Although deceptively bright, it was very chilly outside today (about 8C max) and raining on and off - so we didn't expect much bumble activity. So, I planned to complete some infrastructure changes instead.
This consisted of abandoning our "cloche" nest site following the death of QB2012-02 for a new strategy (we'll use it for growing tomatoes, peppers and strawberries - the bees will love that ☺). The new strategy is to relocate the nest box along our garage wall and create a tube system to provide entrance holes amongst tufts in the lawn. Indeed, we saw 3 brave bumbles around the house and garden today looking for rest / nest sites. 
One big bufftailed Queen surprised us by doing a grand tour of the exterior of the house - check along all the walls, even windows on the top storey. It's encouraging that they will extend their search to man made locations, but what we need to do is figure out what is actually appealing to them. More is known about the natural environments they choose and how to mimic those environmens with a nest box (see the rest of this post). But less is known about how to do the same for manmade features.

Building a tube system

In order to maximise chances of a queen discovering and entering our nestboxes, I wanted to increase the number of entrance points available in the garden. This would also allow us to try different disguise/visbility strategies on the entrace to see which ones the bees favour. 
I built a tube "connector" which allows 3 incoming tubes to meet in a box, and then exit in one direction towards the nest box. When the bumblebee is in the dark tube, it is is tricked into thinking it is heading underground into our lovely warm, dry nest chamber. Total length of the tubes from one entrance to the exit into the box is about 80cm - a distance that Bombus Terrestris should be comfortable navigating to get "underground" (indeed, they should be delighted with it). 
entrance tube connecting systemThe construction is self-explanatory.
Next I filled the remainder of the box with packing material. This is just a precautionary measure to ensure there is no big cavity in the box: we don't want bumble stopping and setting up nest in this box! (There is no easy access into it anyway - it's an additional precaution). 
filled with packing to ensure there is no cavity
Then I taped and sealed the system to make it waterproof and installed it outside. 
revised nestbox site setup with "triple entrance" systemAbove you can see both our nestboxes with their entrance set ups. The box on the left is completely buried under the expanding foam shelter and the entrance tube extends out to the lawn, just bottom left of the heather by the leftmost high-viz cane. 
The box on the right is as yet unprotected (next job!) and the tube extends to the splitter box just behind the potted grasses on the right. The 3 tubes extend as follows:
  1. left of the 2nd heather in from the right
  2. between the 2 grass pots on the right
  3. to the right of the rightmost heather pot
Here's a close "bee's eye" view:
bee's eye view of entrance holes
Note that we are trialling different marking arrangements - does a high visibility marking improve or decrease atttractiveness? 
entrance on our second nestboxFor completeness, above is the entrance hole to our left-hand nest box. Surely a queen would spot this and want to explore it! 

Queen Capture

We are developing revised tactics for the capture of queens so that they are less stressed and more inclined to explore and stay in the nest boxes. To that end, instead of using jars to capture them, we have built these tubes (kindly suggested by George Pilkington) that can be placed over the queen while she is exploring a hole in the ground/undergrowth. It is totally dark, which will keep her calm, and while she is in it, she is more likely to think she is still underground. Then we can carefully bring her back to the nestbox and introduce her with much less trauma. 
The red window allows us an additional check to see she has climbed into the tube - bumblebees do not see deep red light.
bumblebee queen capture tubes 
We are looking forward to trying this once the weather picks up!

Hi Viz Gaffer tape & other brainwaves

Last night we had 3 bees with us - two under the cloche and one in the entrance of the buried nest box. The one in the buried box was not captive, so was free to go at any time. Looks like she probably did - as expected; certainly there was no activity on the camera inside the box itself and BCW did not report seeing anything. 

The day started very foggily and during the morning was only about 6C, so was a bit cold for any bumblebee activity (at 5C or below they tend to go into a 'frozen state' where they can't operate. And bear in mind they need to vibrate themselves to 30C to be able to fly!

So, the cloche had a lot of condensation on it, which made it difficult for BCW to see what was going on underneath, if anything. Later in the day it cleared a little and she saw the bufftailed queen on the side of the brick near the box (it is covering an ant trap). No sign of our little Early Bee though. Couldn't blame her if she wanted to just bed down and hide all day!

As I wasn't home today, I can also confirm that camera access via the iPAD is working very well. It's fabulous on the larger screen compared to the iPhone. I am using EagleEyeHD (which is designed for my DVR). I am on the THREE network and can get 3G signal at work - which delivers an excellent picture. Oddly the app doesn't seem to provide sound, even though the iPhone app supports sound no problem - which seems a bit odd. But the picture is good. Certainly good enough to know that there has been no obvious activity in any of the boxes yet!

