Fat Bottomed Girls - and our 1st goodbye

We've had a few bumblebees in care now, 3 in fact, all very small and missing various bits such as wings and legs. They've been getting along great together in their box and feeding well. Here they are all sleeping/resting together - very cute ☺

3 tiny bumbles resting overnightOnce BCW was back from her travels she decided to name them after the 3 Amigos (3 Abeegos, as I call them): Lucky, Dusty and Nedine (girl's version of Ned). 

Sadly, girl/worker bumblebees generally have a very short life, perhaps 1 - 3 weeks, and the small ones especially so. Lucky, the first one I rescued, took a turn for the worse mid morning - very still and listless. We offered her some honey water but she wasn't interested and it didn't help to revive her. 

Little Lucky - not feeling so wellIt looks like this evening we've lost her; sad indeed, but we are becoming used to it - all part of the short cycle of life for bumblebees and for her only perhaps 6 - 10 days old.

I've not had chance to scan the CCTV so far this week (which is not good) - but it's been so wet and windy that there's not been a lot of activity. One of the most intriguing things we'e seen is what seems to be a queen fanning. I'm surprised she is taking on a worker role. I keep doubting if it's a queen, but here's a series of pictures and I'm sure that all the large bees are queens. Indeed, some of them are easily over 25mm in length.

a very sizeable bee - queen - fanning Another shot of the same queenOther large bees - NOT queen size - fanning

 And another shot of some queens just to get the scale

3 queens resting at the entrance - huge abdomenSo, I'm pretty confident in that first image, it's a queen. 

Sad News

Very sad news this morning upon checking our nestbox - QB2012-02, our bufftailed queen, appears to have died overnight :-(

We are both gutted, because obviously our intervention is at least in part or wholly responsible, and it represents the antithesis of everything we want to do for the bees.

We will apply our usual 48 hour quarantine and provide food and warmth to be sure, as we have seen miraculous recoveries in the past - but I am not hopeful.

It is important that we learn and share the lessons as part of our research. On the face of it there was no reason for this to happen. Although this queen was captive under a (large) cloche we know they can survive in captivity given the fact that not only can they exist in greenhouses, but from the direct experience we had of the many we tended last year indoors. She had all the food (both plants and additional supplies such as sugar water and pollen) and water that she would have needed. There was warmth, shelter and safety. So, it's something of a mystery.

However, her behaviour was muted and, on top of the evidence we collected last year, I am yet further convinced that a "mood change" might be the culprit - i.e. an awareness of being captive and a corresponding lack of interest in foraging and feeding, and an increase in stress levels. Sadly we do not have the facilities to conduct measurements such as hormone levels - the best we can do is closely observe behaviour.

Capturing queens is not our prime objective this year as we will source a reared colony regardless. But, we are keen to continue researching the factors that help to encourage queens to nest and survive and thrive in gardens. We are comparing several strategies this year, and use of the cloche system is a new one.

Our mistake was to hope the Queen would still find the entrance to the nestbox, even though she had not done so for several days. The fact she didn't find it is not down to its prominence or ease of access, but simply that she stopped looking. This is a clear change in behaviour as a result of being captive.

If we continue to study this technique, the minimum change we will have to make is to release the queens after 24 hours regardless. But we are reviewing the whole technique.

I cannot express my sorrow at this truly unintended but terrible outcome, as we are painfully aware the planet will almost certainly be one more bumblebee colony short this year. I hope Mother Nature will be forgiving.

A faded Poppy

She lived for about 7 days, but on November 30th 2011 our last surviving Bumblebee died peacefully. The day before we had decided to name her Poppy to coincide with the month of remembrance. 

We had really hoped she would live a little longer having rescued her and brought her indoors - but she had a tough start to life in a very cold nest with little or no food. We rescued her directly from the nest when we saw her on her lying on her back on the nest CCTV. 

Of course, there is always the question of whether our actions were a cause, but we'll never know - but we were able to provide warmth, food and (we believe) a sterile environment for her. Indeed, there is no question that with temperatures dropping to a few degrees outside, there was no chance of her surviving outdoors. We had hoped she might live longer, knowing that Holly, our first rescued bumble, lived for 70 days).

