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).

Shandy open, babies born

Events took an usual and exciting turn yesterday after I had posted my entry wondering about the mysteries of what was going  on inside our nest and whether we were seeing evidence for a second brood. 

Well, the shandy was duly cracked open as we were astonished to get confirmation that a second colony of bees was hatching. 

We caught a short glimpse of this little beauty on the CCTV (not been seen since). The picture shows her compared to the largest bee we have in the nest. 

a newly hatched bee compared with the largest in the nestAs you can see, she is tiny. We hope she is well formed and hasn't hatched too soon or been too cold. It's not quite possible to tell from the CCTV if her wings are properly intact. That's one of the things that define her potential for success.

We think there are four in total now, though they keep confusing me from time to time by staying out overnight! The bees we can identify are:

  • The big fuzzy one seen above. Can't be 100% sure if she is a queen or not, but she is collecting pollen regularly.
  • Two "thin & stripy" bees, with very unusual (but similar) markings. One of these has been around a few weeks and had "nest fixer" role, rarely collected pollen. But a second one now exists, and does seem to spend more time collecting pollen, but also has a nest-checking role. Because they are collecting pollen they cannot be Cuckoos; so what is the explanation for their strange markings? I like the idea that they are offspring from the Buftailed Queen and Redtailed male we saw mating. Need to check out if that is viable, but the timing would fit.
  • Little "Baby bee" as seen above. We've only seen the one glimpse of her inside the nest, so have no idea at this stage what she's up to or even whether she's still alive. 

Having seen the pattern of the original colony fade, about 5 Queens emerge, see one of them mating, see pollen still being collected and seeing these new bees emerge, it's conclusive evidence that we'd had a second - albeit small - brood. 

What a wonderful journey our bees have been on! I feel like another shandy... 

Yes, gravity still works...

It's tricky when things turn out not quite as expected and there's a whole variety of things to report, so to be brief here's a round up of today's events and findings:


  • We have some quick responses from the Bumble Bee Conservation Trust on the ID of some bee pics we submitted. The most exciting of these was a possible Red Shanked Carder - which is like a Redtail but apparently has red hairs around the pollen baskets. Ours did, although it was a male, so strictly did not have pollen baskets. The verdict is indeed it was a Redtail - we are told by the BBCT they often have red hairs. This seems to contradict their own ID information which says they are black. So, glad to have clarification but yet another source of frustration in trying to ID the bees.
  • Our ID of some Tree bees was confirmed as well as Early Bees, so it's great to have a positive on that and some photos to match. Also my ID on the Garden Bee (where I got the really close up face photos) was confirmed too. I thought maybe some kind of cuckoo bee, but the expert says not. 
  • Finally, nothing conclusive on the "camouflaged" bee I found in the ditch alongside the Garden bee mentioned above other than some kind of cuckoo. It is probably either a Gypsy Cuckoo, Field Cuckoo, or Barbut's Cuckoo. I actually favour the latter due to the extra light brown band on the lower thorax and given it was 2 feet away from the garden bumble bee (which it typically attacks) there's a certain serendipty to it. 
  • We confirmed we have a hedgehog visiting the garden with a 5 second CCTV clip from 4am in the morning of him crossing the garden. We suspect he is going for the tray of bird seed which goes down rapidly! And it explains the opening under the fence that has been mysteriously created. We don't mind him coming as long as he stays away from the bins!
  • We also discovered a cat on the CCTV getting on top our bee hive, between it and the shelter roof! It shook the box a bit and knocked the thermometer off, but all the cameras and bees seemed to remain intact, which is a minor miracle. Can't say I'm too happy about this particular event; cats are generally a nuisance to the rest of the wildlife and the lawnmower!
  • More to report on the behaviour of bees in their last moments. We tracked down the 3rd bee that has appeared on "hive corner" where two dead bees rest and discovered it went their of its own accord and over the course of 2 hours was finally laid to rest. Extremely intriguing behaviour to see it choose its final moments in the corner where the other (that we know of) departed bees also lie.


There is also good news to report on how our new disabled bees are doing with their indoor care. The smallest and weakest which appeared to die made a slow recovery and appears to continue that recovery with each passing day. She is too small and frail to join our other special care bees, but it's amazing to see her near miraculous discovery. Today for the first time she explored some cut lavender placed in her box and appeared to try taking nectar from it. This is the first time since being in our care that she has made such a large effort to get food of her own accord; and of course it will be the best type for her. We watch with interest. 

And finally, littleBigBee was added to Holly's nest earlier in the week and from the word go they got on charmingly. There appear to be no adverse affects or domestic incidents so far! LBB is very funny - he warms up in the nestbox, feeds a little, then scoots out and zooms around the the outside area; he particularly loves to climb over the roof of the nestbox and check that gravity still works. Which it invariably does.

LittleBigBee and Holly meeting for the first time

Once he is satisfied that the outside world is more-or-less still outside and still as he left it, he heads straight back into the nestbox with great purpose and shoots round the outside edge back to the "warm end" (lit with infra red). He repeated this route as a matter of course, but lately has started shortcutting his exit from the box and has now entirely created his own one way system in and out of the nest box ; all highly enteraining, if strictly unnecessary. It is unlikely to be down to health and safety given the way he behaves on the roof, which would put any of Matt Allwright's Rogue Traders to shame. 

