Declaring Bumblebee season 2012 officially open!

Well, nature waits for no-one! Not for us and not for the Bumblebees!

It's only a few months (November) since we saw the last of our bumblebees. Sadly the remnants of our own colony died, but elsewhere Queens were busy hibernating. Winter was unusually warm this year, with only a couple of short cold snaps and the latter weeks of February have been very mild here in East Anglia. 

The trigger point was Thursday 23rd February, when temperatures reached about 15C here (and apparently 18C elsewhere) and lo and behold out came the bumblebees!

I was privileged to spot (and photograph) as many as half a dozen on the two heather plants at our front door, which are in full bloom (and were chosen specially for the job). There were two Tree Bees particularly interested on that day. Today ambient temperatures were a little lower but still enough to create lots of activity, not just from bumblebees but from honey/solitary bees too. Ambient temperature was about 12 - 14C, but the temperature on our south facing house wall, where the bees love to warm up, was a sultry 29C! Today we saw mainly bufftaileds. BCW and I disagree over whether we saw a white-tailed bumble as well: it was certainly more lemony, but I don't think the tail was white enough. So, we agree to differ. There are not a lot of flowers 

More excitement was created at the end of the afternoon as BCW saw one of the bumbles leave the heather and head into the flowery undergrowth near to our lavender. She burrowed down in there and didn't come out - so we know she is sleeping in the border just by our front door. I'd love to see her come out first thing tomorrow! 

So, this is the trigger for us to get busy preparing for the 2012 bumblebee year; and there is plenty to do:

  • clean the beepol lodge and spray with Certan (anti-wax moth treatment)
  • fit the beepol anti-wax moth flap
  • "un-fit" and re-site the nestboxes that were placed for hibernation (and not used)
  • start sorting out and re-routing all the CCTV (and consider drilling through the wall instead of using the window)
  • replace faulty equipment (especially thermometers)
  • fit a feeding system to the nest boxes

The work is well under way - here's what we've done and plan to do:

Beepol Lodge

We are re-siting the lodge to a less shady area of the garden, though still west-facing; we have to find the right balance of light, shade and temperature, bearing in mind the longest/warmest days. We are sitting the lodge on an old plastic sign, which will provide a good level and a safer area for bees that fall off the lodge (previously they fell in amongst the gravel/stones). We are also going to

We've sprayed the lodge again this year with Certan as an additional preventative measure against wax moth, as well as fitting the new flap system supplied by beepol. This system screws onto the existing ledge and has a plastic flap that wax moth cannot navigate - however, the bees can learn to operate it. 

Also this year I am going to fit 2 cameras inside the lodge so that we can see activity at the entrance (brilliant for counting bees in/out of the nest) but also see down into to the nest to see how it is developing - this will help eliminate the need to check on it by opening it so often. Also, we will fit a thermometer, which we didn't get chance to do last year. I've order the same "fridge" thermometers as last year as they can be surface mounted and I plan to drill a hole in the lodge to do so. 

Nest boxes

Even though we will buy a live Beepol colony again this year, we will still also provide nest boxes for "wild" queens, should they choose them. Last year we tried very hard to get wild queens to nest by capturing them and adding them to the nestboxes. One stayed three nights, but none of them actually stayed to nest. We will try a similar strategy this year, though not as intensive. We have come up with a different system for keeping Queens in the box - rather than trap them in there (a strategy we eventually abandoned) we have got a "greenhouse cloche" (about 2 feet high) that we can put over the box. That way we can include plants/flowers next to the box and let the queen fly and explore within the cloche, whilst restricting her to a small area. We hope this will be less stressful for them and leave them more inclined to choose to nest in the box. 

As ever, the nest boxes are equipped with internal CCTV cameras and also need new thermometers. I have also drilled a "feeding hole" into one of the boxes, so that we can add sugar/honey-water into a small holder on the inside wall of the box. This was something we wanted but didn't have last year when we kept some queens temporarily captive. 

We have put a small amount of dry moss and brown hamster bedding in the boxes (a smaller amount than last year, based on our observations of the live colonies and the space they need). We know the bees manage very well with the hamster bedding. 

One box will be sited south facing, the other east facing against our garage wall. We wil probably slightly bury the east-facing box and use my expanding foam "disguised" to make it look underground and just leave that box be, to see what happens and whether any bumbles choose it of their own accord. If any do choose it to nest, we will need to come up with a wax moth strategy!

Camera Work

There is plenty to do on the tech front also. Really for the CCTV system I now need a 16 channel DVR, but for now I will stick with my Quad box and 4 channel DVR which together allow me to use 8 cameras. It's just about good enough to get started, but unfortunately limits my ability to use motion detection to 3 key cameras. 

