Changing the bedding

I was at home by myself today so I spent most of it writing up a new page, summarising key observations from all our bumblebee studies. There are a lot and although they are all contained in this blog somewhere, you'd never be able to piece them together. So the page is long overdue. 

It's again been a showery day on and off, so the bumbles have been thwarted. This girl spent most of the day in the entrance stopping the others from leaving (yes, even the big queen!):

Our two little indoor invalids (secretly I'm calling them pinky & perky, but they're not official names) are doing fine, drinking plenty and general mooching along fine:

I did attempt some macro photography using my zoom lens and macro extension tube - here's the setup:

It turned out to be completely useless (which is why they invented macro lenses), though it did but my tripod through its paces (that kit is HEAVY) and momentarily scared me. ☺

Despite best intentions I got no chance at all to review CCTV so I have a massive backlog of 5 days. Eek. but I kept an eye on the nest - really not a lot happening new today.

Tonight however, this bunch of bees have gone nuts over re-arranging the bedding under the camera. Don't know why, and I certainly wish I knew how they co-ordinated themselves on it and what they want to achieve. So, I've been taking lots of before and after shots:

"before""after"I'm trying to work out which pots are sealed - because some are empty and not sealed (centre bottom) and some are honey filled (easy to see with the catchlights). The seal pots will contain eggs and so may hatch at a later date. So, one theory is they are dragging the bedding to cover the sealed pots and keep them warm (30C). Just going to have to keep an eye one what happens under that bedding over the coming days / weeks!


Mass moss mess

The one thing you discover when you start rigging CCTV all over the place is this: there is never enough

I wasn't at home today, so I was reliant on checking our two home-bound disabled bees via skype and an HD camera in their tub. The setup works brilliantly actually and the Microsoft HD camera is superb quality. But, there are always blind spots in the view which need filling with other cameras! 

The view this morning in the box was crazy - mayhem had occurred in the small hours with moss being tossed all over the box and flowers with honey-water cast aside with abandon. I was a bit concerned, actually, that all the food supply might have been destroyed. It was made a bit worse by the fact I was viewing the iPhone the wrong way round so not all of the picture was showing: which gave the impression that the camera itself had been moved, which was really quite incomprehensible!

"Big Bee" (not named yet) was going a bit beserk every time I looked - it wasn't really clear what was going on. Was it looking for a way out of the box after 36 hours of reasonable calm? Was it hungry? Was it resorting to some sort of "nest fixing" behaviour (I use "fixing" in the loosest possible sense). Don't really know. 

For a while we were concerned for the whereabouts and welfare of Holly - until eventually I saw her; and again periodically throughout the day. At about 6.30pm she was on one of the flowers for a good 10 - 15 minutes, hopefully having a good drink of whatever was left. I managed to grab a screen shot from the iPhone.

Holly having a drink from the daisy. Moss everywhere!

Overall she was pretty calm today from what I could tell - certainly not prodding and shoving "Big bee", at least while on camera. So, a slight change in behaviour. I wonder if "Big bee" had been exerting a bit more dominance? Certainly the way it was racing round the box and leaving chaos everywhere was a change in behaviour too. 

I really don't quite know what to make of today's behaviour - it was all a bit frantic and at times a little concering; and only a closer inspection once home will reveal more of what has been going on and whether out two bees are co-operating or not.

One of my thoughts is whether the moss has been moved to the centre of the box (this would mimic the structure of the Koppert Hive we have outdoors) - which would be a truly fascinating discovery if it has: our first real evidence that our bees are organising their environment as they see fit. 


Going crazy with expanding foam again!

Here's how I made a shelter for our forthcoming Koppert Bumble Beehive box.

For farmers Koppert recommend a simple sheet of polystyrene foam with a brick on top to hold it down - but to me this seems a bit cheap and cheerful and not necessarily well engineered against bad wind and rain. So, I wanted to do something a bit more creative and potentially robust. 