Creating a colour splash - attracting attention

I also had the idea today of sticking some of my hi-vis gaffer tape on the end of canes in the garden today to attract the attention of passing bumbles. Some sources cite a bright yellow colour around the nest as a way to attract attention (and help memory) and it's something we actually did instintively last year around our Beepol nest. And on sunday we saw a big fat throaty queen fly round the garden and dinstictly check out a small tab of the bright yellow tape I had stuck on my CCTV cable (which was strung across some fence posts). Even if it only encourages a passing queen to dip down into our garden and have a quick mooch, it's worth a go, and increases the chance of her discovering the nest boxes. 

Location Tracking

I also had another bit of a brainwave yesterday to help with tracking and recording the location of where we find our queens. We know the general area from last year, but not the identical spot and density of population. This would be good to capture.

I realised that simple by taking a picture of the location, my iPhone would capture the GPS location and we could plot it later. In fact, most exciting is the new Adobe Lightroom 4 mapping feature (I've still yet to upgrade) which will allow me to produce maps of all the locations. Can't wait to try that out.  It's great to be putting all our tech to good use. 


Chasing Queens

We woke up today with the sun shining brightly and the sound a loud buzzing around our window! It was a beautiful day and clearly the bumblebees were out and busy. Not so many on our heather today - though we did see a Queen Tree Bee warming up and having a drink. (See below)

tree bee warming and foraging on heatherSo, we got to work quickly to complete the set up for our main nesting box. Following our experiences last year we decided that the best strategy for keeping queens captive for a short while to encourage nesting, is not to trap them in the box itself but to provide a small "greenhouse" area with all the required plants. Thus the queen is not trapped directly in the box and has some ability to roam and forage. We are using a cheap (£11) "greenhouse cloche" from Wilkinson - it's perfect for the job. 

We mounted the box first and made sure that all the edges of the plastic cloche were well buried in the stones to prevent any escapees. 

"greehhouse" system for keeping queens captiveWe chose the back top left corner of the garden which faces south east. This is a compromise location to ensure the box doesn't get too much direct sunlight during the height of summer (since the box is not buried). 

The we added a good supply of flowers (in this case Heather). 

We also provided honey water in the box (which we can refill from the outside if necessary) and also some pea-sized pollen balls in the box to encourage nesting. If the queen shows interest, we'll replace these every day.

"greenhouse" system for keeping queens captiveWe went out about 3pm to our usual location by the nearby field and were astonished to see how many bumblebees were around. Many were zooming past our heads and we traced them down to the nearby Pussy Willow trees. 10's of bees were buzzing about the upper branches, foraging on the emerging blossom - it was an amazing sight - never seen so many queens all together. 

I wandered along the ditch at first and quickly found a queen trying to burrow down - probably to rest for the night (about 3.30pm). She was easy to catch and very placid. It was easy to get her into the cloche safely too. Here she is:

we think this is an Early Bee QueenAt first we thought she was a bufftailed queen, but I began to think she is actually and Early Bee, due to her quite strongly red tail and also her much more diminutive size. (Oh, you should see the males in the summer, they are tiny and ever so cute).  

Pussy Willow with 10s of Queen Bumblebees busy all over itAbove is the tree where so many bees were busy. You can't really see them in the picture, but it was like Heathrow airport! As the afternoon faded many of these bumbles dropped down to floor level and were searching along the fence line (where the cut grass met the natural grass and twigs) looking for somewhere to bed down. It was easy for me to capture two along this line and bring them back. 

We decided to let one of these two (both Bufftails) into the cloche. Even though it now contains two queens and they could end up fighting to the death, we feel that we can release one of them if we see that looks like it might happen. At this stage we don't know the likelihood of either of them nesting, so we could end up releasing both if they show no interest. 

Below is the bufftail we added. She was significantly larger than the Early Bee (as expected). 

bufftailed queenShe spent quite a while trying to fly to the light, but eventually gave up and decided to bed down under some of the stones; which was intriguing to see how she managed. The early bee did the same - after about a minute in the cloche she decided to bury down into a gap in the stones, sheltered by a dried leaf. If only they knew the luxurious cabin they have available at the other end of the cloche ☺

The third queen we added to our second nest box - this box hasn't got the same food supplies, so we will have to open up the entrance tomorrow, and if she leaves, so be it. 