The other big consideration is whether to make the wiring more permanent and route the cables through the house wall, rather than via a window. I'm still debating whether to go ahead with this as the hole would have to be quite big.

The other addition to the camera arsenal is, of course, the new Canon 5D MkII. I've been testing that the last few days with a ring-flash for macro work and also my existing 80mm macro lens. The camera is already proving better because it can shoot longer bursts than my old camera and at significnantly higher resolution; although it would be nice to get a few more frames per second from it :-) 

Anyway, we are making good progress in getting prepared, though time is of the essence as the Bumblebees are already coming out of hibernation and will be looking for nests soon!



A place to call home?

We've been keeping an eye out this week for some other queens on the lavender outside the front of our house. Even though it'snow the beginning of November, there are a few remnants of some healthy bunches of Lavender.

Over the last two weeks we've seen a number of Queen bumblebees foraging on said lavender: 2 Bufftailed queens (who were there together at one point) and a Redtailed Queen. 

Our main interest was to try and figure out whether one of these was our own Queen, who has been busy foraging and trying to collect pollen. After watching for a long time where they came and went, we concluded this was not the case: these two Bufftail queens had come from somewhere else. 

What happened next really surprised us: On separate occasions, two of these queens (one bufftail, one redtail) dived off into the undergrowth where the thick bushy and twiggy remnants of the main lavender "bush" remains. The Bufftail disappeared for a minute or two before coming out and diving back underneath a few feet away. We waited. And waited. And after 10 minutes or so she still hadn't come out. We suddenly wondered, is this where she is going to hibernate?

The terrain, at a first glance, is not entirely suitable for hibernation. While it is underneath the thick bushes of the lavender, the substrate consists of loose stones with a layer of anti-weed fabric, which would prevent the queen burying herself. Furthermore, the site faces south, whereas Bumblebees are believed to favour a North-facing site (to avoid being triggered to come out too soon in the Spring). So, it certainly left us a little quizzical.

Having said there, there is the possiblity she has found a little nook somewhere underneath the paving slabs of the front path. This would be more sandy underneath and we can see even from our external vantage point that there are nooks and crannies that have developed underneath the path over time. I think this would be the best theory if she really is hibernating under there. 

There's no doubt that one of these Bufftail queens is definitely in the area - we've seen her several times on the lavender.

And the other morning she spent several hours keeping warm on the frame of the front door, just 2 feet from where we'd seen her disappear into the undergrowth. We've now put a little bit of honey water out nearby, just to see if she shows interest and allow us to see where she is hiding out. 

And yes, my front door needs painting! 

Another Myster-3

Temperatures took a real dip today and yesterday - for the first time we put the heating on in the house and ambient temperature this morning was about 7 degrees at 9am. This signals the start of tough times ahead for our bumblebee colony and is close to a minimum operating temperature for them, although of course they can generate their own internal heat to keep going: but could take a lot of energy.

So, I wasn't expecting much activity today, but we still saw 21 trips to-and-from the nest, which represents a reasonable number compared to recent days. Four of these were contributed by the Queen that has become resident. In fact, to my knowledge, 2 Queens are resident, but I'm not seeing much of one of them. 

The active Queen hasn't brought pollen back for the last two days either, even though workers have. I don't have a great explanation for this. If she's ready to keep her brood warm, we would expect to see her staying the nest full time. Maybe she is doing that now and maybe it's the second queen we are seeing on her trips from the nest - perhaps mating behaviour, or hibernation-spot searching. We just can't be sure. 

What I can be sure, is that for the last few days two queens have been in the box overnight - they must have been, because I've double checked the CCTV going back about 5 days and can match all the exit trips with entrance trips. So, if the trips cancel out, then by definition there must be the same number of Queens in the nest at the end of the day as at the start. And I can work that logic (and CCTV footage) back until the point where they were both confirmed in there together.

That makes today's discovery even more suprising - another Queen showed up. I have no footage for when she might have first left the nest, so it means one of two things: she is a third queen that has arrived from somewhere, or there has been a tech malfunction. 

To be honest, I find both hard to believe, but the tech malfunction moreso (I know, imagine that!) BUt there are three cameras with motion detect all running on the area where any bumblebee would have to leave the nest. The sensitivity and settings have all been fine tuned and working beautifully for months. There are no errors reported on the DVR and no breaks in footage and no video-loss alarms. All seems well in CCTV land. 