Having quite successfully made my fake "grass hummock" last week out of expanding foam I decided I could use a similar system to create a protective cover for the new beebox nest. I've been thinking about the design for quite a number of days and it seemed this would be simple and fairly cheap to do. I don't have any wood-working or metal-working equipment (or skills!), so this is a simple solution; even a child could do it. 

However, the structure needs to be more robust than the pure foam structure I created for the "hummock" - as it pretty much rests directly on top of the existing box. However, this structure cannot rest on the box; but more importantly, it must be very resistant to weather - especially the wind which can be very strong here. It would be a complete disaster if it was able to blow over. So, some requirements for this:

  1. enough strength to support being weighted down - e.g. with bricks
  2. ability to mount some brackets, which is necessary can be fixed to the garage wall
  3. overall enough structural strength to hold together even if flexed and blow about

My solution is actually to build a skeleton within the structure with some chicken wire; line this with plastic to ensure excellent waterprooofing; and then apply the foam to this structure to create the overall shelter. 

The steps are outlined below. 

step 1 - measuring out the chicken wireThe chicken-wire is easy to work with - I just measured it to twice the size I needed. 

step 2 - heavy duty plastic folded into the chicken wireThen folded the wire with some heavy duty plastic (you could cut up a bin bag) sandwiched between.

step 3 - creating a folded template over an existing boxThen I folded this over a box that I had checked, double-checked and triple-checked was big enough to cover for the size of the beebox PLUS the bricks it will sit on PLUS room to open/shut the bee entrance control PLUS an overhang to provide shade over the front of the box. It pays to do the arithmetic up front!

step 4 - applying expanding foam to the structureThis actually took two large cans of expanding foam. It's quite tricky to do the sides as it can drop off - so you have to be patient and work in small blobs. That's why the surface looks the way it does. 

Notice also the brackets that are wound into the chicken wire. These provide a future option to tether the shelter to the garage wall if needed. 

step 5 - painting in a light stone colourThen I painted the shelter with some cans of plastic spray paint. Really quick and easy to do. We chose quite a light stone colour which blends against the garage fairly well. 

step 6 - cover installed in location with a "test box" underneath on greased bricksThe greased bricks are to keep the beebox off the ground and prevent ants and insects from being able to crawl up into it. For this reason the beebox should touch any plants or other objects. We also have an ant-trap right next to it. 

I'm testing the shelter for a few days with an empty box inside. If it remains there safely through any blustery weather, I'll be happy. So far so good. For now the shelter is held down with two bricks on the purpose designed "feet". It's actually very stable like that.

view of the box cover with the video camera mounted about itI've also mounted a video camera over the box. At this stage I don't know if it will be possible to get a camera inside the koppert box, so we've put a camera over it. We'll put plants and pollen on top of the shelter that will attract the bees and we'll be able to see them going in and out of the entrance. The camera is all set up and tested and we can view it on the main TV in the house. 

Piece 2 Camera

Today was planned as a tech day.

The second infra-red equipped camera arrived in the post (far too early!) so the plan was to fit that to the main beebox (currently in the back garden) and put that box at the front again. Of course, the first job was to check whether anything had crept into it. 

checking the box for activity

Based on our learning from the first infra-red cam in the back-up box, I'd decided that I would add this new camera to the main box and leave the original one in there. I.e. two cameras in one box. This would provide better coverage across the floorplan of the box and also cater for situations where a camera gets disturbed or occluded (as happened with BB15). Also, it meant I could arrange them to provide better coverage of the entrance and avoid blindspots. We had BB15 sneak out on us without being able to see her on the camera and were lucky to spot her leaving the entrance through the window. 

Here's our new floor plan, which is the latest template for both boxes. 