It's a particularly sad moment because she is the last of all of our broods and thus symbolic of the end of the 2011 bumblebee season; which has gone on for an extraordinarily long period of time. (September is typically quoted as the end of the season; Poppy almost made it to December). 

She, like all our other "in care" bumbles, had her own distinctive personality, though we never got chance to really see it develop as we hoped (and also thus validate our earlier observations). We've seen all our rescued bees go through phases of exploration, adoption, protection and role evolution. Poppy was pretty laid back - after a day or two of warnings and uncertainty when we tended to her, she became much more relaxed and started spending her time overnight looking after her living space and resting more during the day.

She was never especially active, though she could fairly move when she wanted to and she thrilled us with her occasional buzzing (fanning); she also loved to snuggle up near to the warm wheat bag we placed against the outside of her tub,  In retrospect it seems she suffered a slow decline over several days, thankfully not (at least from our observations) a distressing one - resting more and gradually slowing down to a stop. 

In her final moments she tried to seek shelter under the small piece of card we placed in her box, her instincts for protection of herself and the nest as a whole still intact. She never quite had the strength to force herself underneath it. She curled up with her tiny fluffy white tail looking bright and cheerful. A fitting end. 

Outr thougths now turn to cleaning out the nest and lodge - after a week of no activity inside it we can be fairly sure nothing else is going to happen. We already know from a sneak peek that there is a wonderful construction of wax pots and bedding, which I hope to photograph in detail in due course, before a full clean out. After that there is the task of writing up what we have learned and analysing statistics and behaviour before considering next year's project as the new year beckons. 

I think we're probably hooked.

Bye Bye Bea


I haven't said much lately about little Beatrice, our tiny tiny bee being cared for indoors. We discovered her 17 days ago when she left the nest but was unable to fly.

We brought her indoors to keep warm and feed and for many days on end took her outside to encourage her to fly , but she was having none of it!

Her wings were a little bit bent: not fully developed; and consequently she just couldn't achieve lift off even though she could flap them perfectly well.

She was doing really well indoors and going through several noticeable stages if behaviour regarding her environment and security.

A full write up on this behaviour is probably due at the end of the project, suffice to say that we were encouraging her to feed naturally from lavender (which she did without any trouble) and gradually teach her that she was not in danger from our intrusions into her nest.

Tiny little Beatrice next to the lavender and a small nutshell containing honey water

Initially she would 'fizz' and throw herself on her back, sting pointing threateningly at us as she did so, whenever we removed her tub lid and changed her food.

Last week that behaviour subsided and a casual warning leg became more routine. By yesterday even this behaviour was waning and she was starting to ignore our intrusions, realising that lid off and syringe looming means tasty new honey water.

Holly got to this point, and indeed beyond. She would come to the syringe and drink as we refilled her food; a process which took about 3 weeks to develop.

Many experiments have shown that bees can be trained in this pavlovian way: but we have shown they can be trained to lower their guard.

I was looking forward with great anticipation to the ongoing development of Bea and her potential to substantially outlive the colony she emerged from (Holly lived to about 70 days old - very old).

But sadly we found Bea dead today on her back. We have no explanation yet what might have caused such a sudden deterioration. In all other cases we have observed at least 24 hours of lingering debilitation and struggle. Bea was at her brightest yesterday and yet today she was gone.

Of course, we'll observe our usual 'quarantine' rules and not act on anything until 24 to 48 hours have passed, as we've had near-miracle recoveries in the past. We're not hopeful though.

We can't be sure whether the honey water we supplied her could be at fault but our observations suggest his hasn't affected the bees in the nest that drank it. The bottom line is, we have no alternative but to use it for indoor bees that can't fly and forage for themselves.

We should also remember that Bea is practically of microscopic size - she is most certainly under-developed to a significant degree. Whilst this is clearly visible externally in terms of her size and wing trouble, who knows how well her internal organs had developed. She seemed spritely enough, but this cannot tell the whole story.

So it's with greatest sadness we say farewell to Bea. We had a soft spot for Holly, but Bea was especially adorable and feisty. She lost two almost-identically diminutive sisters on their first exploration from the nest and it's such a shame we were unable to help them and have a small colony indoors - bumbles are, after all, social creatures.

Either way, we have to take comfort in the knowledge that we gave her a decent and safe quality of life for her final days.

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.