The curious incident

For the last week or so I've been occasionally seeing a tiny bee in our nest, showing all the signs of being fairly new born and exploring her way around. So, for the last few days I was wondering when was she going to emerge and fly for the first time?

In fact, only yesterday I thought that her lack of attempt to leave the nest might have been a sign she couldn't fly and had resigned herself to permanently helping inside the nest. Having said that, it's a not a behaviour I'd previously seen - all our bumblebees, regardless of capability,  have been programmed to leave the nest and "give it a go" - and in the last few weeks, 3 of them have failed. (One, of course, we rescued: Beatrice). 

Quite by chance we found this little one on the lawn today as we checked the honey water level. I naturally assumed she'd come out for her first flight and failed, as so many of the tiny under-developed bees have done before her. 

So, we rescued her and brought her indoors to warm up and feed, and to see whether she could fly. She showed signs that she might be able to, so after half an hour we took her to outside the nest and took the lid off. She ran around a bit and then clamped herself to the lavender sprig we'd put in the box - just as if she'd been caught out in the rain. I figured that the movement of the tub and the feel of the air blowing might have made her go into "hold on tight" mode!

We put the lid back on and immediately she released from the lavender and started trying to fly in small leaps. We took our moment and removed the lid again, and within a few seconds she was off. She circled at a height of about 2 metres, doing a "mini" memorisation procedure (which makes sense, since we'd been moving her around in the tub), then flew off onto a nearby patio chair, into the bright sun to get warm. 

This evening I wanted to go back and check when she had left the nest and when/if she had returned ok. I'll admit to being slightly flummoxed at not being able to identify her at all on the footage. So I can only assume she is actually the tiny bee I saw "mini-memorising" four days ago, and who dutifully began collecting pollen. I have no good explanation for why she was on the grass right outside the nestbox today - there's no real reason for her getting too cold to fly - so, this remains a mystery. And I can only hope she was one of the smaller bees I saw returning later in the day with pollen.  


HMS Bombus sets sail

Our first job this morning was to check on the Queen Common Carder we had overnight (BB25). BCW had nicknamed her HMS Bombus because on the infrared it looked like she had a lifejacket/life-ring on. As I've said before, we're easily amused. When we checked on her at 9am she had barely moved from her position overnight. 

BB25 buried down asleepOver the next 50 minutes she stirred and stretched a little and towards the latter end of the period starting moving around the upper-right area of the box as viewed above. She appeared to be stretching and tugging on the fibres. We were, of course, very hopeful this was a demonstration of her "carding" behaviour, from which she gets her name. We like to think that if the queen demonstrates some of her nesting behaviour, then perhaps she is interested in the nest; or perhaps she is testing it out in some way. Here is a video of her cleaning, very kindly right in front of the main camera.

At about 10am she crawled out of the box tube and sat in the new entrance "foyer" we have created, which opens up like a funnel and is surround by grass. The temperature was alread approaching 24 degrees (probably due to reflections from the front wall of our house). She sat here very still for 10 mins and then took off. We watched with baited breath, wondering if this was the last we would see of her. She actually just lifted off by about 30cm and flew into the tall grasses on top of her nestbox and buried deep into the base of the stalks. We could see the grass twitching but not see BB25 herself. 

view of nestbox with BB25 hiding herself away in the grasses!Another 20 minutes passed by while she warmed up in the direct sun and then she took off. She didn't do any substantial circling, which would be used to landmark the location, so we assume that - despite her apparent interest inside the nestbox - she won't be back. So once again we start applying our grey matter to what might and might not have done the trick for her. 


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)


A turn-up for the box

It wasn't a bee day today, so it was a case of taking stock, doing a bit more "bee thinking" (seeing the world from a bee's eyes to improve the landscaping) and adding some grasses to the garden.

Based on several Bumbles recently bumbling around looking for a nest site on our back lawn, we figured that the longer grass must have been an attraction for them. So, as well as adding some dried grass around our nestbox entrances, with the aim of making them (theoretically) look a bit more like a grassy hummock, we also decided to add some potted grasses to create taller stems that bees would want to dive down into and look under. 

Our other idea was to create a "runway" from the lawn to the rear nest box, in the hope that if bees also searched along it, they would naturally find the nestbox. It may sound like a crazy idea, but only yesterday on the news (13th April 2011) a project in Yorkshire was announced to create "bee roads" across the county, to help provide a habitat for them to feed and thrive. 

 Grass "runway" to the rear nestboxWe will probably still cover the rear nestbox with more grass and make it much more camouflaged, once we are happy this is the best location. 