Master beebox layoutThe main features are as follows:


  • Much reduced amount of bedding. And the hamster bedding (for smell) is now mainly under the brown fibre bedding. We're not convinced the Bees find it useful and there is a risk of it blocking the camera.
  • A new and extended "inner entrance tube" with a chamfered edge. The idea of the tube is to help trick the Bees into thinking they are going further underground, and I suspect there is a benefit from reducing the incoming light too. The chamered edge serves a couple of purposes. It limits the reduction in visibility from the main camera and is also intended to force the bees into view of the camera when they enter and leave.
  • Some high-visibility reflective markings on the walls that the cameras can see. This really helps line the cameras up and get a sense of what they can and can't see. But also once the box is in situ with the lid on and operating under infra-red, they provide a marker for the far wall which helps makes sense of what you're looking at and the depth of field, since the main cameras are looking along the length of the box. They reflect the infra-red so appear as a very bright white marker, so you know instantly if you can see the far wall or not. From what we've learnt already this is an extremely useful feature. 


Having set out this template for the main box, the next job was apply it to the second box; this would bring them both up to the same standard. 

nestbox 2 laid out according to the new templateIt's basically the same as box 1, although the inner entrance tube (which was done previously) is probably not as good. And of course, there's only the one camera. 

This was the box that BB15 spent two hours mooching around in the day before, so we were keen to see what she had been up to. Plenty it seems, as below:

Some swirled together bedding on the right hand sideOn the right hand side is the sense of a little nest/tunnel that BB15 made. And she'd done the same thing in several places in the box. We still don't understand the logic of her doing this but then deserting the box

Once the boxes were completed, the next job was to get them sited and get all the video monitoring set up. This meant now having two monitors at the front and one at the back. 

Monitoring Front (Main) Nestbox

For the last few days I'd been using an old TV as the main monitor for the front desk. Apart from being unweildy and energy thirsty, I took a massive chunk out of the wall when I nearly dropped it, so it was essentially unpractical. So, we replaced it with a new slim 16 inch LED screen. Compact, light, low on energy, able to play our music on a USB stick and all sorts of other goodies. The picture quality is good and the iPhone is able to photograph it ok!

new monitoring setupThe second camera will be monitored with our small LCD TV that we had been using to date. The camera it is attached to (the very original one I used) is benefitting from the addition of infra-red. 

Monitoring Rear (Secondary) Nestbox

As a temporary solution I have put the old TV in the garage to monitor the rear nestbox, but the intention is to remove the need for this and bring the video signal into the house; possibly to the main TV. 

temporary TV in garageWiring

I made a small improvement to wiring today. Most of the wiring is sealed already and in long single segments so not a problem being outdoors; and also routed underground using some trunking. However, the cameras are connected to power and video/audio at the nestboxes using standard phono and powerjack connectors. (This makes it possible to disconnect the box from installed wiring in order to move it.) To date I haven't sealed these connections, so today I took the opportunity to do so. I'd orginally planned to use something like a "chocbox" (as seen on Dragon's Den). They are fairly cheap in the grand scheme of things but expensive for what they are, really. So, I bought some very small and cheap plastic containers (probaby the kind of thing you'd stick in a child's pack lunch box) and made my own by routing the wires through the clip on lid. Some insulating tape helps seal it and hold the lid on extra tight. This solution is about 1/3rd the cost of a chocbox. 

home made "chocbox" for 1/3rd the costBees, Bees, where are you Bees? 

We went out at about 4pm to try and find a Bee for our newly installed setup; it was still about 15 degrees C, but the weather was looking more threatening and ominous. It had been a bit of weird day - warm (about 16 degrees) but we'd seen no bees at all at the front or back of the house; even around the newly mowed lawn. As ever I was feeling like we have run out of time to get a Queen and that it's only a few stragglers that we are seeing. But BCW is more confident and she is, after all, BCW, so I trust her :-) 

We wandered to the usual place and saw nothing. I even went into the nearby field and tracked along the ditch line, which is popular (especially with Redtails), but no joy. BCW was just explaining how at the corner of this field she regularly sees bees coming across the field and then hunting for somewhere to bed down in the corner when she spotted one! But it dived under the bramble bush and never came out. And that was that. 

Somewhere along the way she pointed out where she last saw three bees altogether, and I said "the Beegees?" - and we fell about laughing. We are easily amused! 



