen that has just been born.

All things being equal, the latter would be the norm, as we would expect queens to be hatching now to synchronise with the arrival of the males. However, things have not been normal! We don't know if the early brood of queens from the nest was all our "mother" queen would have laid, or whether she would go on to lay another brood, of which this would be one. 

Or indeed, could this be our "Mother" queen, leaving the nest, perhaps to die? We saw that happen last year too, with two queens. What I can say is she did leave the nest, and I've not yet seen her come back or back inside the nest. That still doesn't narrow things down, so we have to watch and wait and see whether she may have mated, whether she comes back, or indeed whether she has any sisters yet to be born.