Our delight is that he is habiting both worlds - going to rest and sleep and groom inside the nestbox and coming out of it at other times to - well, whatever it is he does, which is run round the whole area, climb everything there is to be climb, drink everything there is to be drunk. He is very much a boy. This is unlike BLB who after a few days came out of the nestbox and never really bothered to go back in it. It seems, however, that LBB has figured out the relationship between the environments we have created and his natural instincts in the wild. Obviously we are thrilled with this. 


Down but not out...

It's been a busy few days with more bees coming into care. There on the grass was a stranded bumble - still - silent. 

It looked liked it was a bufftail or vestal cuckoo and on closer inspection it had both wings - but the right one was damaged - sort of "folded". 

found on the lawn - damaged wing.Of course, it couldn't fly. Actually, I say of course, but this is not necessarily a given. There are reports that bumbles can fly with as much as 50% of the wings missing. But that's "edge damage" as opposed to "structural damage" which what we have here. Little bee can't, for example, join the front and rear wings together with her special "hooks", owing the bend. And that's another thing, we're not 100% sure she's a girl or a boy.

The ice cream tub was summoned and duly mossed and honey-watered. And for a while it was looking good, even though when she tried to take off she managed only a slightly sustained hop. Not being entirely sure of her constitution and origin we decided on an overnight quaratine before contemplating addition to the main indoor nest, occupied by Holly. 

We were glad about this decision. The next day came and little bee was less well. Slow, lethargic and by mid morning unmoving, keeled over, with all the memories of the untimely death of BLB. We took her indoors to wait the long 24 hours that we felt we needed to be sure. 

Thank goodness we did - the next day some signs of life. A little twitching; antennae probing; sufficient energy to drag herself away from the heat of the laptop, though not to consume any drink. In the end BCW accidentally spilled some honey water on the kitchen towel and finally little bee quenched her thirst. With new energy, she heaved herself onto the moss and bedded down for the night, while we moved the tub over Holly's infrared lamp. This maintained a temperature somewhere safe around 24 degrees. 

After another night, she still had life signs, though barely impercetible. Perhaps if she was humanoid she'd be four score and twenty; creaking at the joints; wheezing and failing. Still, she dragged herself around the tub a little. She's a brave fighter. And we, the helpless spectators. 

The morning was further punctuated by the finding of another invalid by BCW. Racing across the grass, with only one wing to show for it. BCW came to the rescue and before you could buzz, this biggerLittleBumble was in a care ward of its own too. Same protocol: isolation and quarantine to begin with, for the safey of all concerned. Now, biggerLittleBumble is more energetic, but again is doomed never to fly. All that energy has to be worked off somehow - racing round the box is one way; perhaps he's a boy. Boys do that kind of thing. Well, BLB did for sure, and he was a boy.

So, in total we have taken 4 bees into care. BLB passed away soon after and it seems that littleBee might do so soon. But we still have Holly (who is doing amazingly well, almost miraculously so) and biggerLittleBumble. The big question is, can they live together harmoniously? 

Fight for survival

We thought it was about time to pay a visit to the field over the road where we had spent so long trying to catch queens and where our own brood of bees is now feasting on broad-bean pollen. We thought there might have been a couple of nests there too which we wanted to check out for activity. We couldn't see anything at the supposed nest locations - we might have been unlucky with our timing - or maybe the colonies didn't survive.

Nor could we see much activity in the broad bean field - we were hoping to see some of our own bees. So, it was all seeming a bit fruitless... 

That was until we starting walking along the ditch where I had been catching queen bees earlier in the season. I coudn't believe how many queen bees we were seeing, working their way along the moss and poking their noses into it. The only explanation for this was that they were Cuckoo bees looking for nests to infiltrate, as all regular queens will have nested by now.

Sure enough, we checked a few of them out and they were cuckoo bees (Bufftail and Redtail). We saw a few workers too (bufftail & carder) mooching about near the moss and hoped to be led to a nest somewhere, but it was not to be; most of them shot off without us being able to follow them.

The other striking thing was how massive the queens looked! The cuckoo bees seems to be a bit longer than average anyway, but of course we are now used to looking at our small workers and tiny wee Holly, so that has distorted our perception. Can't believe only a few weeks ago we were trying to catch these huge beasts!

As we wandered along the embankment we suddenly spotted this:


We did a bit of research afterwards and concluded it was two bees fighting each other (not mating). At least of them (the one resting at the end of the video) is a cuckoo bee (vestal cuckoo) - an imitation of a Bufftail bumble bee. We are not 100% sure about the smaller one - whether it is a queen or a worker; but they are definitely fighting. We can't know whether the cuckoo was prevented from entering a nest or forcibly ejected. 

From what we can tell it's fairly uncommon for them to fight outside of the nest (or at least be seen doing so ). Fights are reported to happen over the nest site itself between regular queens, who will in fact fight to the death; presumably this happens in the nest site itself when one tries to take over.

It's not unreasonable to think something similar would happen with cuckoo bees. Although they themselves are reported to cohabit with a host queen (as well as in some cases attempt to kill the host), they are also potentially subject to attack and fight to the death.

That's what we're seeing here...