Buffs and Tufts and Other Stuff

I installed the new (infrared equipped) camera in box 2 late last evening, so this morning we decided to swap boxes and put that box 2 at the front - since they are now both configured the same. (Well, except we need to add an internal tube to box 1, which is now at the back.)

It turned out to be one of our most exciting days so far, but more on that in a moment. 

So, we now have a new improved configuration for our boxes, which has even less bedding material and a small internal tube (just made from about a 3rd length of toilet roll centre tube). Here it is:

new box layout version 3This is just after I installed the new camera - in a much lower position which gives a fuller view along the length of box floor. 

With both boxes set up the same we were able to install the above box as the new "main box" which is out the front. Then we set about setting up the box in the back again. We decided that it might be good to try it on the lawn instead of against the garage, because over the last few days we've seen a few bufftails mooching around the longer bits of grass. So, it was a case of "if the bee won't come to the beebox, the beebox will go to the bee!" We wanted to surround it with tall grasses that would encourage investigation and improve visibility from a distance. Since some of the species of Bumblebees are fussy about being underground we also thought the more we can make it look like a grassy hummock, the better. That also seems to be the trick the BBC employed in their brilliant video. Here's what we came up with.

nestbox on the back lawnAnd this is the view from above - designed to present some grassy tufts that look like they have some nooks and crannies to explore. (The foot is optional!)

overhead view of rear garden beeboxIt was fairly cool outside and we hadn't seen any bees on the lawn or out front, but shortly after midday BCW (bee catching wizard) surprised me by saying she would go look for a bee. She didn't disappoint and by 1pm had returned with a gleaming, vibrant bufftail. Here she is, a wonderful specimen:

BB15 - Bufftail - very bright colours!At 13:15 she went into the box at the front and the excitement began. For starters we were thrilled that we could see really well on the new camera, and she was doing lots of moving around and exploring. We kept thinking she was going to leave, but no, she dived under another bit of bedding and rustled around and generally moved all the furniture about! It was amazing to see her exploring from side to side and end to end in the box. I managed to video some of it off the TV screen.

This behaviour continued on and off for a whole two hours. Towards the end of this time it looked like she was doing laps of the box, quite quickly, and coming up to the camera. All along I had been concerned that she'd feel warmth from the infrared on the camera and that it would be off-putting, but since she stayed two hours, I was thinking on balance this must not have been a problem. Reviewing the video again, though, I began to wonder: was the behaviour at the end of the video - coming up to the camera and going away to the end of the box - something to do with the possible heat coming from it? Especially since I have now mounted the camera lower in the box. It's a quandary. 

There is no real way to know at this stage. Her choice to stay two hours seems significantly impressive; but it was cool when she left at 15:30 (about 14 degrees) - would we have expected this? And her activity was much more impressive than anything we have seen to date with other bees: much more exploring and digging around. 

But the question it still leaves is, what behaviour should we expect from a Queen that really thinks she's found a great place for a nest? Would she leave it so soon? (And not come back, as is the case tonight; and risk another bee finding it). Would we expect her to explore and start moving bedding around, or would we expect her to stay still and just wait and confirm that the nest is not in use by any other animals (bees, mice etc.). Is our human smell offputting? (If she can smell it; is that what she's sniffing out?)

Her behaviour when leaving was the most interesting to date also. We have seen a few bumbles take off slowly and spiral away, which we thought might be some kind of landmarking; however, BB15 crept slowly from the box onto the grass in front, then took of very slowly and hovered and circled in small circles round the box area. This was much more like any kind of "landmarking" than we have seen before. But she still didn't do any big circles, which we have read about. So what's behind her behaviour?

In a way, every day generates more and more questions as we try to deal with the disappointment of another bumbling bumblebum that doesn't seem to want to stay! We're running out of time to be finding bees still out nesting, so the pressure's on to really try and perfect the nest, if indeed there is something we can still do it. Hopefully there's now a really chance that a bee will find the newly camouflaged back nestbox of its own accord. 

Anyway - in the meantime, here's a picture of her wonderful lift off - which was incredibly graceful and controlled. 

we have lift off! (BB15)