So, that leaves the explanation that she is a third queen. I'll admit it seems odd, she seemed able to make her way straight into the box as if she knew it. Later a Queen left and returned - I can't be sure if it was her, but that Queen did not need to do any memorisation - so if it was her, then it means she has been here before. 

In which case, maybe it's one of or August queens returned to shelter?

Man hunt

So, where were we?

Oh, yes; earlier this week we noticed an unknown boy turn up to the nest. How did we figure that?

Well, for starters, I'm counting and tracking every single bee in and out of the nest at the moment, so I recognise any that are "foreign" and also any that do not have a corresponding initial trip out of our nest. Ultimately, all the bees from our nest must have been born inside it and so must have been through a "first flight" memorisation procedure on the first time they leave. So, that leaves me with a pretty good idea of which bees are ours.

Then, out of the blue, this different looking bee turns up, not having come from inside our nest. Something was going on. Also, he was larger than any of ours and had a distintive white fluffy tail (less pointed than a girl's). Finally, behaviour gave it away. He was clearly a visitor, flying round and checking the outside of our lodge rather than going straight in. He then also spent a lot of time working along the edge of the lid/base, getting a scent and - I suspect - leaving one. None of our girls have ever shown this behaviour. 

[video to come]

We were surprised to see a boy; given their lifespan, he must have been under 2 weeks old, which puts him having been born mid-September at the earliest. For a "first colony" nest (i.e. from a queen born last year), that would probably be quite late. So, perhaps we were seeing a boy from a "second colony" such as ours (but, as far as we can tell, not from ours). 

However, that would also be a bit puzzling, because it would imply the colony had laid workers, boys (and presumably queens) in fairly rapid succession. As it happens, we're trying to piece together the behaviour of "second colonies" to figure our how their lifecycle (which starts sometime around August) compares with their host colony (which starts around April). In particular, does a "second colony" queen go on to hibernate and start another new colony next year, or does she die after laying? (As ours has done; although she seemed to be fattening up to hibernate). Also, if the queen lays workers (females) during this season, is she still able to lay fertilised eggs next year, or is she left only able to lay unfertilised eggs? These turn into boys, who do not work for the colony, and so the colony would not survive. 

So, the existence of this boy adds another piece to the jigsaw. If he's come from a second colony, then it implies that both girls and boys are laid. It also adds credibilty to the suspicion we had that some boys were being laid in our second colony, because at want point we were seeing quite a large attrition rate from the nest: bees leaving and not coming back.

This in itself adds an intriguing twist to the story of "second colonies". Take ours, for example; it started to emerge towards the end of August after the original colony collapsed (partly due to heat damage in the nest). This means its lifespan is compressed into a time period of 5 weeks or so, very much shorter than the 10 - 12 weeks or longer of the original colony. So, we're intrigued to understand how well such a colony can perform and whether the Queen specifically compresses its lifespan into this time period by laying girls and boys in quick succession (and even Queens?) The evidence we're seeing is that she does lay both boys and girls - so the question is, what triggers the laying of the boys?: it would seem more likely that it must be due to seasonal/environmental conditions rather than how long she has been laying for. 

Lady Luck Turns

Our boy came and went and while we were intrigued, we thought no more of it, other than to keep an eye on him over the coming days.  

As is becoming the norm, the next day our collective jaws dropped when a massive bumble turned up at the nest entrance: lo and behold, it was very clearly a queen. She must surely have only been here for one thing - boys! 

Visiting Queen trying to figure out a way into the nest entrance

It's possible, of course, she was looking for a hibernation spot, so we had to reserve judgement. But not only had she turned up just a day after the boy, but there she was, exploring the outside of the lodge in all the same places he had, picking up his scent. It was all a bit uncanny.  Also, she'd shown no interest in the hibernation spots we've specially set up. These are much more disguised than the lodge as much more natural surroundings and also facing the preferred direction (North). 

She visited again later that day and again showed interest in where the boy had been and tried to get into the lodge - but was thwarted by the plastic flap at the entrance. There was no real excuse for that to be so - all the other queens we had in the nest previously managed to navigate it very well. But they had the benefit of starting on the inside and being able to push their way out and thus confirm for themselves how the flap worked and that it indeed is the entrance. 

It's a little different starting on the outside, as the flap has to be lifted, not pushed, so it's not necessarily immediately obvious it is the way into the test. And, to be honest, this is part of its design, because it's intended to keep foreign interest away from the inside of the nest. 

Boy & Queen meet at the nest together - but she still can't figure out how to get in

We had no idea whether this was a "one-off" visit, though she turned up twice during the day (and the boy turned up 5 times!). We presumed that if she was looking for a hibernation spot, having been thwarted by the entrance flap, she wouldn't turn up again. However, on the offchance we wedged the flap open a bit. This would allow her access to the entrance, and even if she didn't want to go right into he nest, she'd be able to drink some honey water that we provide just inside.

