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"



Another bite at the cherry

The decline of our colony continues with all but a handful of bees active over the last few days. This is despite an increase in activity in general, most notably on our lavender, which has an increasing number of bumblebees with each day: bufftails, redtails, early bumblebees, and common carders to name but a few.

At the latter part of the week and weekend I saw a number of bumblebees around the entrance to our lodge - though wasn't clear if they were coming in or leaving. But they seemed to have difficulty flying and had disappeared from view. (One I specifically saw fall off the ledge).

Naturally I went out to rescue them, but it had been an hour at least since once had disappeared and she was nowhere to be found. I looked hard then and the next day too, but found nothing. I never gave up hope. 

On Saturday I was able to rescue one which had a damaged wing. We quarantined her and eventually added her to our indoor box of invalids. Sadly she actually broke her right wing completely by her burrowing antics, so she definitely couldn't fly. She could certainly climb though! She's the first bumble we've had that been able to climb the plastic box and escape! Till now we thought we were safe! 

rescued with a damaged wing - taking a big drink after being fed with a syringe

It's not lasted long though, sadly today she died. We actually think she might be a boy from "her" antics and they have such terribly short lifespans: 7 - 14 days, so it's not surprising, especially when they've already aged and had difficulties when  they were in the wild.

It was bad news too on the bumblebee I saw go missing but couldn't find - on Sunday I did find her, essentially "drowned" on the gravel outside the lodge. She must have returned there from somewhere else, because I'd thoroughly searched the area previously. We never gave up hope and warmed her up indoors and quarantined her too - but she never revived.

It's not all sad news though. I found the third missing bumblebee close to death on Sunday entangled in the nearby grass (thankfully I hadn't cut the lawn). Although we didn't know at the time, he was a boy, and was soaked through and almost unable to move. His bands were almost pure white. We brought him indoors too, warmed him and fed him directly with a syringe and he gradually revived. At the time we thought he couldn't fly so we just cared for him, provided bedding and kept him warm (but separate from the others). He drank a lot of honey water - a typical sign of a boy.

Amazingly his bands recovered colour (though hard to see from the picture) and today was back to being a vibrant golden colour. Quite remarkable. As he was getting stronger and stronger and the weather was so lovely, we tried to fly him. We'd seen him attempting to fly but not making much of it - I thought his wings were too bent.

"before" and "after" of our rescued boy

But of course, as is the golden rule now, we never gave up. Late this afternoon he was buzzing in the box, flying up to the lid. So, we took him outdoors and within about 30 seconds he was off! He circled up beautifully, getting his bearings then flew off towards the sun.

It's a wonderful moment to know you have probably saved a life like that. Thankfully, as a boy he doesn't need to get to his nest - he will just spend his time outdoors foraging and looking for a queen to mate with (he may already even done so). At least now he has another bite at the cherry, so to speak.


buzzee weekend

Lovely weather for once this weekend, so we ended up getting quite a lot done. This post is really just a video and photo update.

I took the opportunity to check the nearby field to see what queens were out and about (if any) and see if i could find any wild nests. I didn't find any nests, but I saw plenty of queens and shot some great video of a vestal cuckoo (bombus vestalis) searching for nests to invade. (see later). 

First up though, quick survey of queens seen in a 1 hour traverse along my favourite transect:

  • Redtail Queens - 8 - mainly resting
  • Bufftail Queens 2 - resting
  • Vestal Cuckoo - 4 - nest searching
  • Carder - 2
  • Various others (half a dozen) in flight - unidentified

nearly all these were resting, a few flying past, and only the Cuckoos nest searching, looking for an unsuspecting established nest to take over:

One of the bufftails was more restless than most and she had no pollen - this would typically mean she hadn't set up nest (once she has, she will collect pollen to feed herself and her brood, and then ultimately not leave the nest at all). I decided to capture her and introduce her to our garden and pilkington box. Since we would not trap her in for more than a few minutes, it wouldn't matter if she had her own nest to go back to; and it could mean she would choose our box to nest in. As it happened, she took a while to enter the box and left not long later. Which is cool - if she liked the location she'll be back and if not, she's only 200 yards from where she was found and can easily get back. 