Now we have to monitor them carefully for the next few days - we have cameras set up in all the boxes which will help us keep a close eye on things. 



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. 


Beeing Social

The weekend turned out to be a bit more beeventuful than planned. Although being warm some of the time, it's also been windy and then showery for much of the weekend. Consequently the bees were a bit less active and also getting caught out in the wind. I managed to photograph some clinging on for dear life onto the lavender and also one which landed in the grass to warm up. 

Bufftail hunkering down in the grass to get warm

We then also found another bufftail walking in the grass, which seemed to be having a little difficulty flying; so we used our previously-honed bee catching talents to scoop her up and put her over on the nest box. Eventually after wandering around the gravel she found her way in. 

Not long after that I discovered another bufftail wandering in the grass. On closer inspection, I realised it was damaged, missing a wing and a leg. And on even closer inspection I realised it had the identical problem to Holly, our first disabled bee, with a back twisted in the same direction too (although not quite as badly). There was no question in my mind that we had to care for her too and I thought we might be able to get them to cohabit successfully in the same box. 

We added her to Holly's box and kept watch over several hours. The behaviour went through several phases. At first Holly was very protective and giving lots of aggressive warning signals: lifting her leg, showing her sting etc. Our new bee (no name yet) was less bothered really and spent time chasing round the box and learning her new surroundings. 

 Holly aggressively guarding her daisy & food supplyFinally our second bee gets a look in at the food!Holly's behaviour was quite fascinating. It seemed to go from being quite aggressive initially to being more protective. She would follow the new bee around and shove it about and prod it. At no point did they actually fight, and in fact the new bee was suprisingly patient with its smaller counterpart. We never saw any warning signals from the new bee during the first few hours (though we did see a warning leg once the next day). 

Holly had suddenly found a whole new burst of energy and activity and it's almost as if she now had a role. This seemed to develop into a "supervisory" role - whenever the new bee was resting or minding its own business, it's almost as if Holly came along to prod it into action. Holly would come by and shove the new bee around until it moved. Sometimes she would follow it and keep it moving - it was as if Holly was keeping it busy. 

This behaviour mirrors something we have seen on the bee cam. There are some bees in the nest that seem to patrol the perimeter and if they find any bees resting they shove them about and try to get them moving. (Sometimes the resting bees shrug it off and eventually they part ways). It's as if they have a role to keep everything active. 

The other thing we noticed was how both bees seemed to be crawling all over the moss and wrecking it and moving it around, a bit haphazardly. But actually the more we've observed this, the more of a pattern seems to emerge. Holly does seem to have a habit of retracing the steps of the other bee which perhaps means she is fixing some of the "damage" it is causing. As a bigger bee it can't help but move the moss and flowers around without trying. It does mooch about in some of the moss as if fixing or chaging things, but this behaviour has subsided to a large degree an dit's now spending a fair amount of time resting under the moss or near the hotspot. (And it is almost impossible to spot when it burrows into the moss).  

On the other hand, Holly still seems to be keen on doing 'nest fixing'; she is far more active than the other bee from what we can tell and spends a lot more time moving the bee and the contents of the box around. In fact even as I type, she is in dark, patrolling the open area of the tub and shunting a chunk of dried pollen around. She barely stops! Interestingly, I read an article that suggests the smaller bumble bees are prone to adopt this role:

Although bumble bees also have a division of labor with some worker bees specializing on foraging or nest work, a bumble bee's age is not nearly as good a predictor of what her job is in the colony.  Rather, there is size variation among workers and larger workers tend to spend more time foraging and smaller workers work more in the nest.

When we came down after the first night, they had trashed the box between them! There was flowers and moss everywhere. It's just like we see in the hive outside - each bee seems to have its own idea of how the nest should be arranged and they spend some (or a lot) of their time moving material around and fixing it. If I was forced to commit, I'd say this is the role Holly has adopted, along with a sort of 'supervisor patrol' sideline. Either way, she is now extremely busy compared to what seemed like increasing lethargy prior to addition of the new bee (which had started to trouble us a bit). 

We are also finding that they are co-habiting more co-operatively now after 24 hours. In fact I even saw them lying practically on top of each other right in the best "hot spot" by the laptop. That's pretty impressive compared to the first introduction when it was a "this town ain't big enough for the two of us" warning from Holly. They will quite happily seem to lie in proximity of the hot spot without troubling each other. 

our second disabled bufftail mooching in the mossAlthough there are only two bees in the "High Dependency" tub, we are now hoping that the existence of each other will help them to achieve some of their social instincts.