She turned up again the next day, in fact made twice as many visits, and did indeed explore inside the nest. Our boy, who we think stayed inside the nest overnight never quite co-incided with her, but we couldn't help but get the feeling that the two were trying to track each other down.

Over the course of the week our Queen and Boy have kept coming back to the nest (stats below). They've both been inside and he has stayed in there overnight a few times (from what we can tell). On the whole they have kept missing each other, though there have been a few occasions where they were in the nest together; but not for long and not such that we saw them actually hook up. 

Here's a graph of the activity over the last few weeks:

Grey: Return Nest Trips | Green: Newborn "memorisation" flights | Blue: Boy visits | Pink: Queen visits

We can see that there was a huge surge in Queen visits on 7th October. We were slightly baffled by this until we realised that there were TWO  queens now visiting the nest (and two boys as it happens). At one point we caught them both in shot together - it was all quite amazing.

TWO queens arrive at the nest

We continue to allow them to go into the nest and benefit from the honey water and they seem quite happy to spend stretches of about 20 minutes at a time in there. The Queens never stay overnight in the nest though, they always leave (often close to sundown) off to where they came from. (Would love to know where that is). 

This repeated visiting to the nest does not seem to make sense as hibernation activity - one or two checks on the location would confirm whether it is satisfactory or not, so we conclude that this is indeed mating behaviour. Unfortunately neither of the Queens or boys really seem to have managed to co-incide with each other yet, but we remain hopeful.  

My big worry is that they leave it a bit too late to go and hibernate, as the weather has suddenly returned to its more usual seasonal level - but we have to trust in their own body clocks to do the right thing. I also hope they don't end up trying to use our nestbox to hibernate, as it will not really be suitable. The old nest in there will not be hygenic for them; but from what we can tell, it wouldn't be normal for them to choose a nest site for hibernation, nor indeed for next year's nest. 

I do also have to wonder when these Queens were born, given they are now looking for males. The first "batch" of males was around August time, so we are two months down the line. That suggests they are also from a "second colony"- but certainly not ours. Our first colony produced half-a-dozen queens; there's part of me wonders if they are from that brood. There's no real way to find out, but it does seem surprising that they wouldn't have found a mate already over the last 8 weeks, so the behaviour remains a bit of mystery; or perhaps just a quirk of timing due to the abnormally warm weather conditions. 

Either way, it's a privilege to have them visiting and yet another source of fascination.

[Video to follow]




Interfering with Nature

Yet another day of intrigue in our beepol hive.

Late the night before we had a quick check inside the nest, our first look in about 3 weeks. 

quick snapshot inside the beepol nest

There wasn't a single murmur from the nest as we quickly opened it to provide some honey water and take a photo. Everything was intact, if anything the bedding was a little more fluffy and 'aerated'. All the bees were obviously tucked well down and bedded in at the bottom of the nest: there was no sound or movement from them. 

The biggest sense of relief was that there was no evidence of intrusion, such as wax moth. I did see a small moth in the box the other evening, but I don't think it was a wax moth (too small). 

The day began with a slow start - even our "stop out" bee that has been coming in a 6.30am (sunrise) didn't show up till 8.50am, the latest we've seen. Down here in the south east we are experiencing an obnormally warm end to September which I think is really confusing the colony - the light levels and daylight hours do not match the temperature. 


Once again, by late morning we saw Big Mamma making an appearance. She is slow and lethargic and bus-like! We can't figure out if she's old and tired or has put on too much weight for a winter hibernation; but she struggles to move around. We inserted a small piece of cardboard through the lid/base gap in the lodge to act as a shelf for her to stand on to reach the entrance. 

The bees quickly learned to navigate the new shelf and although Big Mamma can drag herself up onto it, she has still not made it to the entrance; and indeed, has not really tried, which seems a bit surprising. What she does seem to do is go for the crack of light where the lid meets the base. It's very optimistic if she thinks she can fit through there!

We are at a loss how to deal with this - it's agonising to see her struggling to leave, but where do you draw the line at interfering with nature? There are several issues:


  • We don't really know what she's trying to do, it could be to go and die, it could be to go and hibernate - so we don't know the best way to help her
  • If she does exit the nest, she might not be able to fly, which could leave her in trouble - helping her out might be a bad thing
  • Even if she does want to hibernate and we put her in our hibernation box, there's no guarantee it's anything like what she wants/needs - in which case she might be be unable to go and find a suitable site for herself. 
  • The pure practicalities of getting her (and only her) safely out of the nest without damage to her or any of the rest of the colony (and of course not getting stung!)