All Black

We also checked out the gardens in town and saw a few bumblebees there - another vestal cuckoo was foraging. But most interesting was spotting 3 seperate all black bumblebees forgaing and collecing pollen. I've not got a proper ID on these yet, but there are forms of all black Garden bumblebees, especially in the south/east of England (where we are). Here's a video:

New outlook

Since getting the beepol colony I've been wanting to get a camera set up in front of the lodge again. It hadn't happened yet because the camera I used last year was wall-mounted, but we've moved the lodge and now it needs to be sited in the garden on the grass. I built a stand using rolling pin and an old speaker-stand base. I used my standard maplin CCTV mini-camera mounted on top of this, and then to waterproof it, built a camera hood made from sugru
new CCTV camera looking at front of lodge..

Sugru is my new magic ingredient which can be moulded and stuck to almost anything and solidifies over the course of 24hrs into tough, waterproof silcone. So, here's hoping it does the job. 
And just for fun, a few other pictures:

rushing to get home... And a new box layout for our indoor bumblebees:
new box layout (with an attempt at some containment) for our indoor bees(We made some fake "wax" pots for our bumbles, to see what they do with them).

Wee Hidey-Hole

I noticed a tiny tiny bumble today that couldn't get back into the nest. It was so small, it had no chance of opening the flap - and all the bumbles that were coming and going around her were just buffeting her around and tredding all over her. It was sad to see. Then she fell off the ledge. 

I asked BCW if she would go out and try and rescue her but by then it was a little too late, and she couldn't be found. 

However, in the process, BCW heard a buzzing nearby and when she looked found a queen bee on the gravel and grass near one of our other nestboxes. She was tired, cold and hungry and seemed unable to fly, with a damage wing. 

BCW rescued her and took her indoors to get warm, dry and fed:

Understandably she drank without hesitation and with great enthusiasm from our tray of honey water. 

After she was satisified she decided to explore the Kapok that was also put in her box. Well, she seemed to love this. She burrowed down and made a wee hidey-hole. 

she didn't stop there - she burrowed deep inside - just as bufftails do (especially when hibernating underground).

BCW was concerned at this stage, in case she had gone in there to die. But thankfully she didn't stay there but came out again to explore and have another drink.

She's left us with a bit of a dilemma about what to do with her. It does seem as though she can't fly, in which case if we set her outdoors she will ultimately perish. On the other hand, keeping her indoors seems somewhat cruel - she has an expected lifespan of 18 months, but she will be trapped and unable to fulfil her destiny during that time; or who knows, maybe she will even start laying and nest building! 

That would not be good indoors - so our best bet is to see if she will use one of the nest boxes outside. We may have to put her in there with food supplies and see if that is enough to keep her in there and maybe start nest building. If she does not stay in there, we could consider trapping her - but I really do not like this idea - and there is no guarantee she would start laying either. Plus, since, presumably, she hasn't mated yet, she will only lay boys, so she will not get any help making the nest. It's difficult to know what to do for the best. 


Sisters can't do it for themselves

Our nest continues to grow and with it the activty, interest and intrigue. At the time of writing I've only managed to count in detail 2 days' worth of CCTV footage, but it's one heck of a two days!

Over the course of the two days - half of which was rainy/windy we saw:

  • 304 foraging trips
  • 136 memorisation procedures (equates to first flight of new bees - indicative on the minimum number of workers in the nest)
  • Orangey/red and pale yellow pollen being collected
  • Queen bees performing memorisation (i.e. 5 new queens)
  • Queens bringing back pollen (normally a sign of colony building - another colony already developing?)

Here's a recap of today's additional activity.

First of all, Queens. When there's unusal activity going on in the nest, it's easy to start doubting what you are seeing. What seems to happen is I start off with an instinct that something is happening because of a short observation. Then I spend a day or two thinking I'm going mad. Then, I typically see really good evidence that shows it was happening. The I start to think I am still seeing things!

It's like that with the queens. I thought I saw one, but I assumed she was the colony "mother". Then of course I saw two so knew something else was going on. And finally at the latest count, five. 

I can count them, by the way, by combining a number of techniques. First is sequential exits/entrances. If 3 leave without returning, then I know there are at least 3. Likewise, sometimes I will have counted some that have left, and then see more in the nest at the same time, so this also gives a number. Finally, I can count the memorisations - which is done once (usually) for each new bumblebee that goes on a flight. Using all this data serves to give a guaranteed minimum number with a high degree of confidence. 

