Phase 2 box preparation

Having put the first coat of wood stain on our new "Pilkington" nest box last night, I was left with the second phase of preparation, namely a further coat of wood stain! Not just that, but also the internal preparation of the box and the assembly of the components. 
First I decided to fit an internal liner in the box. The reason for doing this is because bumblebee nests get rather messy! As a general rule the bees themselves will not use the same nest site twice - once the colony has expired there will be a lot of dead bees and wax and debris in the nest, possible invasion by other predators and bugs and so on. For this reason most nestboxs are only recommended for a single use. 
However, the Pilkington box is a particularly fine and sturdy box and more expensive than other smaller versions, so ideally we would like to get multiple uses out of it if a colony decides to take up residence. Hence the liner will protect the inside of the box to a degree and allow a better clean up job. No guarantee it will work, but it's worth a try for the sake of a piece of cardboard!
liner template for Pilkington box
Here is the liner fitted and tape down. I'm using High Visbility cloth gaffer tape. The hi-vis colour is irrelevant as it will pretty much be almost pitch black in there, but I've chosen it because it's strong tape, and importanly is fabric, so easy for the bees to grip. I know from experience that they find silver gaffer tape harder to walk over. 
liner fitted in nestbox
Next job is to load the box with its bedding. This comes in two sorts - some paper shreddings, part of which can be used as a toilet area and some soft bedding for insulation. We were fussy last year about how this was organised, but having seen how the bees can arrange it as they want (video) we can leave it fairly loosely and roughly organised. This is all supplied with the box, as is a small amount of "mouse" bedding, which has mouse scent on it. This helps to fool the queen that the nest cavity has been used over winter for nesting by a rodent, which in bumblebee world seems to give it a seal of approval, providing Queen feels she won't find herself under future attack again. 
I didn't actually use all the mouse bedding in here - instead keeping some back to put in the entrance tube and to add to some of our other boxes. 
bedding installedNext job was to install the "cat flap" entrance system. This is a plastic flap on two wire hooks that prevent intruders getting into the nest. Any bumblebees from inside the nest learn how to operate the flap for themselves. 
The additional longer piece of wire stops the flap closing at the moment - the flap isn't needed until there are residents. And is also used as part of the training process for a Queen by gradually lowering the flap each day. 
The side buffers on the entrance stop the bumblebees from using the sides of the flap, because if they do they will think this is the correct system and then be unable to get back into the nest (rather distressing to watch, as we discovered when we experimented with different flap systems last year). 
Finally, the buffers are marked with a bright colour to aid memory and navigation in low light - the high viz tape is perfect for this also. I fitted a piece of tubing, about 60cm for now. The tubing is very cheap and readily available on eBay, and is just 2cm "cable-tidy" designed for keeping wires together and tidy (I must get some for my CCTV cables!).
A bit of tape holds the tube in the entrance well using friction.
initial entrance setupI then temporarily sited the box - just for the afternoon on the offchance it caught some passers by, as I didn't have time to complete the next phase (tech!).
You can see the general idea with the tubing is to route it so it forms an entrance in the "undergrowth" and convince the queen she is going down underground to the nest cavity. 
This is not the final location, nor the final set up of the tubing. 

temporary siting of nextbox
I still also have to paint the base struts and fit the wax-moth box.
Finally, the last job today was to adapt the internal perspex viewer of one of our existing boxes by adding some red lighting gel to the lid. This means being able to look into the nest in daylight with much less dispruption to any bumblebees inside. We got used to working with them in the beepol lodge under red light last year (as we had cut the lid off) and so this is an obvious improvement to all the nest boxes. The Pilkington box comes with a red lid as standard. 
red filter for existing nestbox
So, now I'm left to ponder the best way to fit a thermometer and camera to the new box - which really means thinking about how much drilling I want to do! Hopefully I'll get that done before the weekend. 


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!

Scratch the hatch

We're still being plagued by wasps attacking our bumble nest even though the brush on the beepol hive is preventing some of them getting in; some of them are smart (or at least persistent) enough to break through and find away in. 

We hastily tried a plastic flap stuck to the box and very quickly reversed that decision as it was clear it wasn't fit for purpose. 

The key issue is that the entrance hole on the lodge is set back from the resting ledge and tucked under the roof, close to the side; there's no space to create anything sophisticated.

So, at the weekend I decided to try a design that extended the hole (using is wedge of wood with a hole drilled through it) and stick the flap to that. It worked a lot better, and certainly kept the wasps out, but so too all the bees had a bit of trouble with it: in most cases we ended up helping them in and out. I didn't want to take any risks over them failing to get in and then deserting the nest.

So, tonight I began my third attempt. This time the plan was to build a complete fascia to mount onto the lodge, with a tube to the entrance behind the fasica, and then an entrance vestibule with sloping (i.e. gravity powered) plastic flap. It was quite a lengthy process to build, just from cardboard and some plastic cut out from packaging. Here's what I built:


We tested it tonight - and although the fit is good, we discovered the first problem: it's useless in the wind! Flapping wildly, a brave wasp managed to easily get inside the nest (although heaven knows why it was out in such inclement weather).

So, wracking the brains for the next design.. 

Into the Light

below is a short video compilation of a few clips from recent CCTV that caught our attention - it contains the following clips:


  • A bee that climbs out of the nest onto the box and then falls off! No idea what was happening there!
  • A bee flying out of the box into the morning sun - I just like the way it's backlit against the sun
  • Two bees leaving the box on after the other, turning round then taking off in reverse


I was rather bemused by the two bees that came out of the box and took off in reverse, wondering why on earth they would do that. And especially why two would do it in succession. Then of course it dawned on me (almost literally) - it was just at the time the sun was shining directly onto the front of the box, so I surmise they are avoiding the glare of flying directly into the sun and are instead launching in reverse. 

Is this a known behaviour?

Bearing up

One of the things that we read about early on in our project was the fact that bumble bees will memorise their nest the first time they leave it by doing "navigation circles" around it. These are a series of circles of increasing size and distance, where the bee looks at the nest and observes the landmarks around it.

On a few occasions we had queens that we attempted to nest and when they left the nest we thought maybe they had shown this "navigation" behaviour. However, there is nothing like seeing the real thing for sure to know what you are looking at. 

I found a great piece of video on the DVR this morning that showed one of our bees in close up coming out of the nest for the first time and spending about 20 seconds up close memorising the entrance. After this, she would have circled at a further distance and height to take in the surroundings properly. (Of course, now she would have the benefit of our "runway" :-) )

So, I already had some iPhone footage attempting to show this circling from a longer distance. So, I've edited the two clips together so you can see what the entire behaviour looks like. It's unmistakable and the behaviour we had seen with earlier queens really did not come close - none of them really memorised the nest entrance like these workers do, even though they circled up to half a dozen times around the nest area. 

My own theory is that the circling we saw with the queens was more to do with them getting their own bearings - bearing in mind (no pun intended) that we'd transported them from the nest site they were hunting down, into our own nest box. Quite possibly a confusing process for them. It makes sense they would have to get a handle on their location once exiting our nest box.

Anyway, here's the video...


Although in the close-up segment our worker is out of shot for some of the duration, you can still see her shadow cast on the nestbox itself. She also moves very quickly so appears to dart about rather than move smoothly.