So, for now, we are sitting back with great interest, a certain amount of trepidation and watching events unfold. 

For those wondering why we would want to even intervene, here is the logic:

The whole reason for getting and protecting the colony is to conserve the bumbles and give a small extra boost to their population. Because they are essentially annual, it's the queen who carries the "Olympic baton" in terms of surviving the winter (having mated) and emerging in spring to lay her new offspring. All the current workers and drones die. So, continuation of the life cycle is about the Queen being able to hibernate and survive the winter. It would be such a tragedy if, after all this work (on the queen's part) she was unable to fulfil that role, for something as simple as, say, not being able to get out of her nest. By not being able to do so, she would have "broken the chain" and denied the future another colony and new queens to carry the baton next year.

The whole situation is compounded by not knowing which queen she is - i.e. is she the colony's original queen, born summer 2010, hibernated and set up this colony spring 2011. If that's true, then actually she's destined to die soon (and that could be why she wants to leave). She's done her work and created new queens to carry that baton. They've gone and are probably now beginning their hibernation phase.

OR: is she the product of that original queen - a new queen born August 2011, destined to hibernate this winter and begin her brooding cycle in spring 2012. This is what we actually think, for two key reasons:


  1. We saw an old queen leave and die back in August when we installed the nest - she was the only one there for a short while, before we then saw about 5 new ones. 
  2. This queen has been brooding a new colony: the new hatchlings we've seen emerging almost every day for the last week.  She's not really meant to have been doing that, but it is a phenomena known to happen with Bombus Terrestris. With the extended warm weather, instead of going straight off to hibernate and lay next spring, she started laying now. The original mother queen, tired and old, would not do that


 So, this is the source of the uncertainty and our desire, if possible, to help her see it through the winter. 

Still Growing

The colony is still growing - the crackling and squeaking sounds we've been hearing we're starting to attribute to new birth; there is a distincy correlation. We'd been hearing that in short bursts each of the last few days. Usually the day after it's heard there's evidence of a new addition to the nest. Their behaviour pattern is quite noticeable - they crawl round the nest following a "search" pattern. I.e. they do not directly head from A to B, but explore: twisting and turning and feeling their way. Usually they head towards the exit several times, drawn by the light, but they do not leave. They turn round, come back inside and repeat. 

Eventually they pluck up the courage to properly explore the exit - where we have set up a "porch" and trapdoor system. They can explore round this in safety and this time they are but millimetres from the wide open world. They will do this about once or twice before building the confidence to exit. Standing on the ledge, they turn to face the nest and launch, arcing left and right, up and down to commit the view of the nest to memory. It's wonderful to watch and is the sure marker of a bumblebee making its first outdoor flight.

Sometimes they come back in after a few seconds - satisfied their wings work and that the weather is not really enticing enough. The rest of the time, they fly up and over the wall - their maiden voyage., brimming with apparent confidence and certainty.

Once such baby bee did so today. My hunch from the day said I thought she existed and sure enough, here she was. She's the same size as the baby bee (1) that's already working like crazy. (Note: the moniker baby refers to their size, not maturity; they will both always be referred to as baby). She took off at 12:35 and returned three minutes later - a nice short flight to get her wings. 

But that was it! Now she was a fully fledged member of the team - and she spent the rest of the day, along with original baby bee, bringing back basket-loads of bright orangey pollen. For this reason counting became a little tricky, as two two babies are very hard to distinguish on the CCTV.

Both babies were out of the nest in the late afternoon when I saw yet another similar sized one inside - it seems like there has been yet more hatching. I wait with interest to see when she emerges. 

More confusion

We continue to see new behaviour patterns that we can't explain. One of these has been the bee that stays out every night, doesn't seem to bring pollen back to the nest, but comes back for honey water from the entrance and every so often goes right into the nest and spends a few minutes in there. We don't know if this is boy behaviour or, perhaps, a worker who is not very effective (e.g. malformed pollen baskets). If we could tell she was collecting pollen then we'd assume she's just not very good at it and is using more energy than most for very little return; but it's proved extraordinarily hard to tell if she is carrying any (which suggests she isn't).

The other mad theory that occured to us: is she feeding another nest?

Further confusion arose when saw (what we think was) this same bee actually turn up with full pollen baskets, spend five minutes in the nest, then leave again with full pollen!

coming in with pollenGoing back out again with the pollen

But, if we though this has been a crazy day, it was nothing of what was about to come..