Anyway, some pics of the queens. Compare the sizes with the regular workers.

 queen returning to nest (CH1)Queen returning with yellow pollen (CH1)Queen with pollen coming into land (CH1)And then the queen goes into the nest - and you can clearly see all her pollen (shows up white under the infra red)

Queen with pollen (CH2)Another queen emerged, but had imperfect wings and was struggling to make her first flight. It took her about 20 minutes of trying to lift off, but she could not sustain flight very well. unfortunately I lost track of her.. 

Queen - foreground - with imperfect wings is pacing the ledge trying to flySince I've been doing some audio recording of the nest this year I also took the chance to measure the audio frequency of these Queens' buzz. The result was 135Hz +/5Hz.  This ties in perfectly with the samples I took from captured queens. It stands to reason that frequency and size are related (in general at least), as is true for the human throat/chest and any musical instrument. It certainly would be nice to have a clear frequency range for queens that guarantee you know what you are dealing with. (I'm not finding a lot of research on bumblebee frequencies).


I caught one busy bee "fanning" today. This is the process of beating the wings to draw cooler air into the nest when it is too hot. To be honest, the temperature wasn't that hot. Outdoors it was 16C, and ambient in the nest was 23C (it's been hotter - thought bear in mind this is not the core). Perhaps this particular bee has a low threshold for fanning.

Actually, this was a theory I postulated last year - that different bumblebees have different trigger thresholds. Firstly, from a natural variation point of view it almost stands to reason. But secondly, in terms of a distributed "control system" for the nest that ensures fanning is not "all or nothing" but happens in a controlled way in response to increasing temperature, it makes sense that some bees are more sensitive and start fanning at a lower temperature. As the nest temperature climbs, more bees will be triggered to join the throng. Providing the fanning process itself doesn't generate undue heat, then such a system would basically be wonderfully self regulating (without the need for central command and control), because as more bumblebees start fanning, not only will the effect be greater, but fewer will be working in the nest and generating core heat. 

 bumblebee fanning near nest entranceshe's moved position - still fanning, wings clearly visible in motionThe she moves right to the entrance and continues. She was here for a good few hours (seemingly unnecessarily). 

Still fanning in the entranceI couldn't capture the sound of her fanning, but at peak temperature it sounded as though others in the nest were also doing so, so I recorded some of that and measured the frequency also. Because the sound is coming from the wings more than the thorax, it is not the usual buzz but the whisper of the wings through the air at a slower speed than normal flight (like a room fan). It's hard to determine if there is a fundamental frequency, but for what it's worth, my meter showed 135Hz sustained for extended periods of time. Interesting in that it is the same fundamental as the queens' buzz, but it is not a buzz and does not have the same characteristics. 


It was pretty much certain we'd get some less well bumbles to care for indoors again this year - there are always imperfections in nature. I'd hoped it wouldn't be too soon, but it was today. Actually, this box has gone longer than last years before discovering some under-formed bees. 

I actually found two - and they insisted on coming out of the nest and trying to fly but were unable to. The first one is worst off, with only 1 wing and 5 legs and I found her about 6 feet from the nest. Lucky for her really, as if I hadn't spotted her then I might never have done and she could be starved or bird-food by now. The second one has both wings, but they are crooked, one is too small, and she can't fly. (I made sure for 30 mins in the open that they couldn't, but it's obvious anyway). 

They are both similar size, and very small, under 1cm. I've not managed an accurate measurement yet, but around 8mm I reckon. Possibly smaller than Holly. I'm actually pleased to have found two as they can offer each other company and interact with each other. Last year one of the most painful things was to see Holly behaving as if she was depressed when she was alone (she had company from other bees some of the time, but she outlived them all). You think I'm kidding?  

Here are our two little darlings, just resting nest to each other. Maybe they are bonding ☺ They are certainly getting on fine:

Our two new under-formed bumbles indoors - as yet unnamedAlthough it is not recommended to revive bumblebees by feeding on honey water, we have no option. Sugar water does not provide mineral content, it is just empty energy and not nutrition, so we have to provide honey, even though there is a risk of bacteria. Last year Holly actually survived 70 days in our care, which is as astonishing life span for a worker bee (typically 15 - 20 days). 

a sense of scale

Tonight they have drunk really well and been mooching around with plenty energy, don't seem to be stressed and are co-operating just fine. They won't grow any bigger - their exo-skeleton has developed to this size and that's how it will stay, so they are amongst the smallest in the colony. Perhaps they hatched too soon, or just didn't get the temperature needed for development (which is critical). At least they are mobile. 

I hope these two have a decent lifespan, but whatever the case, we will give them a good quality of life however long it is - free from predators and starvation.