Bee's-eye view of the front nestbox.. starting to look nicely disguised. Perfect for exploration!I was fooling about creating a "bee's-eye" video on my iPhone, flying from plant to plant and we were observing all the wonderful handiwork BCW (bee catching wizard) had been doing through the day when I spotted a bufftail (BB14) landing on the grass and looking for a place to bed down! I couldn't quite believe it, as it was by now 6.30pm and had been cold all day. BCW had been out late afternoon and not seen any bees, although had seen a deer and nearly jumped out of her skin! The outdoor temperature was about 10.4 degrees, so this little Queen was very late to be out finding somewhere to bed down.

BCW rushed for our pot and caught her; so, of course, we were able to take her straight to the front nestbox and encourage her to enter. That took about 10 minutes, during which time it was feeling very chilly. BB14 she was very calm and placid, and cleaning herself inside the pot and not really trying to escape. This is unlike the redtails, which seem a lot more feisty and sometimes try biting their way out with their mandibles. Eventually she realised she could enter the nestbox and off she went.

Bumblebum 14 (Bufftail) going into the nestbox

Because of the failing light we couldn't really make anything out on the camera, so we were relying on the audio to hear what she was up to. We heard about 10 minutes of scratching around, hopefully making a bed! After that it went silent - and by about 8pm she still hadn't come out of the box, so we assume she has stayed the night! Looking forward to seeing what happens in the morning and also to getting the new infrared light I've ordered from eBay! 

Flying visit

I wasn't at home today but BCW was out and busy on the hunt for more bees!

Around about lunchtime BCW reported she thought she could hear scratching from inside the box with the camera/mic; and possibly some movement of the nesting material near the entrance. It wasn't totally conclusive though, as it was possible the wind was causing the movement and the lid to rattle a little bit. Tantalising!

Then between 2 and 2.15 BCW caught another redtail (Bb12). (While out she also saw a Carder and a Bufftail). BB12 went into the box without too much trouble and went straight to the back left corner - which is different to all the others, who have gone to the front left corner. She didn't stay still at all like all the others, but just explored a little. But she only stayed about 2 minutes before coming out. 

When she left she walked out onto the new grass outside and then when she took off she hovered back and forth over the box and flowers, gradually getting higher and higher. Then she flew off quite gently.

This is completely different behaviour to what we have seen before. The shortest any bee has stayed to date has been 20 mins, so this is a new "fastest exit" time! And, although the bees have left in a spiral, today's behaviour seems much more like the "landmarking" movements that bees make when, for example, they encounter humans in a field (see our research papers). In such scenarios they fly within about 2 metres of the human, then swing back and forth from left to right at a height of between 2 and 4 metres, and then perform a couple of circles. This is thought to be the Bumble taking a navigational note of what they see - and it's really amazing to experience when you are out in the fields: they all do it!

So, was little redtail getting her bearings for the nestbox? Again, we shan't know unless she returns, but this is probably the best behaviour we have seen so far.

So, this also begs the question about the 2 minutes inside the box; what was going on there? Here are a few theories:


  • She was very frightened/stressed and so left immediately - this doesn't seem to fit, she was calm and co-operative, more than many of the others; and the most agitated bees have actually stayed still inside the box after entering.
  • She thought maybe there was another animal in the box or that it was in use - there is perhaps a risk that the small amount of grass we have put in the box smells a bit fresh and she thinks an animal has placed it there recently (well, a human has!) 
  • Maybe there was another animal in there - perhaps there was a bee in there already, that BCW heard earlier?
  • She really liked it, knew it was a great nest, and decided to make a mental note of it and go out foraging


So, again, until some time has passed we cannot know what was going on in little BB12's head!

This is the new layout in the boxes by the way, with a small amount of cut grass inside.

 new box layout with cut grass and less bedding overall

An hour later, between 3 and 3.15pm, BCW then reported catching another redtail in the back garden! This is amazing to see them actually in the garden. However, BB13 was not very co-oeprative and she just refused to go into the front nest box. Maybe this was the same bee as BB11! In the end, BCW let her go rather than stress her too much. 

Again we applied a bit of "bee thinking" and had the brainwave of putting grass down between the lawn and the rear box. Since we have now seen 5 redtails searching the back lawn (which needs cutting!) we thought it made sense to "extend" the lawn across the narrow gravel border to the box. This way they might actually just explore all the way up to the box. And with the grass now around the front of the box to make it look more like a little nesting hole in a grassy mound, you never know, they might just be fooled inside it!

That's the theory anyway!